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Cruel and Usual Punishment

In March of this year, soon after I arrived in Istanbul as a member of a human rights mission for Helsinki Watch,* I found myself at a dinner party talking to the director of a liberal study center. He was skeptical about whether we could accomplish anything in Turkey. “You think that by exposing torture in Turkey you can end it,” he said, “but you don’t understand. It is part of our…our…” He groped for the English word, which I found myself reluctantly supplying: “Mentality?” I asked. “That’s right,” he concurred. “Torture is part of the Turkish mentality.”

It is a view that is frequently advanced by apologists for the Turkish government, but I had not expected to encounter it in someone who supports the left-of-center opposition party, SHP (Social Democratic People’s party), a party that has made the abolition of torture one of its main goals. The comment seemed to underline the impotence of reformers in Turkey—politicians, journalists, lawyers—in bringing the practice of torture to an end.

The SHP made a strong showing in the March 26 local elections and won a plurality of 28 percent. But would it be able to make good on its human rights promises if it were to come to power? The ruling party—the Motherland party of Prime Minister Ozal—has also spoken out against the use of torture, and yet torture persists. Rising inflation (now around 72 percent) may explain much of the present dissatisfaction with Mr. Ozal’s party, but the government’s inability to put an end to human rights abuses, and especially to torture, is also a factor in the public’s increasing disenchantment with the party that has been in control ever since the military restored parliamentary elections in 1983.

The issue of torture has plagued the Ozal government from the start and it is now being raised by those who oppose Turkey’s application to become a full member of the European Community. The Ozal government has made much of its being the first regime in Turkish history to have acknowledged the use of torture and to have taken steps to end it. It has recognized the right of Turks to send individual petitions to the European Commission of Human Rights. It recently signed the European and United Nations conventions against torture. The government dismisses verified cases of torture as isolated instances of police brutality. It insists that torturers are being punished, and reports that many policemen have been condemned during the last six years for mistreatment of prisoners. It says that many of the claims of torture made by defendants in court are lies, and that other reports of torture are fabricated by Turkey’s enemies abroad. It asserts that international human rights organizations like Amnesty International are, at best, the dupes of Turkey’s enemies.

Despite all of these assertions, it became clear during our recent visit to Turkey that torture is still being used by the Turkish police in nearly every case of arrest. This was not simply our impression after talking to some fifty former prisoners. It is also the conclusion of Amnesty International and of Turkish human rights activists. Attila Coskun, an Istanbul lawyer, told Helsinki Watch in 1988 that “at present, 98 percent of political detainees are tortured at police headquarters.” Erol Ozcan, an attorney in Ismir and a founder of the Turkish Human Rights Association, stated in 1989: “All suspects are tortured if the cases are political; most of the common criminals—over 50 percent—are tortured.” If fewer cases of torture are being reported these days, it is mainly because there are fewer arrests.

To discount torture as a product of the “Turkish mentality” is to suggest that it is so deep-rooted that there is not much that can be done about it. Those who defend the Turkish government often make this point as a way of explaining why torture persists. Such an attitude is demeaning to the Turkish people and removes the responsibility for torture from the government, where it rightfully belongs.

A member of our group who had never been to Turkey before arrived early and visited the Aegean coast before our work began. He met us in Istanbul, tanned and relaxed, deeply impressed, he said, by the friendliness and hospitality of the Turkish people he had met during his travels. A Turkish friend in Istanbul, active in a local human rights group, was clearly pleased by such enthusiasm. “We have the best,” he agreed, then added ruefully, “and the worst.”

The next morning we began a week-long series of interviews. A recently released prisoner told us what had happened when he was first detained. “For five days I was forced to stand without sleep. They turned pressurized water hoses on me. They gave me electric shocks. I was naked, suspended, my arms tied to a bar that was hooked on the wall. These methods are complementary. You faint on the bar; they turn the water on you to wake you up. Then comes the electricity; you feel it more when you are soaking wet.”

I could sense my colleague’s uneasiness, or was I just projecting my own? Knowing and liking so many people throughout Turkey, I had difficulty accounting for the continuing prevalence of such loathsome practices. Turks have been unfairly maligned in the United States, portrayed as uncivilized and cruel. This reputation derives in large part from a mean-spirited movie, Midnight Express, which depicts the Turkish people in a particularly ugly, racist fashion. Midnight Express describes bestial forms of torture and abuse in a Turkish prison; without exception, every Turk who is shown in the film (not only prison guards and administrators, but lawyers and judges as well) is portrayed as a monster. Those of us who know that this is an unfair view of most people in Turkey, and wish to help them to improve the human rights situation there, sometimes worry that our reports on human rights abuses unintentionally encourage such racist sentiments abroad.

Amnesty International reports that torture is used regularly not only in Turkey but in more than seventy other countries. This is a shocking figure, one that is confirmed in detailed studies by other organizations and in reports that have appeared in the press. Americas Watch has recently described the routine use of torture in Guatemala and Brazil. Amnesty International, in April, reported on the torture of children and even infants in Iraq. Africa Watch, in April, described torture in Malawi. Yet the Turks are often singled out unfairly among torturers as being somehow different. “The Turks have always tortured,” one hears; there is an implication that Turkish people don’t mind being tortured as much as others do—after all, it’s part of their “culture.”

A “favorite story” that was told to me by a political officer in the US embassy in Ankara a few years ago was intended to illustrate this point: a Turkish houseboy, picked up by the Ankara police for questioning, was tortured. When his employer, an American, said, “That’s horrible,” the boy replied, “Oh, no, that’s how I proved my innocence.”

It is true that torture is far from new in Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of political activists in Turkey have been in prison at some time, if not in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup then earlier, after a previous coup in the early 1970s. And just about everyone one meets who has been imprisoned has a tale of torture to recount. I was told that at least eight members of the present parliament have themselves been tortured at some time in the past.

Since 1980, torture in Turkey has taken on new and more sinister dimensions. For one thing, the 1980 coup was followed by an extraordinary number of arrests—some 240,000 between 1980 and 1987, according to the Turkish Human Rights Association. Many of those detained were held for short periods of time, while others were charged and imprisoned. According to Amnesty International, “almost all of the prisoners have been subjected to torture or other forms of ill-treatment.” Amnesty International reports that some 220 people are alleged to have died by torture between December 1979 and March 1989; of these charges forty-seven have been confirmed by the Turkish government. In addition to an increase in the number of arrests and torture cases in the 1980s, the practice of torture has become, by all accounts, more “sophisticated” than it was in the past, involving equipment and techniques that make it both more effective and harder to detect.

But if torture has become more a matter of routine in the 1980s, it has also become more difficult today for governments to conceal such atrocities. The international human rights movement has concentrated attention on governments that torture. Other governments are more willing to criticize and to intervene than they have been in the past.

After martial law was lifted in Istanbul in 1985, the Turkish press began to publish the atrocity stories that it had been forbidden to print under the military. Accounts of torture filled the pages of virtually every newspaper and journal. Many came from the parliament, where some opposition party deputies were exposing cases of torture and demanding action. Perhaps the most sensational articles were those that appeared in the popular magazine Nokta in February 1986—the confessions of Sedat Caner, a former policeman who admitted to torturing nearly two hundred people in seven years. The article was illustrated with drawings of a number of different torture techniques bearing names such as “Palestine hanger,” “butcher’s hanger,” “septic hole,” “operation table,” and “crucifix.” It was thought that these revelations would help to end the use of torture. But torture has continued.

Indeed, so much has been printed about torture in the Turkish press that today only exceptional atrocities make the headlines, as was the case in January when Turkish soldiers forced villagers in eastern Turkey to eat human excrement. “Ordinary” torture is losing the interest of the public because of its “sameness.” Yet it is precisely this “sameness” that should make it possible for the authorities to bring it to an end.

The facts are readily accessible. In Istanbul, for example, men and women who are picked up by the police are usually taken to the police station in the Gayreteppe section of town. I have seen the station from the outside: a modern-looking office building that in no way suggests the agonies of body and spirit that its walls have concealed. Once a prisoner is inside, I was told, the procedure seldom varies. He or she is led down one flight of spiral stairs to a carpeted interrogation room, and later down another flight to the torture chambers. The torturers usually work in teams of three, using code names when addressing each other. Victims are stripped and blindfolded and subjected to a fairly standard set of procedures, including beatings, dousings with pressurized water, and electric shocks administered to sensitive parts of the body. Hanging is a great favorite. Of the several positions in use, the Palestine hanger (hanging from the wrists, which are first bound together behind the victim) seems to be the worst. Victims soon lose consciousness; if it goes on too long, their arms may be pulled from their sockets.

The victims are tied with pieces of cloth in order to avoid long-lasting bruises. The tortures themselves are carefully controlled so that they do not leave telltale marks. There are slip-ups, however. Because of strong protests by the bar association, one torture victim, a lawyer, was released unexpectedly after two days, instead of the customary fifteen. His bruises had not healed, and he was able to document them with a medical report. He will bring charges against his torturer, whom he believes he can identify:

I knew the chief of the torture team because he was one of the cops who had raided my office…. I knew him under the name of Adem On, possibly his real name. Torturers use code numbers in addressing each other. His is “58.”… I caught a glimpse under my blindfold. I saw his shoes, arms, and wristwatch, and the next day without the blindfold (we were going to court) I saw him with the same shoes and wristwatch. I saw his arm and hand manipulating the “manyeto” that gives electric shocks and I saw his hand attaching the cables to my genitals and little right toe…. I recognized him also from his voice, a harsh, alcohol-hoarse voice…. I wouldn’t even describe him as human.

If the places of torture, and sometimes even the torturers, are known, why has the government been unable to bring torture to an end? Some officials in the Ministry of Interior have suggested that most of the torture is the work of police officers who are difficult to control. Why then doesn’t the minister of the interior authorize frequent, unannounced raids on police stations? Torturers could be arrested on the spot and torture equipment seized.

Omer Ciftci, an SHP member of parliament who has himself been tortured by the police, told us that one day at the end of 1988 he stood up in parliament and said: “Let’s go to DAL [the torture unit at the Ankara police station]. Let’s go immediately and if we see that there are no instruments of torture there, I will resign from the parliament.” Mr. Ciftci knew that on that very day people were being tortured at the Ankara station. The minister of the interior, in response, acknowledged that there are sometimes cases of torture but said that torturers are punished “when we find them.”

It is difficult to accuse a policeman of torture in Turkey not only because torture is planned so that it leaves no incriminating marks but also because victims are invariably blindfolded during torture and thus are unable to identify their torturers. Most of the cases that manage to reach the court are those in which something has gone wrong: cases in which the victim has died or been permanently mutilated. But such cases are not very common. Relatively few torturers have been tried in relation to the number of torture cases reported. The number of convictions is also small, and the sentences are short. Deputy Prime Minister Mr. Ali Bozer told us that between 1980 and 1986, 3,996 accusations of torture were made, of which 3,911 were referred to court. As a result, 375 policemen were condemned to prison terms ranging from four and a half months to four and a half years. He considered these stiff sentences. Yet its high limit of four and a half years seems very light indeed when one considers the nature of the crime. It also seems light when one considers that many of the predominantly young people who were arrested in the aftermath of the 1980 coup have spent seven or more years in prison awaiting the outcome of trials in which they may eventually be acquitted.

The persistence of torture in Turkey has little to do with the “Turkish mentality.” It reflects instead certain aspects of Turkish law and a lack of will on the part of the Turkish authorities to put torture to an end once and for all. Under the present law in Turkey, the police may hold an arrested person completely incommunicado for two weeks or, under certain circumstances, even more. This is the time when torture takes place. A bill that would allow the person detained the right to counsel during interrogation has twice been defeated in committee by the Motherland party. Yet such a bill would go a long way toward eliminating torture.

When members of the Motherland party are asked why they voted against such a bill, they usually reply that the entire system must be reformed and not just one aspect. They are referring to the fact that under Turkish law the police are responsible for interrogating suspects before it is determined whether or not to bring charges. Many defendants are charged and sentenced on the basis of confessions that were made as a result of torture.

Another factor also serves to explain the failure of the Turkish government to eliminate torture. As was the case with the Alfonsín government in Argentina, for example, the Ozal government came to power in Turkey expressing its resolve to end violence and torture. But in Argentina the abuses ended overnight, whereas in Turkey they continue. Unlike in Argentina, in Turkey the change of government did not represent a clean break with the past. The military chose to allow a return to civilian rule in 1983, but it remains in the background, exerting a watchful presence and immune to punishment for its crimes, thanks to decrees it passed before giving up power. No significant reforms were made in the legal system or in the administration of the police. Who, then, would actually make the necessary raids on the torture rooms in the police stations? Soldiers responsible to the military? Policemen who are part of the system?

Turkish policemen are on the whole poorly paid and poorly educated. The government acknowledges this and says that it is taking steps to educate them, including educating them in the importance of human rights. On a recent visit I was told by the chief of police that Turkey had bought lie detectors from the United States and planned to use them to modernize interrogation procedures. Soon afterward I met a torture victim who described a new use of the lie detector. If the machine indicated that he was lying, his interrogators turned up the voltage of the electric shocks they were administering to him.

Prime Minister Ozal, in an interview after his party’s recent defeat in the local elections, first discounted allegations of torture as fabrications and then discussed (not for the first time) two steps he intended to take: “to form a group in the prime ministry to take a look at every allegation made” and “to form a committee of members of parliament to visit our prisons and places of detention in order to see what is going on.” He also pointed out that Turkey’s acceptance of the European Convention on Torture obliges it to open its prisons and police stations on demand to a special European investigatory commission. All or any one of these long-overdue measures, if properly and promptly carried out, with a will to succeed, could make a substantial difference in Turkey.

I recently discussed torture in Turkey with the physicist Yuri Orlov, a former Soviet political prisoner who came to the US in 1985 and has since taken a strong interest in human rights issues in different countries. “Of course [the government] can stop it,” he said. “The torturers won’t like it, but that’s OK. Some people have that mentality.” There it was again, the word “mentality”—but Orlov was speaking of the mentality of the torturers, not the mentality of the Turks. Orlov knows from his own experience that torturers, or potential torturers, exist in every society and that it is the duty of governments to protect their citizens from them.

Torture is a highly destructive force in the world today. It degrades not only the societies in which it is practiced but also those which accept its existence in countries other than their own as the unfortunate product of a “different” culture. Torture destroys civilized society. It undermines the belief that human beings, however divided, owe one another fundamental respect. It denies another person his or her humanity. It demoralizes those who have been spared its direct violence, whether they try to ignore it or are working to bring it to an end. It forces us to imagine things that are unimaginable, to think thoughts that are unthinkable, and to shape words and sentences, like those in this article, that attempt to make the unreadable readable.

  1. *

    The other members of the mission were Professor Herman Schwartz of American University and Kenneth Schoen of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. The purpose of the mission was to prepare a report on prison conditions in Turkey. The report will be published by Helsinki Watch in August.

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