The Media Line is told of torture and lawyers’ fear to represent detainees
[ISTANBUL] — The Turkish government faces accusations of torturing detainees held in connection with the failed military coup of July 15.
“We’ve seen huge abuses, widespread torture and ill treatment reported,” said Andrew Gardner, a researcher with Amnesty International’s Turkey branch.
Amnesty published a report on July 25 based on interviews with detainees’ lawyers, doctors and an employee of a detention facility outlining claims of widespread torture including rape.
“All of the allegations of rape were in Ankara against senior military officials,” Gardner told The Media Line.
The government declared a three-month state of emergency, temporarily suspended the European Convention on Human Rights, and has been conducting a massive purge in the aftermath of the failed coup.
The purge is aimed at followers of Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric and leader of a massive global network of schools, businesses and media outlets who has millions of followers. The government accuses Gülen of being behind the coup, a charge he denies.
Experts say that Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, has followers in many branches of the Turkish state, including the military, which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) refers to as a ‘parallel state.’
In the course of investigations related to the coup attempt, over 10,000 people have been detained and over 66,000 state workers dismissed, including judges, police officers and teachers, as well as 149 generals and admirals.
Warrants have also been issued for 89 journalists and media workers, and at least 16 have been detained so far. One hundred thirty-one media outlets have been closed.
Prominent lawyer and journalist Orhan Kemal Cengiz, who worked as the legal representation for Gülen-linked newspaper Zaman, was detained from July 21 to 24. He told The Media Line that he was treated well by the police, but witnessed strong evidence of abuse.
“I saw a guy who couldn’t open his eyes because there was such large swelling. I saw him crying when they took him from being interrogated.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Fatih Yağmur was briefly detained on Monday for missing a hearing related to charges of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He told The Media Line that he also saw evidence of torture while in the holding facility he shared with soldiers accused of supporting the coup attempt.
“Inside the room the soldiers were all bruised. Their faces and eyes were all covered in blood,” he said.
Yağmur said he saw Special Forces police swearing at the inmates, who were naked and sometimes covered in their own feces, and asking them, “Shall we beat you again?”
Selim Sazak, of the Century Foundation think tank, says that of all the groups who could have pulled off such an operation, the most likely culprits are the followers of Gülen. He says there’s strong evidence that so-called ‘Gülenists’ were involved in the coup attempt.
“Some of the hard evidence is there. When you have the chief of staff of an allied country saying that the pro-coup generals tried to put him on the phone with Gülen, that’s almost smoking gun evidence,” Sazak told The Media Line.
“Ankara has a legitimate case here.”
He was referring to Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar’s testimony saying that during the coup attempt, the pro-coup soldiers who took him hostage offered to put him in touch with Gülen.
Harun Armağan, a spokesperson for the AKP, says the detentions and suspensions are normal for a government that was nearly overthrown by a faction of the armed forces.
“The attempted coup was a terrorist act targeting innocent women, men and children, the police forces, government buildings, soldiers, Parliament and hence the democracy of Turkey,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Media Line.
“If we understand the size of the tragedy and danger, [then] we [can] understand the legal process after the failed coup attempt.”
The pro-coup soldiers, bolstered by tanks, F-16s and attack helicopters, killed 179 civilians, 62 police officers and five loyalist soldiers, injured 2,100 people and raided the hotel where President Erdoğan had been staying in a short time earlier.
Gardner says “horrific abuses” were committed by pro-coup soldiers, and the government has every right to bring the perpetrators to justice, but says the purges have gone too far.
“I can’t believe that they’ve gathered evidence against 13,000 people sufficient to detain them,” he said.
“We’ve got families coming to us saying, ‘Look, we know our sons are in detention […] It’s been eight days, we don’t know where they are.’”
Gardner says there’s a danger that some of the purges are more about protecting the AKP than the state.
“Problems for the ruling AK Party are not legitimate threats you need to counter with a state of emergency.”
Gardner says there’s a dangerous anti-Gülen environment across the board in Turkey right now, and there have been attacks on lawyers and family members of those accused of being coup plotters.
“It’s a very poisonous atmosphere. Turkey’s been polarized for a long time politically. Now this is a different polarization.”
Sevgi Akarçeşme, the former editor-in-chief of Gülen-linked Today’s Zaman newspaper, describes a “demonization process.”
“All are happy to see the vilification of the movement for different reasons. Who cares about a major crackdown on journalists, teachers and even housewives as long as they are ‘Gülenists’?” she wrote to The Media Line through a direct message on Twitter.
“My friends and colleagues are under detention, probably tortured,” she wrote.
“Yesterday, the police raided my parent’s place just to find books. One is on military coups in Turkey. It was my MA thesis!”
Gardner says one of the consequences of this atmosphere is that accused coup plotters can’t find lawyers.
“Something I’ve never seen before in Turkey to this extent is that lawyers are afraid to take the cases because they’re afraid that they’ll be associated with the coup plotters, which obviously threatens the independence of lawyers, threatens fair trials.”
Gardner said many of those detained are not actually linked to the Gülen movement, including Cengiz, and all kinds of government critics are living in fear.
“Whoever criticizes the government is afraid,” lawyer and journalist Cengiz said.
Journalist Yağmur has been targeted by the government for his reporting before, and fled Turkey after being detained. He said his friends are telling him “You did the right thing by leaving the country. Don’t come back,” because they too are afraid.
Yağmur said many of the journalists being detained are simply enemies of the government, unrelated to the coup or Gülen.
“What’s happening now is a revenge operation.”
After releasing allegations of torture, Amnesty International itself was accused on Twitter by Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ of doing propaganda for the Gülenist movement, though Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek tweeted, “We’ve zero tolerance and harsh penalties for abuses. I’m sure [the] Justice Ministry will fully investigate all allegations.”