Draconian new security laws that will grant law enforcement officers the discretion to detain citizens without court orders are taking Turkey backward in terms of freedoms, according to Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV) President Şebnem Korur Fincancı.
The new security package “aims at legalizing the violations of law enforcement officials,” Fincancı said in a recent interview.
Can you give us a snapshot of the human rights situation in Turkey?
Unfortunately, I cannot start with positive comments. We are really going through a period where human rights violations are reaching a serious dimension. There is a regression in terms of the legal framework. The so-called internal security package [which will be reviewed in parliament] is very worrying; the package aims at legalizing the violations of law enforcement officials.
When it comes to democratization, we live in a situation where freedom of expression has nearly been abolished, journalists are being kept under serious oppression and only pro-government publications are allowed. Freedom of expression is not only about the press. There are also other ways society expresses itself; that means sometimes people go out on the streets, but the tendency is to intervene violently against even the smallest group that wants to express themselves.
But many would compare Turkey with the 1980s and 1990s when the human rights record was terrible with widespread torture and extrajudicial killings.
Obviously, we are not in those years where we saw the cruelest face of torture. But that does not mean that torture no longer exists. Yes there is no longer torture by electricity, and they don’t kill detainees during torture and then say they jumped from the fourth floor. But that does not mean Turkey has become a better country in terms of human rights. Torture is not absent in Turkey. There are other forms of torture. The aim of torture is to eliminate people’s personalities and integrity and also to spread fear in society. We see that there are attacks against the society’s integrity. There are intense efforts toward marginalizing and isolating people via disinformation, threats and insults.
There is an overall effort toward the society to intimidate. A trade union goes on the street to protest and there are serious incidents where people are wounded, even killed by gas canisters; this is not so different from extrajudicial killing. People living in a neighborhood hit the street to protest a decision taken about the place they live, as in Validebağ, in [Üsküdar]. At the beginning, it is 500 people out, but there is such a violent intervention that 450 people stay in their home and there is only 50 people left in the next demonstration. And since 50 people do not have a big voice, arbitrary decisions are taken despite objections from the neighborhood. Torture has changed form, but there is no change in the mentality of the state. We should have individuals protected and have the priority, but the state is still privileged in Turkey.
Does the state have a particular target?
There is no tolerance of opposition. But I think Kurds still top the list of the state’s target. While there seems to be ongoing negotiations [to solve the Kurdish issue], we have seen what happened during the [Oct. 6-8, 2014] Kobane incidents.
By opposition, you don’t mean the opposition parties in the parliament, I assume.
I don’t even count them. I am talking about opposition in the civil society, like the professional organizations like the Turkish Medical Association (TBB) which are daring to oppose the government’s views.
You say the state mentality has not changed, but the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to the government claiming it would represent the masses that the state ignored.
Previously [the state] was under the control of a modernist group; now it is under the control of a group that has another lifestyle with an Anatolian background. The modernist Turkish state did not forge good relations with those which were different. It is correct that women with headscarves did suffer, for instance. But this new group that took power is not forging good relations with those which are not like themselves.
How do you explain this reflex? Is it the effect of being in government; once you are in power, you change with it?
Our history plays a role in this phenomenon. [During the establishment of the republic], there was an effort to homogenize in order to keep together a society with different ethnic groups.
But you would agree that there was a time when the AKP did take important reform steps.
In the first half of the 2000s, important steps were undertaken as the European Union [accession] process was taken to the serious. Actually the reform process started during the coalition government [that preceded the AKP]; the AKP continued it. The changes in the Turkish penal code; the detailed and very clear definition of torture in the law; procedural safeguards about detention conditions, as in the case where you have to take detainees to the doctor first, and then a second time after 24 hours – all these were good steps. Legal amendments about women and children, the peace process all created the feeling that we were moving forward.
Were the legal amendments reflected in practice?
Implementation has come rather late, but the government initiated projects to eradicate torture, for instance; doctors were supposed to be educated about procedures about detention cases. Instead of doctors working in emergency, gynecologists or heart surgeons were sent to the training for instance. We actually gave training to 3,500 doctors, but then the health system changed, and those working in emergency changed their branches. So there were problems in the implementation, too.
When you look at the current situation, you say there is regression in the legal framework.
The most dangerous part of the internal security package is the fact that the decision to search and apprehend is left to law enforcement officials; the prosecutors are left on the outside. It is becoming impossible to talk to a lawyer or anybody in the first 24 hours; there is no contact with the doctor. There is no communication with anybody. This will take us back to the days of disappearing while in detention.
Who is Şebnem Korur Fincancı?
Born in 1959, Şebnem Korur Fincancı graduated from Cerrahpaşa Medical Faculty in 1983. She became a professor of forensic medicine in 1996.
She is the president of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV). Fincancı currently works for the Istanbul Faculty of Medicine, where she teaches forensic medicine; she also teaches at the GalatasarayLaw Faculty to undergraduate and post-graduate students.
She specializes in the medical documentation of torture, violence against women, sexual assault and child abuse. She is frequently invited to speak on these subjects at national and international conferences and is the author of over 200 academic articles.
She is one of the authors of the “Istanbul Protocol- Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,” the first set of international guidelines for the documentation of torture and its consequences, as well as the “Atlas of Torture,” published in 2010. In 2014, she received the International Hrant Dink Award.