In Ankara and Beyond, Torture Rears Its Ugly Head Again
Torture of Diplomats Represents a New Low in Turkey's Treatment of Inmates
Turkish police and intelligence units tortured a group of former Foreign Ministry staff members, including diplomats, the Ankara Bar Association and a lawmaker have claimed, throwing the existence of a practice long denied by authorities back into the heart of public debate.
On May 20, Turkish courts issued arrest warrants for 249 former Foreign Ministry personnel, including experienced diplomats, over alleged “affiliation with the Gulen movement and cheating in exams” to enter the diplomacy service. At first, 78 of them were imprisoned.
The public has been rattled by the revelations of torture at a time when the E.U. released its annual report on human rights in Turkey. The report offers a damning account of setbacks and reversals in Turkey’s human rights record. The state of purge victims, the mass imprisonment of government’s political opponents and the political nature of ongoing trials appear to be the chief elements of E.U. criticism toward Ankara.
The torture of diplomats comes against this backdrop. Unlike minor and insignificant response to previous cases, where individuals aimed to raise public awareness about the torture of their beloved ones in prison, this time there was a palpable reaction on social media, given that the detainees were former diplomats.
What ignited the latest crackdown on former Foreign Ministry personnel was a set of probes launched by the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office over allegations of nepotism and fraud in recruitment procedures. But such charges are often invoked arbitrarily and mostly serve as a fig-leaf to cover the political nature of clampdown in any targeted sector of bureaucracy.
Authorities, judicial or political, rarely feel obliged to disclose proof or solid ground for investigations. This legal rationale presented for public consumption hardly dispels deep skepticism about the contours of major trials.
Early on Monday according to local time, Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) lawmaker Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu raised claims of torture against diplomats in police custody at the Ankara Police Department, submitting a set of questions to the Justice Ministry and Vice President Fuat Oktay, demanding both explanation and action.
“One of the diplomats passed out when a baton was inserted in his anus and was taken to a hospital, and the torture continued there. His head was banged on the wall. A medical report claiming no acts of torture and mistreatment was issued, but photos prove that he was physically tortured,” the lawmaker said.
The next day, the Ankara Bar Association issued a press statement, documenting the nature of claims in a detailed fashion.
The statement said detainees were subjected to severe beating, inhumane treatment and even attempts and threats of sexual abuse with police batons. Some diplomats were even abused by batons, the statement noted.
The association urged authorities to stop torturing of former diplomats.
“The Ankara Bar Association provides credible evidence that dismissed MFA personnel (yes diplomats) have been tortured at the Ankara Financial Crimes Police dept. Long statement on bar website (Turkish). CPT visited Turkey just a week ago,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) Turkey Director Emma Sinclair-Webb wrote on Twitter.
Ankara Bar Association provides credible evidence that dismissed MFA personnel (yes diplomats) have been tortured at the Ankara Financial Crimes Police dept. Long statement on bar website (Turkish). CPT visited Turkey just a week ago. https://t.co/PbOjgIPDNj
— Emma Sinclair-Webb (@esinclairwebb) May 28, 2019
When the revelations became a matter of public knowledge, officials denied the media reports about torture. The Ankara Police Department said the suspects had access to their lawyers and denied accusations of any mistreatment in custody.
Globe Post Turkey, Reuters, AP and many other outlets reported the claims, offering an unusual media coverage given the muted response by media in many previous cases.
An E.U. lawmaker in the European Parliament expressed her indignation and urged the E.U. authorities to condemn Turkey’s behaviors loudly.
Last week, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, when pressed by media about detentions, insisted that the personnel had ties to the Gulen movement, which has been designated by authorities as an outlawed organization blamed for the botched coup in 2016.
Torture Becomes Endemic After 2016 Coup
The torture of diplomats points to a disquieting reality that took hold in the aftermath of a failed coup in 2016. The state-run Anadolu news agency unabashedly broadcasted the images of tortured generals.
Both Amnesty General and HRW documented credible allegations of widespread torture in Turkish prisons.
The re-emergence of torture represents a setback in Turkey’s painstaking efforts and hard-won gains in reforming its notorious law enforcement in the E.U. reform process. Between 2002, the year when Turkey seriously embarked on groundbreaking and novel reforms for its E.U. membership bid and 2016, the year when the life-altering coup attempt took place, the practice had largely stopped. But it resurfaced after the botched coup.
And it is not only restricted to the case in Ankara. The public images of detained people lying face down on the ground in the southern province of Sanliurfa is a grim reminder of the fact that torture is far more contagious and widespread across the country than was hitherto imagined.
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Pek de değişen bir şey yok aslında. pic.twitter.com/HTAyefJHMf
— Abdullah Keskin (@akeskinavesta) May 21, 2019
Instead of opening a probe into the torture against a group of Kurdish men in Halfeti, Sanliurfa, the authorities went after the man who leaked the picture to the media.
Gergerlioglu valiantly fights in Parliament to bring individual cases and family claims to the attention of lawmakers, only to no avail. Last week, he shared a video featuring a woman who claims her husband and other men in a Mersin prison were subjected to heavy torture. Weeping in despair and trying to make her case heard on the social media, she pleaded for help. Given her emotional breakdown and the severity of her claims, there seems to be no reason to dismiss her account.
The Ankara episode marks a sudden escalation of a practice long despised and criticized by the United Nations, international human rights groups such as HRW and Amnesty International, as well as the public. But if international opprobrium created a sense of awareness about what is going on in Turkey’s overcrowded jails, it has so far done little to sway the government’s position regarding the allegations.
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s stance wavered between outright denialism and faint pledges to investigate torture claims. To the dismay of human rights groups, Mehmet Metiner, the lawmaker leading the parliamentary commission with an authority to inspect prisons, sarcastically dismissed media reports in 2017. He even gave his public endorsement of torture of inmates, if they are found to have any links to the Gulen movement.
To make matters worse, Prosecutor Zeki Topaloglu decided that there was no need for an investigation about the claims of official negligence regarding the death of Halime Gulsu in a Tarsus prison. Irfan Gulsu, the brother of the deceased inmate, shared the prosecutor’s decision on Twitter earlier this month. Gulsu’s access to her medicine was denied by the prison administration and she was only referred to a hospital when her health condition irrevocably deteriorated. She eventually succumbed to her illness on April 27, 2018.
The official denialism, the official negligence, the license granted by the government to low-ranking officials to act with impunity, the sweeping mechanism to cover up cases of torture, the blue wall of silence among police officers, and the collaboration between bureaucrats from different departments all bequeath a culture of impunity and corrosion to the next generation of public servants across different layers of bureaucracy.
Even the idea of torture in the middle of Ankara gives a sense of nausea, but it hardly seems to disturb anyone on the government side. The disconnection between morality and public affairs is bound to taint the integrity and healthy functioning of public service, while the justice branch and law enforcement appear to be intoxicated by the culture of official indifference against torture.
This rottenness from inside would eventually fracture the core structure of bureaucracy if authorities fail to come to grips of what permitting torture means for its international stance, for justice and for the integrity of public and legal service.