Turkey is a constitutional republic with an executive presidential system and a 600-seat legislature. The unicameral parliament (the Grand National Assembly) exercises legislative authority. The most recent presidential and parliamentary elections took place on June 24; Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers expressed concern regarding restrictions on media reporting and campaign environment that restricted the ability of opposition candidates to compete on an equal basis and campaign freely, including the continued detention of a presidential candidate.
Civilian leaders maintained effective control over security forces. The government dismissed thousands of additional police and military personnel on terrorism-related grounds using state of emergency decrees and new antiterror laws as part of its response to the failed coup attempt of July 2016.
The country experienced significant political changes during the year. The two-year-long state of emergency–imposed following the 2016 coup attempt–ended July 19, but had far-reaching effects on the country’s society and institutions, restricting the exercise of many fundamental freedoms. New laws and decrees codified some provisions from the state of emergency; subsequent antiterror legislation continued its restrictions on fundamental freedoms and compromised judicial independence and rule of law. By year’s end, authorities had dismissed or suspended more than 130,000 civil servants from their jobs, arrested or imprisoned more than 80,000 citizens, and closed more than 1,500 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on terrorism-related grounds since the coup attempt, primarily for alleged ties to cleric Fethullah Gulen and his movement, accused by the government of masterminding the coup attempt, and designated by the Turkish government as the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” (“FETO”).
Human rights issues included reports of arbitrary killing, suspicious deaths of persons in custody; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention of tens of thousands of persons, including opposition members of parliament, lawyers, journalists, foreign citizens, and three Turkish-national employees of the U.S. Mission to Turkey for purported ties to “terrorist” groups or peaceful legitimate speech; political prisoners, including numerous elected officials and academics; closure of media outlets and criminal prosecution of individuals for criticizing government policies or officials; blocking websites and content; severe restriction of freedoms of assembly and association; restrictions on freedom of movement; and violence against women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons, and members of other minorities.
The government continued to take limited steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish members of the security forces and other officials accused of human rights abuses; impunity for such abuses remained a problem. Clashes between security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist organization and its affiliates continued throughout the year, although at a reduced level compared with previous years, and resulted in the injury or death of security forces, PKK terrorists, and an unknown number of civilians. The government did not release information on efforts to investigate or prosecute personnel for any wrongful or inadvertent deaths of civilians linked to counter-PKK security operations.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, but there were reports that some government forces employed these tactics. On February 27, UN special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, expressed serious concerns about the rising allegations of torture and other mistreatment in Turkish police custody. Melzer said he was alarmed by allegations that large numbers of individuals suspected of links to the Gulen movement or PKK were exposed to brutal interrogation techniques aimed at extracting forced confessions or coercing detainees to incriminate others. Reported abuse included severe beatings, electrical shocks, exposure to icy water, sleep deprivation, threats, insults, and sexual assault. The special rapporteur said authorities appeared not to have taken any serious measures to investigate these allegations or to hold perpetrators accountable.
Human rights groups reported in December that torture and mistreatment in police custody occurred at reduced levels compared with 2017, although they contended that victim intimidation may account for reduced reporting. Reports indicated that police also abused detainees outside police station premises. The HRFT reported that, during the first 11 months of the year, it received 538 complaints related to abuse while in custody, 280 of which alleged torture or inhumane treatment. The HRFT also reported intimidation and shaming of detainees by police were common and that victims hesitated to report abuse due to fear of reprisal. Separately, the Human Rights Association reported that, in the first 11 months of the year, it received 2,719 complaints of abuse by security forces, including 284 complaints related to abuse while in detention facilities, 175 complaints of abuse outside detention facilities, and 2,260 complaints of abuse during demonstrations. The government has not released information on whether it undertook investigations into allegations of mistreatment in prison or detention centers during the year.
