Turkey in 2020: A year marred by chilling human rights violations

Turkish prisons stood out as centers of human rights violations in Turkey in 2020, although some 90,000 prisoners were released as part of COVID-19 precautions. Insufficient measures against COVID-19 and prolonged imprisonments were among the violations in prisons, while Turkish citizens outside suffered from impunity, state oppression, and police violence.

Duvar English

Prisons stood out as the epicenter of Turkey's human rights violations in a recap of Turkey's human rights record during the year 2020, Deutsche Welle Turkish reported on Dec. 28. 

The Turkish parliament passed a parole law on April 15 that led to the release of 90,000 of the 300,000 prisoners being held in 355 Turkish prisons, including those convinced of organized crime, like government partner Devlet Bahçeli's close ally and mafia leader Alaattin Çakıcı. 

The parole law also led to the return of thousands of violent convicts to their residences, which in turn prompted a surge in domestic violence, according to non-governmental women's organizations.

Meanwhile, thousands of inmates in the Turkish correctional system were left behind on the grounds that they faced terrorism charges, Ankara's go-to item when accusing, prosecuting, and executing those critical of the government, including politicians and journalists.

The parole law also failed to alleviate concerns about prisoners' health amid the pandemic, as reports continued to flow in throughout the recent pandemic that prison administrations have failed to not only implement enough precautionary measures, but also to deliver healthcare to inmates.

Reports that a discharged police officer died in prison on Oct. 14 created tension regarding the treatment of prisoners in Turkey. 

Tensions further escalated when pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu revealed the widespread use of strip searches in the country.

The deputy's revelation that strip searches in prisons went so far as to qualify as sexual violence was met by Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu dubbing Gergerlioğlu a terrorist, and police in the southeastern Uşak province pressing charges against the lawmaker.

Impunity as a rights violation

The Turkish judiciary carried on its policy of impunity in 2020 as well, standing in the way of justice being served in landmark cases where the right to live was violated.

Five years after the assassination of Diyarbakır Bar Association Head Tahir Elçi the legal case started on Oct. 21, 2020. The hearing was then pushed back to March 3, 2021. 

A sign that reads "Tahir Elçi is immortal" sitting at the site of his assassination in Diyarbakır.

The case regarding the assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink has been inconclusive for 14 years, although the first indictment was prepared four months after the murder in 2007. 

The judiciary also failed to rule on the case of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan who died after getting hit in the head by a police gas canister during the 2013 Gezi protests. 

The courts did, however, acquit the police officers who fired the gas canisters that killed eight-year-old Enes Ata and 17-year-old Mahsum Mızrak in 2006.

Meanwhile, the police officer who shot and killed 23-year-old Kemal Kurkut during Newroz celebrations in 2017 was acquitted of all charges and released on Nov. 17.

Kemal Kurkut is seen running away from police officers during Newroz celebrations in 2017.

Political prisoners in Turkey

Businessman, philanthropist and human rights defender Osman Kavala spent another year in prison without any formal conviction, and despite his being acquittal of the original charges against him.

Kavala was acquitted of the charges concerning the 2013 Gezi Protests on Feb. 18, but was arrested on charges related to the 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey before his release was completed. 

Kavala was acquitted of the charges related to the coup attempt as well, but was not released as he was accused of espionage charges some 10 days before his second acquittal.

A court ruled on Kavala's continued detention on espionage charges in a Dec. 18 hearing. He has now been in prison for over 1,150 days.

The Turkish judicial system was found to be in violation of basic human rights by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2020 in the case of Selahattin Demirtaş, former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).

Former HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş.

Demirtaş's imprisonment, which has now extended past four years in duration, was politically motivated, the ECHR ruled on Dec. 22 in response to an appeal to their 2018 ruling regarding the violation of Demirtaş's rights.

Death fasts

Turkish prisons became the scene of death fasts in 2020 by prisoners who demanded fair trials, but often succumbed to them before any response or resolution.

On April 3, Grup Yorum member Helin Bölek died on the 288th day of her death fast, which she staged to demand that the performance ban on her band be lifted, and that the band members be released.

Helin Bölek

A prisoner named Mustafa Koçak died on the 297th day of his death fast in western Edirne Prison on April 24. He demanded a fair trial for his case, in which he was sentenced to life in prison as a result of an anonymous witness' testimony.

Grup Yorum's İbrahim Gökçek passed away on May 3, only a month after his fellow band member and only a few days after ending his 323-day death fast.

Lawyer Ebru Timtik died on Aug. 27, some 238 days after launching a death fast to demand a fair trial, as she too, had been convicted on the basis of an anonymous witness testimony on terrorism charges.

State oppression and police violence

The last mass demonstration permitted before the COVID-19 pandemic, the March 8 International Women's Day march in Istanbul's Taksim, became the object of brutal police intervention, as police battered and detained women.

Women are seen clashing with police on March 8, 2020.

A group of women who performed the Las Tesis protest dance against state violence in 2019 were indicted in February 2020, and police detained dozens of female demonstrators in the summer during protests against femicide in Turkey.  

Parliament passed a law in July 2020 allowing multiple bar associations in each province, a move that would diminish each office's representation in the Union of Turkish Bar Associations (TBB), and undermine their credibility. 

Lawyers who demonstrated in protest of the legislation were indicted, and bar association heads protesting in Ankara were met by police resistance.

Police detained 72 people in a series of raids in southeastern Diyarbakır on Nov. 20, including lawyers, politicians, and activists. 

Media censorship and oppression of journalists

Odatv Editor-in-chief Barış Pehlivan, News Director Barış Terkoğlu, and reporter Hülya Kılınç were detained and arrested for reporting on the funeral of a Turkish secret service agent who died in Libya in March.

Journalists Barış Terkoğlu (L) and Barış Pehlivan. 

Four journalists were arrested for reporting on the horrific case of Servet Turgut and Osman Şiban who were lynched by soldiers after being dropped from a helicopter in September, in the eastern Van province.

While Servet Turgut succumbed to the injuries inflicted on him by the soldiers, Osman Şiban was in the hospital for months to recover.

Although the two men were initially thought to have been dropped from a helicopter mid-air, Şiban revealed after recovering that they had been dropped into a crowd of soldiers who battered them.

Osman Şiban (L) and Servet Turgut.

A Turkish court also sentenced journalist Can Dündar to 27 years and six months in prison for reporting on the Turkish secret service's military aid to jihadist groups in Syria by sending them truckloads of weapons.