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…

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