The government asserted that it followed a “zero tolerance” policy for torture. HRW maintained, however, that it was “not aware of any serious measures that have been taken to investigate credible allegations of torture.” In its World Report 2018, HRW stated: “Cases of torture and ill-treatment in police custody were widely reported through 2017, especially by individuals detained under the antiterror law, marking a reverse in long-standing progress, despite the government’s stated zero tolerance for torture policy. There were widespread reports of police beating detainees, subjecting them to prolonged stress positions and threats of rape, threats to lawyers, and interference with medical examinations.” According to 2017 Ministry of Justice statistics, the government opened 84 criminal cases related to allegations of torture. The government has not released data on its investigations into alleged torture.
The Civil Society Association in the Penal System (CISST) reported complaints of physical violence by prison staff and noted complaints from prisoners in Tarsus and Elazig prisons, who reported inhumane treatment and psychological abuse.
A June report by the Diyarbakir, Van, and Hakkari Bar Associations alleged Turkish soldiers tortured four shepherds in Korgan village, Hakkari Province on May 31. The report asserted that shepherd Nasir Tas suffered severe injuries after soldiers allegedly repeatedly held his head under water.
According to press reports, on June 8, in Istanbul, police detained and beat 22 high school students while they were handcuffed in a police van.
According to media reports, some military conscripts endured severe hazing, physical abuse, and torture that sometimes resulted in suicide. In May soldiers severely beat a Kurdish-speaking soldier in Van province for speaking Kurdish. Fethi Aydemir suffered serious injury to the skull and internal organ damage as a result. In a separate incident in Gaziantep, a soldier was attacked by fellow soldiers for having a photograph of Selahattin Demirtas, jailed former leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), on his smartphone.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison facilities in general met international standards for physical conditions in many respects, with certain exceptions. Overcrowding (particularly following the mass detentions after the 2016 coup attempt) and lack of access to adequate health care remained problems.
Physical Conditions: As of November the HRA estimated a total prison inmate population of 260,144 in government-operated detention facilities with a capacity of 211,766 inmates. Prison overcrowding remained a significant problem.
Children were housed in separate prison facilities, where available; otherwise, children were held in separate sections within separate male and female adult prisons. Pretrial detainees were held in the same facilities with convicted prisoners.
The government has not released data on inmate deaths due to physical conditions or actions of staff members.
Human rights organizations asserted that prisoners frequently lacked adequate access to potable water, proper heating, ventilation, and lighting.
Although authorities asserted that doctors were assigned to each prison, a Ministry of Justice Prison and Correctional Facilities official reported to parliament in February that there were 271 doctors, of whom only eight were full-time, serving a prison population of 235,888. Human rights associations expressed serious concern regarding the inadequate provision of health care to prisoners, particularly the insufficient number of prison doctors. The opposition HDP reported in August that there were 1,154 sick prisoners in the country’s prisons; more than 400 of them were in serious condition.
Human rights groups and media reported that, on April 28, prisoner Halime Gulsu died in a Mersin Province prison because she was unable to receive treatment for lupus.
Credible reports suggested that some doctors would not sign their names to medical reports alleging torture due to fear of reprisal, meaning victims were often unable to get medical documentation that would help prove their claims. According to one reported incident in January, an Istanbul University student, Berkay Ustabas, along with two other prisoners were stripped naked by Kirikkale prison authorities and subjected to a “welcome beating” with kicks, punches, and truncheons. According to Ustabas’ lawyer, the prison doctor refused to document the physical signs of abuse.
Chief prosecutors have discretion, particularly under the wide-ranging counterterrorism law, to keep prisoners whom they deem dangerous to public security in pretrial detention, regardless of medical reports documenting serious illness.
Administration: At times authorities investigated credible allegations of abuse and inhumane or degrading conditions, but generally did not document the results of such investigations in a publicly accessible manner or take action to hold perpetrators accountable. The government did not release data on investigations (both criminal and administrative) of alleged prison violence or mistreatment.
Independent Monitoring: The government allowed prison visits by some observers, including parliamentarians. There were no visits by an international body to the country’s prisons during the year. The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) visited the country in May 2017 and interviewed a large number of prisoners at various sites. As of year’s end, the government had not approved the public release of the CPT report and findings.
The government did not allow NGOs to monitor prisons. The Civil Society Association in the Penal System (CISST) published a report on prison conditions in June, based on information provided by parliamentarians, correspondence with inmates, lawyers, inmates’ family members, and press reports.