Four days of fierce fighting left 32 people dead and many injured
when heavily armed Turkish police and military units stormed 20
jails across the country in late December. The police action was
launched to quell a two-month-old hunger strike by more than 1,000
political prisoners, most of whom were incarcerated simply for belonging
to organizations that criticized Turkey's military-dominated government.
Using tanks and bulldozers to break into areas where the hunger-strikers
were holed up, Turkish security forces encountered furious resistance
from inmates. Several prisoners reportedly doused themselves with
flammable liquid and lit themselves on fire as Uzi-toting police
entered their cells.
Many victims of the raids were members of the Revolutionary People's
Liberation Party-Front, a radical leftist group. Turkish Prime Minister
Bulent Ecevit said the violent crackdown, code-named "Return to
Life," was necessary to help "save terrorists from their own terror."
The prison rebellion began in early November when Turkish authorities
their intention to dismantle the large, dormitory-like wards and transfer
inmates to separate, small "F-type" cells. Fearing this would make
them more vulnerable to torture and beatings by jail wardens, the
prisoners started a hunger strike, which they vowed to continue until
the Turkish government relented.
Atrocities are widespread
in the Turkish prison system.
AFP/ANATOLIAN NEWS AGENCY
The prisoners' fears of torture and police brutality are certainly
justified, according to international human rights groups, which
have documented widespread atrocities in Turkey's corruption-ridden
penal system. "Torture is a state policy and continues to be used
systematically," says Turkish human rights attorney Eren Keskin.
"All thinking apart from official thinking is a crime."
If one can measure the value of human life in a society by looking
at its prisons, then Turkey is an abomination. The Human
Rights Foundation of Turkey estimates that around 1 million
people have been tortured in Turkey since the military coup in 1980.
At least nine Turkish prisoners are known to have been tortured
to death in 1999.
Last year the Turkish government made almost no progress in terms
of key human rights reforms. "While the government procrastinated,
politicians and writers were prosecuted and imprisoned for expressing
their nonviolent opinions, and detainees in police custody remained
at risk of ill-treatment, torture or death," Human
Rights Watch reported.
The European Union is concerned about the omnipotent role of the
army in Turkish society, including three coups since 1960. Unless
the military's influence is checked and the human rights situation
improves dramatically, Turkey's application for E.U. membership
will founder. Specifically, the European Union has called for the
abolition of the death penalty in Turkey, an end to widespread torture,
the lifting of constitutional curbs on free expression, and the
granting of full cultural rights to the country's Kurdish minority--including
the right to educate and broadcast in their own language.
But Kurdish activists are still being arrested and tortured on
a regular basis. Turkey is preparing to put on trial 13 Kurdish
children, who face a minimum of three years in prison for shouting
slogans sympathetic to the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party. The
youngest, Yasar Kaya, is nine years old. All the children come from
the Kurdish village of Derik, which was forcibly evacuated and burned
to the ground by Turkish security forces in 1990. Since the 1991
Persian Gulf War, Turkish troops repeatedly have crossed into northern
Iraq to battle Kurdish rebels.
Despite its monstrous humans rights record, Turkey continues to
enjoy strong support from Washington. Currently the fourth-largest
recipient of U.S. foreign aid, Turkey stands at a strategic crossroads
between Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam. Bordering Iraq,
Syria, and ex-Soviet republics, it maintains the second largest
army in NATO, and it also exerts considerable influence in heavily
Turkic regions of oil-rich Central Asia.
During the '90s, the Clinton administration approved $5 billion
worth of weapons sales and giveaways to Turkey. (About 80 percent
of the Turkish arsenal is U.S.-made.) Without staunch U.S. backing,
the Turkish government would not have been able to wage a brutal
counterinsurgency campaign against its Kurdish population in southeastern
Turkey that killed 35,000 people and razed 3,000 villages, while
maintaining a police state in the rest of the county.
Although the State Department has acknowledged serious abuses,
U.S. officials offered little criticism when Sema Piskinsut, leader
of the Turkish Parliament's human rights commission, was forced
to relinquish her post in November. During her three-year tenure
as chairwoman, the commission had won praise for its daring exposures
of human rights violations. Piskinsut conducted several surprise
midnight visits to Turkish police stations and prisons, where she
found blatant evidence of torture--specially built soundproof cells
with exposed electric cables, clubs, lashes and metal bars used
to beat suspects, a suspension device known as "the Palestinian
hanger," and other instruments of corporal punishment.
Enraged at her for proving that torture was commonplace in Turkey,
police and interior ministry officials insisted that she be fired.
Piskinsut was abruptly relieved of her duties, and the job of overseeing
the parliamentary human rights commission was given to Huseyin Akgul,
a member of the far-right National Action Party (NAP), an organization
with a violent neofascist pedigree. Highly praised by Turkey's generals,
who have the final say in government policy, the NAP jettisoned
some of its more extreme rhetoric when it joined the national governing
coalition in 1998. Prior to this point, the NAP was best known for
its record of street thuggery and bloodshed. The NAP's late founder
and longtime leader, Alpaslan Turkes, had espoused a virulent ethnic
nationalist ideology summed up by the slogan "the Turkish race above
The NAP is the parent organization of the Gray Wolves, a neo-Nazi
terrorist group that has stalked Turkey since the '60s. A 1996 parliamentary
report confirmed that members of the Gray Wolves had participated
in the government-sponsored "dirty war" against ethnic Kurds and
Turkish dissidents. In cahoots with U.S.-trained and -equipped security
forces, ultra-right-wing death squads were responsible for many
of Turkey's 14,000 unsolved murders and disappearances that occurred
in the past decade.
During the recent hunger strike, police stood by as Gray Wolf militants
attacked a building where a prisoners' relatives association met
to plan solidarity actions with the fasting inmates. In subsequent
street clashes, extreme right-wing youth flashed their wolf sign
as they assaulted a protest march by hunger-strike sympathizers.
NAP officials, including Akgul, defended the recent prison raids
that sought to crush the prison fast. There was "no excessive use
of force" against starving prisoners and "no violations of human
rights," Akgul declared shortly after the crackdown.
Human rights organizations tell a different story. A joint statement
by Amnesty International and
Human Rights Watch said that prisoners were systematically abused
and tortured during the prison raids and afterward while being transferred
to the new cells. Many of these inmates were awaiting trial and
had not been convicted of a crime. There were numerous reports of
prisoners who had been denied treatment for bullet wounds and other
Huseyin Diri said his brother, incarcerated in the northwest Turkish
city of Izmut, was beaten every morning for refusing to sing the
national anthem. Diri told CNN that his brother's face was covered
with bruises and that he had to be carried into a visiting room.
Other prisoners say they were raped with truncheons. Human rights
organizations have been warned that criticism of the F-type prison
cells could itself be a criminal offense.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Turkish and Kurdish inmates are still on
a hunger strike. Drinking only small amounts of water, many are
close to death. Solidarity fasts have spread to jails in France,
Germany, Greece, Spain and the Netherlands.
The Turkish government recently announced plans to free half of
Turkey's 72,000 prisoners. But the general amnesty does not apply
to prisoners of conscience, such as 19-year-old Sevgi Ince, a five-foot-tall
woman who walks on crutches. Crippled from torture, she has spent
the past four years in a Turkish prison without being told what
crime she allegedly committed. It may have something to do with
Ince's efforts to locate her disappeared sister. If she ever gets
out of prison, Ince says she would like to work in a rehabilitation
center for torture victims. But such facilities are illegal in Turkey.
Martin A. Lee is the author of Acid Dreams and
The Beast Reawakens, a book on neofascism.