Turkey Tribunal: Panel of judges hears victims of torture, rights activist 

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Bünyamin Tekin, Geneva

The panel of judges of the Turkey Tribunal, a civil society-led, symbolic international tribunal established to adjudicate recent human rights violations in Turkey, heard the testimony of two victims of torture and a rights advocate on Monday.

The judges first heard the testimony of Mehmet Alp, a teacher working at a government school who was abducted by Turkish intelligence agency MIT in Cizre on April 18, 2015. 

Alp was forced to sign statements that accused him of encouraging his students to join the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). He said he was threatened at gunpoint to sign the documents.

After this incident, about which Alp said he told no one out of fear, he was imprisoned in 2016. While he was in prison a coup attempt took place in Turkey on July 15, 2016, which dramatically changed the political climate in the country, as the government launched a crackdown on political opponents under the pretext of an anti-coup fight.

Despite Alp being in prison at the time the coup unfolded, he was charged with coup involvement. He said he was exposed to torture that led to internal bleeding and was denied medical care.

“We won’t only torture you, we will also torture your wife, and your children will end up in foster care. So if you love your family, then don’t tell the court that you were tortured,” Alp quoted his torturers as saying. Alp was released by a court pending trial in 2018, after which he fled to Europe to seek asylum.

When Judge Ledi Bianku asked Alp if he filed any complaints with the authorities about the torture he had been through, he answered that he did but to no avail.

Erhan Doğan, a history teacher who worked at a school affiliated with the Gülen movement, testified after Alp. 

Ankara accuses the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, of being behind the abortive putsch and designates the group as a terrorist organization. The movement denies any involvement with the coup or any terrorist activity.

Doğan said he was detained 10 days after the failed coup and taken to a gym used as a detention center after the coup attempt by the Ankara Police Department’s counterterrorism unit (TEM).

“The torture started immediately after my arrival,” Doğan said. “I was battered, stripped naked and bludgeoned with batons,” he added.

Doğan said the police demanded that he give them the names of at least 10 people, promising he would be released if he did. 

“They told me, ‘You might die here. There are people who died here and nobody knows about them,'” Doğan recounted. “I was put in a room where I saw traces of blood around me,” adding that what they said about the deaths sounded more credible after seeing it. 

“Police officers took me to another room. They started to bang my head against the wall, demanding that I give them 10 names. I refused. This torture went on for 10 days,” Doğan said.

“They would undress us and bludgeon us with their batons. They would subject us to torture by strappado. I was kept in that position for hours. I thought all my bones were broken,” Doğan said.

“They took us to doctors. A doctor asked me if I was OK,” Doğan said, adding that he wasn’t allowed to tell the doctors what he had undergone as the police officers were present, threatening him with more torture if he told the doctor about the torture.

Doğan said he saw the police bringing in three women where he was held with other detainees.

“We could hear their screams, begging them, ‘Please don’t rape us.’ The police told me, ‘This could happen to your wife and daughter if you don’t follow our orders.’ I still hear the screams of those women to this very day,” Doğan said, breaking down in tears.

Judge Johann van der Westhuizen asked Doğan which was the most painful experience he underwent — the physical torture or the rape threat against his wife.

Doğan said it was the rape threat, adding that the screams of the women still haunt him.

Presiding Judge Dr. Françoise Barones Tulkens asked Doğan if he could recount other methods of torture he was subjected to, apart from beatings and strappado.

Doğan said the police sexually harassed him by touching his genitals after stripping him naked.

After Doğan, Eren Keskin, a lawyer and human rights activist in Turkey, testified remotely in a video call. 

Keskin said the most pressing issue when it comes to torture is the difficulty of documenting the torture. 

Underlining that the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled against Turkey for not assigning independent medical experts to examine the detainees and prisoners who claim to have experienced torture, Keskin said despite the regulations, Turkish courts do not accept reports other than those prepared by forensic medical experts who are appointed and employed by the government.

The Turkish government was given the opportunity speak for itself after the witness testimony but did not use this opportunity to make its case.

On the last day of the hearings in Geneva, the tribunal will announce its verdict, which will also be published on the website.

Turkey has been experiencing a deepening human rights crisis in recent years.

After the abortive putsch, ill-treatment and torture became widespread and systematic in Turkish detention centers as evidenced by the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in a report based on his mission to Turkey between November 27 and December 2, 2016. Lack of condemnation from higher officials and a readiness to cover up allegations rather than investigate them have resulted in widespread impunity for security forces.

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