Preventing the state turning into an apparatus of violence and adopting the will for peaceful coexistence are firstly the responsibilities of holders of political power, and also our common responsibility as citizens.
Human rights and freedoms have been behind universal norms throughout the history of the Turkish Republic, despite relative improvements from time to time. Especially after general elections in 2015, the government giving up on a peaceful solution to the Kurdish conflict and re-escalation of armed clashes caused a serious backsliding and disruption to fundamental rights and freedoms.
First with the curfews and then with the state of emergency declared after the coup attempt on July 15, 2016, the state had already been practising serious rights violations. This evolved into an atmosphere where the ideal of a rights-based regime was abandoned altogether. The “new regime” established after the general elections on June 24, 2018, introduced legislation which turned practises of the state of emergency into permanent laws, and as a result the entire political/civic space became an area of control and pressure. In order to sustain this approach, which cancelled democratic mobilization of citizens through blocking their political participation and channels to foster demands, the public authority’s most important tool became the securitization of all issues of the country, everything from economy to public health. This governance based on pressure and control, goes hand in hand with targeting, alienating and discrediting a certain individual, group or issue. This practise of violence embraced by the authority, frequently surfacing through police violence, and the mentality justifying violence started spreading to the public, merged with the ongoing culture of impunity and it thus started to seriously risk our already fragile ability to stay as a society.
We saw striking examples of this during the Covid-19 pandemic. The issue of public health was also perceived as a security problem. And through precautions allegedly in place to tackle the pandemic, various citizens were subjected to violence by security forces, often reaching the level of torture and ill-treatment.
According to Human Rights Foundation of Turkey documentation unit’s data, two people lost their lives between 1 January 2020 and 1 June 2020, on two separate occasions, due to security forces firing their arms.
During this period, on at least 48 occasions (at 7 detention centers, during 8 house raids and at 33 open spaces) 189 people were subjected to physical violence, torture and ill-treatment by police, gendarmerie and night watchmen. 35 of these individuals were wounded, including one person shot with a fire arm.
17 of these 48 incidents took place due to these individuals in question not abiding by the Covid-19 precautions. And 29 people were subjected to violence, torture and ill-treatment. Four individuals were wounded during these incidents, including one person shot with a firearm.
During the first five months of the year 2020, 363 peaceful events and demonstrations such as press statements, celebrations, memorials, were intervened by the security forces through applying force. During these interventions, 754 people were detained, 16 people were wounded. 9 incidents were intervened by officers through physical violence due to Covid-19 precautions and 42 people were detained for the same reason.
In the same period, security forces intervened 5 peaceful demonstrations within the scope of the right to assembly, using physical violence. 5 people were detained. All detentions listed above were based on Covid-19 precautions. Eventually the number of events and demonstrations disrupted by the police through violence rise to 368 and 759 people were detained as a result.
According to Human Rights Association’s data, at least 2 people lost their lives due to security forces firing arms and 2 people were wounded, between 1 March – 30 May 2020. 196 people were subjected to physical violence, torture and ill-treatment, 126 of these taking place in detention centers and 70 outside an official detention setting. Through interventions towards peaceful demonstrations within the scope of the right to assembly, 242 events were intervened, 338 people were subjected to physical violence, torture and ill-treatment.
As a result, nearly a thousand citizens were subjected to physical violence, torture and ill-treatment by security officers, only in the first five months of the year 2020.
We are facing a gravely concerning state practise. Plus, these figures are limited with HRA and HRFT’s documentation efforts based on limited information. Therefore, it is only a segment of the whole truth.
International law and international agreements Turkey has signed, speaks of the state’s entitlement to apply force. In fact, this entitlement draws attention to governments’ responsibility to prevent violence and rights violations; and it is an authority that needs to be limited with rule of law and rules based on universal human rights norms.
When we go beyond numbers and look at individual incidents, we can clearly see that what we are up against is unlawful and naked violence. Unauthorized, unpunished systematic violence which goes without any judicial limitation, ignored and at times encouraged by those who hold political office.
But what are the rules by which public officials must abide? Although we are not confident that these will be acknowledged by the current public authority of Turkey, it is our duty to remind these as human rights defenders:
- Above all, there is absolute prohibition of torture. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture. This prohibition maintains its absolute nature whether a person is under detention, under interrogation, charged or sentenced with crimes of terrorism, regardless of the nature of the crime.
- No law enforcement official may inflict, instigate or tolerate any act of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, nor may any law enforcement official invoke superior orders or exceptional circumstances such as a state of war or a threat of war, a threat to national security, internal political instability or any other public emergency as a justification of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
- The use of force by law enforcement officials should be exceptional; while it implies that law enforcement officials may be authorized to use force as is reasonably necessary under the circumstances for the prevention of crime or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders, no force going beyond that may be used.
- Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.
- Governments shall ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law.
- While the generic concept of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment clearly is not limited to ill-treatment inflicted on persons deprived of their liberty, the concept of torture requires that the perpetrator exercise direct physical or equivalent control over the victim and that the victim is incapable of resisting or escaping the infliction of pain or suffering (“powerlessness”). In principle, therefore, the universal customary prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and, in situations of powerlessness, of torture are fully applicable to the extra-custodial use of force by State agents.
- In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
These rules listed above are fundamental rules. When security forces don’t even follow these, are protected with impunity and encouraged, the state’s right to apply force is no longer a legitimate and legal practise but an unlawful, arbitrary, systematic use of violence which is a malicious act. The state declaring itself exempt from these rules, would convince the public that violence is the regulator of affairs and solver of problems. Deteriorating the public’s nature like this, and this spread of violence would cause the public’s ability to peacefully exist together, thus cause destruction.
This is because the public authority’s attitude and acts does not only create a bad example but it also encourages discrimination, hate and violence to spread among the public, when it sees everything as a security problem and polarizes the society. As a result of constant alienating, discriminative hate speech towards firstly political opponents, based on beliefs, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, it is now possible for civilians to pose with firearms, appear on television to speak of death lists, or disrespect the funeral of Group Yorum member Ibrahim Gokcek. Death threats are sent to Hrant Dink Foundation, opposition politicians, artists, journalists and writers. For the same reason, domestic violence, especially within the house during Covid-19, discrimination towards LGBTI+ individuals and hate crimes, increase.
One other reason for the increasing approval of violence among the public is the public authority’s attitude blessing conflict and war policies. Deeming conflict and war as the only solution to the Kurdish issue as well as international issues, makes the public embrace militarism and tendencies to apply violence.
To summarize, when violence is so widespread among the entire public like this, we cannot speak of unity as a society. The state is the carrier of the bound that makes citizens live together. When it becomes a mechanism that disfranchises this bond, it will become a sole generator of violence. This is a very dangerous and concerning situation.
Preventing the state turning into a generator of violence and adopting the will to peacefully co-exist, is firstly the responsibility of holders of the political power. Therefore, we ask the public authority to stop violence of security forces, fight impunity, give up on discriminative policies to prevent violence spreading among the public.
Apply the rules of international agreements to which Turkey is a party, and abide by the Constitution! It is not a choice but an obligation to follow these rules, and the 90th amendment to the Constitution underlines this very fact. Bring independence to Turkish Human Rights and Equality Institution designated as the National Prevention Mechanism and make it effective. Let human rights be a guidance for every policy. Stop the violence!
It is also the citizens’ responsibility to embrace the will for peaceful coexistence. The first and most important step for this is to say no to violence. Let’s stop violence!
Human Rights Association
Human Rights Foundation of Turkey
 “Extra-custodial use of force and the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”-Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment