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Turkish detention protests

February 23, 2012

There are growing concerns that pre-trial detention in Turkey is being used a punishment without trial against journalists, political activists, students, and academics. Thousands are being held, sometimes for years.

Students protesting in Istanbul against detentions of academics and students without charges
Students in Istanbul protest against pre-trial detentions of academicsImage: Dorian Jones

In Turkey, thousands of people charged under the country's sweeping anti-terror laws have now been languishing in jail for years awaiting trial. Such is the scale of the problem that the government is being accused of systematically punishing its opponents by long periods of pre-trial detention.

Last week, leading Turkish academics came together to launch a campaign against the increasingly frequent jailing of fellow academics and students under Turkey's anti-terror laws. One said over 100 students have been detained under the laws, most on charges of supporting the PKK, the outlawed Kurdish rebel group.

People sitting at podium during a press conference
Zeynep Gambetti talks at a press conference in protest of increased detentionsImage: Dorian Jones

Campaign organizer Professor Zeynep Gambetti says one of their chief concerns is the lack of transparency in the use of the anti-terror law.

She said the case of Professor Busra Ersanli is causing particular concern. Ersanli was detained last year, but she has still not been formally charged. "We don't know what exactly the charges are, or what the proof is against her. She does not know either, and her lawyers don't know," Gambetti said. However, Ersanli is just on example.

"There is a student who was arrested a year ago for wearing a Kurdish scarf, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we don't know the charges against him. He has been in prison since last year," Gambetti added.

"These people have been kidnapped," said Ertugral Kurkcu, member of parliament for the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).

"There is no evidence they have committed any violent crimes. They are just opponents of the government." he said. Kurkcu's BDP party and its supporters are among those hardest hit by pre-trial detentions.

Ertugrul Kurkcu
Ertugrul Kurkcu is an MP for the Pro-Kurdish BDP partyImage: privat

According to Turkey's Human Rights Association, over 6,000 BDP members are currently being detained on conspiracy charges in a three-year police anti-terror probe into an organization called the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK). The KCK is claimed to be the urban wing of the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK.

Last week saw another 150 people arrested as part of the probe. Since the investigation started there have only been a handful of convictions, while the vast majority of prisoners are still awaiting trial. Over a dozen elected mayors, along with senior party members, trade unionists, and human rights workers are among those held.

Furthermore, over a hundreds journalists have been jailed under Turkey's anti-terror laws, with most spending months or even years awaiting trial. All are accused of supporting the PKK or an alleged ultra-nationalist conspiracy known as Ergenekon, which prosecutors claimed was an attempt to overthrow the government.

Professor Busra Ersanli standing on a balcony
Professor Busra Ersanli was detained last year as part of a an anti PKK probe.Image: Dorian Jones

The catchall nature of the anti-terror law means journalists are liable for prosecution even if they only quote statements deemed supportive of the conspiracies.

But the government strongly supports the KCK probe, saying such steps are necessary in the fight against terrorism, and are little different than its western allies' struggle against Al-Qaeda.

“The KCK trial is not because they have written something in a newspaper or because they have said something, but because they are part of a terrorist organization. They have been helping those terrorists who are killing young people," Volkan Bozkir, the head of the Turkish parliament's foreign affairs committee, said.

Critics of both investigations argue that they are being deliberately delayed because much of the evidence is flimsy, or at worst manufactured, and ultimately most defendants will be acquitted.

In a report published last month on the Turkish judiciary, the Council of Europe expressed its concern over pre-trial detention. "The number of KCK cases continues to increase. I am sure that quite a number of those detained should not be in prison at all," said Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammerberg, the report's author.

Pro Kurdish demonstration in Turkey
Many people suspected to support the PKK have been detained in recent months.Image: dapd

Hammerberg spent weeks meeting with senior judiciary members researching his report. He said there was little attempt made to hide the fact that pre-trial detention is being used as a punishment.

"I was discussing with a prosecutor in Diyarbakir and spelling out why there should be reasons to detain someone before the final trial, and he said ‘At least they will learn a lesson.' But why does the penitentiary system take on the role of teaching lessons to people who perhaps may be innocent? There have been cases continuing up to 10 years. That is absolutely outrageous. No one should be held before being proved guilty for such long periods," he said.

But Hammerberg did express some cautious optimism following his discussions with Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin. "Decisions pertaining to arrest, or to the refusal of a request for release on bail, will now have to be clearly written out," Ergin announced as one of a series of reforms to address pre-trial detention concerns.

In total, 88 reforms to the judicial system are currently being pushed through parliament. But they have already met with deep skepticism, with some critics calling them merely cosmetic. "When it comes to tackling Turkey's big human rights challenges, this reform package is little more than window dressing," said Emma Sinclair Webb, the Turkish representative for the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

Demonstrators in Istanbul
Students demand the release of hundreds of people who have been detained in recent months.Image: Dorian Jones

Acknowledging that some progress had been made, Human Rights Watch said in a statement that it was “positive … that judges would have to justify their decision to detain pre-trial defendants.”

Even if the reforms are passed, few people are expecting Turkish jails to open their doors and release the thousands of opponents of the government currently in pre-trial detention. There is growing international impatience with the Turkish government's handling of the situation. "We are still waiting for the implementation of the signals we have received from the government," Thomas Hammerberg said.

Last year Turkey had the unenviable record of the most violations in the European Court of Human Rights, with 228, of which 83 were for pre-trial detentions. This year is expected to be even worse for Ankara, as the number of anti-terror arrests shows no sign of abating.

Author: Dorian Jones / sb
Editor: Anke Rasper