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LGBT+ in Turkish prisons: A double punishment

Burcu Karakas | Daniel Bellut
September 9, 2019

Turkish activists are sounding the alarm about inhumane conditions for those locked up "for political reasons." Reports of solitary confinement, physical and emotional abuse, and denial of medical services are common.

LGBT rights activists trying to gather for a pride parade banned by Istanbul's government
Image: Reuters/M. Sezer

Buse Aydin, a 44-year-old transgender woman, has been jailed in Turkey "for political reasons" for 24 years. For her, it is as if she were in two prisons at the same time. Not only is she locked up in the Tekirdag high-security prison in western Turkey — she's also trapped in "the wrong body," her lawyer told DW.

Hers is a situation that is given no consideration in prison. Aydin waited five years for gender confirmation surgery, before the Ministry of Health eventually rejected her request, arguing tersely that it was "not necessary." In desperation, she went on hunger strike to try to compel them to perform the operation that was so important to her. When even that had no effect on the decision, she cut off her penis herself in the prison bathroom.

Turkish human rights lawyer Eren Keskin
Turkish human rights lawyer Eren Keskin: Legally, the Turkish government must pay for prisoners' gender confirmation surgeryImage: imago/H. Rudel

Aydin's lawyer, Eren Keskin, told DW: "In fact, the legal situation is clear. The state should bear the cost of her operation." She assumes that the decision to refuse the operation was based on "the decision-makers' homophobic attitude." 

The Aydin case was disclosed in August by the research institute Civil Society in the Penal System (CISST). The story spread quickly, causing outrage among the Turkish public.

Read more: Turkey's LGBT+ activists refuse to give up the fight

Discrimination a structural problem

CISST scrutinizes the situation in Turkish prisons, and its employees are therefore in constant contact with prisoners by letter. Complaints from people like Aydin — prisoners who belong to a sexual minority — are especially frequent.

Hilal Basak Demirbas of CISST says this case is no exception. Rather, it is just one example of a structural problem in Turkish prisons. She has published a study entitled "LGBTQI Prisoners in Turkey," in which she reveals and evaluates letters of complaint from people in prison who identify as LGBTQI individuals.

"One of the most serious problems is that LGBT+ people are placed in solitary confinement, especially when there are no other LGBT+ people in the prison," she comments. But they are also put in solitary confinement due to prison overcrowding. "Two years ago, there were several LGBT+ prisoners in a prison near Alanya, but the prison was so crowded that no cell could be provided for the group. So the LGBT+ detainees were all held in solitary confinement," Demirbas writes. According to her study, LGBT+ people may spend more than eight months in solitary confinement — a length of time that's actually only meant to be imposed on dangerous criminals.

Read more: Turkey holds thousands in solitary in Erdogan's prisons

Physical, emotional abuse

The study notes that lesbians, gays and transgender people are usually separated from heterosexual prisoners to protect them from attacks and discrimination. It also observes a slow improvement in that prison officers are gradually starting to show greater sensitivity. However, there are still numerous reports of humiliations and insults: "For example, some trans women are provocatively addressed by their birth names (deadnames) instead of the female name they've given themselves." Sexual harassment is also a common occurrence. The study mentions a case of sexual abuse of a transgender individual by a prison guard in the Black Sea town of Samsun. When the victim complained, although there were sperm that could be matched to the officer in question, the incident was classified as "consensual sex."

Aylin Kirikcu, a lawyer who defends several LGBT+ prisoners, highlights another problem she hears about from her clients. "When transgender women are arrested, they often request that the medical examination be carried out by a woman." Kirikcu says that this request is rarely fulfilled. "There's sometimes unwanted physical contact, which my clients experience as sexual torture." Some have also complained that they were sexually assaulted by male officials at the start of their detention.

Read more: In Turkey, being gay can cost you your job

Being gay in Turkey

'Pink block' proposal controversial

As long ago as 2014, the Turkish government proposed setting up "pink blocks" for LGBT+ people in Turkish prisons. These special wings were intended to guarantee the safety of homosexual or transgender prisoners. The issue has repeatedly been on the agenda ever since, but so far nothing has happened.

Hilal Basak Demirbas, author of the LGBTQI Prisoners in Turkey report
Researcher Hilal Basak Demirbas: Separating LGBTI prisoners is the "institutionalization of existing discrimination"Image: Privat

LGBT+ activists and the opposition sharply criticized the proposal — their objection at the time was that it would only do more to encourage the exclusion of sexual minorities from society. Hilal Basak Demirbas of CISST is also skeptical about the Turkish government's proposal. "A prison-like that is nothing other than the institutionalization of existing discrimination," she says. In her view, it makes more sense to try harder to solve existing problems directly.

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