Turkey’s human rights record deteriorates in 2012 with persistent problems

28 December 2012 / SEVGI AKARÇEŞME, İSTANBUL, Zaman – Human rights activists in Turkey agree that serious problems are still waiting to be addressed in the field of human rights despite positive efforts having been made.

While steps such as facing the troubled history of the country’s civil-military relations, legislative changes to protect women and the establishment of a commission to draft a new constitution are listed among the most important achievements of 2012, the failure to illuminate the complete background of the Uludere incident, the controversial election of the first ombudsman of the country, the lingering headscarf ban, the failure to abolish military courts, torture under custody and the abuse of children in jails remain among the serious issues Turkey will face in the next year. Talking to Today’s Zaman, Ahmet Faruk Ünsal, the president of the Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed Peoples (MAZLUM-DER), says he finds the will to draft a new constitution important along with the start of a court case against the then-top two military officers who staged the military coup on Sept. 12, 1980, namely former President Kenan Evren and Gen. Şahinkaya. However, when it comes to concerns remaining from 2012, Ünsal has a longer list. At the top of his list is the Uludere incident in which a military airstrike killed 34 smugglers, including 19 minors, claiming that it mistook them for Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists in December 2011. According to him, the fact that an investigation into the Uludere incident was not initiated by the government is a big failure since “the perpetrators of the killings are not unknown unlike in other cases.” Ünsal says that “the parliamentary commission report is not binding,” as he urges the government to take legal action. Similarly, he argues that the existence of military courts will remain an obstacle before legal proceedings, questioning the increasing number of suspicious death cases that occur during military service. The Uludere incident remains on top of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) list as well. Just one day before the anniversary of the killings, on Thursday, Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior researcher for Turkey at HRW, said in a public statement, “One year on, no one has been held account for ordering the F-16 jets to drop the bombs that killed the 34 villagers.” She added that “the Turkish government, parliament and Diyarbakır prosecutor have so far failed the families of the victims in their search for justice.”

The election of Turkey’s first chief ombudsman led to great disappointment among human rights organizations in 2012.  A controversial figure in terms of approach prioritizing the state over the individual, Turkey’s first ombudsman, Mehmet Nihat Ömeroğlu, is a retired member of the Supreme Court of Appeals. Ömeroğlu was one of the judges who approved a local court’s ruling against Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink over charges of “insulting Turkishness” according to Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), which was later amended.

On Dec. 10, Human Rights Day, Sinclair-Webb told Today’s Zaman that she was concerned about the choice of somebody who has not championed the rights of citizens. “It is a very bad beginning for this institution and a bad message,” she said, describing the choice as “unfortunate.”

Öztürk Türkdoğan, the chairman of the Human Rights Association (İHD), commented to Today’s Zaman that “overall in 2012 there have not been improvements in the human rights conditions of Turkey because the country has failed to solve its main problems such as the Kurdish issue.” Although he praises the trial of the coup plots as a positive step like the others, he criticizes Turkey for “not entirely facing the past.”

Arguing that “the government only wants to face the military coups,” Türkdoğan says that “there is only limited development in the human rights record of Turkey with no real process.” Listing detention time and the failure to enjoy the full freedom of expression as the remaining problems, Türkdoğan says that there is an increasing trend in human rights violations in 2009-11. While praising the efforts of the Ministry of Family and Social Policies towards protecting women from violence, Türkdoğan says that often laws remain insufficient because the problem of domestic violence is also cultural. Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Deputy Chairman Sezgin Tanrıkulu criticizes the government, saying it has been the cause of massive human rights violations in all areas this year. In his human rights report that he shared with Today’s Zaman, he argued that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government tolerated the torture, turned a deaf ear to the outcry of women, violated the dignity of people in prison and did nothing to prevent accidents in factories. The conditions in prisons and juvenile detention centers have also been the subject of debate in 2012. Last May 200 juvenile offenders were transferred from Adana’s Pozantı juvenile detention center to Ankara’s Sincan juvenile detention center due to rape allegations. Overcrowded prisons are a human rights violation per se, according to lawyers, who said inmates suffer from many problems, including being crowded in rooms that are too small. A fire that broke out after a fight among prisoners in a Şanlıurfa prison last June claimed the lives of 13 inmates. According to news reports, the prison had a capacity of 600 but was holding some 1,000 prisoners.

With the current legislation concerning the country’s prisons and detention centers, it is almost impossible to punish abusers who inflict violence on anyone who has been jailed, who remains at the mercy of jail guards, the administration and police officers. Human rights advocates emphasize the urgent need to open these facilities to the supervision of civil society organizations.For 2013 Ünsal expects the commanders of the Sept. 12, 1980 coup to be brought into the courtroom as they testified from the hospital via video conferencing in the first hearings in 2012. As Türkdoğan states, “The advocates of human rights issues always tend to draw attention to the glass half empty so that governments can fix the problems.” It seems that in 2013, the pressure of the human rights groups on the government will continue in the face of serious unresolved issues stemming from the major fault lines of Turkish politics such as the Kurdish issue, freedom of expression and religion and the role of the citizen vis-à-vis the state.