Turkey’s Hidden Shame


Rageh Omaar: Amnesty International’s 2008 report on human rights states that allegations of torture and other ill treatments and the use of excessive force by law enforcement officials persist in Turkey.  This despite an overt expression of zero tolerance for torture by the Turkish government since 2002.  Kurdish-born human rights lawyer Eren Keskin has spent the last decade taking on cases of alleged torture and rape of women while in custody, a task that has brought her into direct conflict with Turkish authorities and resulted in her own arrest and imprisonment.  In the early days, Eren’s clients were nearly all Kurdish women, but now a growing number of women from across Turkey accuse the police of sexual crimes and turn to Eren for help.  Yet despite bringing hundreds of cases to court, Eren has yet to secure a conviction.  “Turkey’s Hidden Shame” follows Eren in her work.  It’s a disturbing film containing some shocking and graphically described claims of torture and sexual abuse.  Filmmaker Julia Rooke tried to get comments and responses form the Turkish authorities during this production, but nothing was forthcoming.  Here’s “Turkey’s Hidden Shame.”

Eren Keskin: I’m Eren Keskin.  I’m a human rights lawyer.  For 11 years I’ve been giving free legal aid to the women who are subjected to sexual torture in custody.  I was sent to jail.  People have threatened me and tried to kill me.  I’ve faced many difficulties and many threats, but I have never been disrespected.

Voiceover: Eren Keskin is Turkey’s most controversial lawyer.  She was sentenced to three years in jail in 1995 for an article she had written about the Kurdish conflict.  But her Kurdish journey began many years earlier when she was just fourteen.

Eren Keskin: My family was at the seaside.  My father’s cousin was there.  He was a bit left wing.  He said to me, “You’re a clever girl, come with me.  I’ll tell you the truth about our family.”  We swam away from everyone.  Then he said, “We are Kurds.”  I didn’t really know what he meant.

Voiceover: This is Eren being thrown into jail.  Her fellow inmates were women suspected of belonging to the PKK, the illegal Kurdish guerrilla organization, fighting for autonomy in southeastern Turkey.  These were among the darkest days of the conflict in which thousands were killed on both sides.  By the time she was in jail, Eren had no doubt as to what being Kurdish could mean.  Now she was to discover the risks faced by some Kurdish women.

Eren Keskin: One day we were pacing up and down in jail.  One of the women said, “Did you know I was raped?”  “Is that why you’ve been so distant with me?”  We started talking.  I learnt that all the women in jail, without exception, had been sexually harassed and some had been raped.

Voiceover: Eren was released after six months.

Eren Keskin: When I got out of prison, we followed this up.  We decided to give free legal aid to women who’d been sexually tortured by the security forces for both political and non-political reasons.

Voiceover: The decision to represent women who claim to be victims of sexual torture would plunge Eren into a battle for justice.  She’d be taking on Turkey’s powerful military and the police.  Today Eren says she gets between twenty and thirty new cases each year.  Most refuse to speak about their ordeal, but Fatma Tokmak wanted us to know her story.  Twelve years ago, she was one of Eren’s first clients.  She’d been arrested with her son Azad, who was only three years old.  She was accused of being a PKK fighter, the charge she denies.  She says the police held them in custody for fifteen days and tortured both of them.  Fatma finds it difficult to describe what happened and asked Eren to speak for her.

Eren Keskin: They covered your eyes.  You were stripped naked and beaten.  You were harassed and threatened with rape.  Electric shocks.  Hooks.  All these things were inflicted on you.  Azad was also stripped naked.  They forced him to touch you.  Perhaps this was the worst thing.  They burnt his back and hands with cigarettes.  Were any other methods used?

Fatma Tokmak: That’s what they did.

Voiceover: After ten years in jail, Fatma was released on parole and finally reunited with Azad.  She discovered the child badly damaged by his experiences.

Fatma Tokmak: He’s becoming obese. He eats lots of food.  He can’t express himself.  He’s moody.  He has friends at school but never goes out.  He just wants to stay with me.

Voiceover: Two reports documented Azad’s torture.  Then aged five, he was diagnosed with the Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.  Eren took legal action against the police.  But in Turkey criminal courts are not obliged to accept independent medical reports, so Azad’s report was referred to a branch of the Justice Ministry, the State Forensic Institute.  Such referrals often happen when the police and security services are accused of torture or sexual crimes.  Eren’s suspicion was confirmed when the institute published this verdict.

Eren Keskin: It said the marks on Azad’s hands and back were indeed cigarette burns.  But it couldn’t say when they were made.  Was it while he was detained or at another time?

Voiceover: The doubt cast over the independent report allowed the judge to dismiss the case.  To this day, no one has been arrested.  Fatma and Azad are still hoping for justice, but not in Turkey.  The case is now at the European Court of Human Rights, but even if they win, the Turkish government will only pay a token amount of compensation.

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Voiceover: This is Gülbahar Gündüz.  Five years ago, in the center of Istanbul, she was abducted in broad daylight.  Gülbahar was head of the women’s branch of an official Kurdish political party.  It was calling for peace talks and amnesty for PKK guerrillas — terrorists in the eyes of the Turkish government.  The kidnappers told her not to go on with her political work . . . and then raped her.

Gülbahar Gündüz: It was a quiet Saturday morning.  There was a park nearby.  I sensed something and turned around.  They covered my face and put me in the car.  Because I was absorbed in my phone call, they could drive beside me with the door open.  They laid me on the floor and covered my eyes.  They tied my arms behind my back.  They stubbed cigarettes out on my face.  I wanted to faint but I couldn’t.  Normally when I feel pain, I pass out.  When they started raping me I wanted to faint.  Let them do it while I was unconscious.  I’d reached that point.  I didn’t want to be awake.

Voiceover: Gülbahar’s forensic reports were accepted by the court as proof of torture, unlike the case of Azad, but she hadn’t seen her attackers’ faces, so she couldn’t identify them.

Eren Keskin: The police and gendarmes kidnap and torture, but you don’t know who they are.  The state investigated, that’s their duty.  Because of the state’s own policy on torture, the file is still on the public prosecutor’s shelf though five years have passed.  Next week I’ll go and see the public prosecutor and ask him how much longer he plans to sit on this file.

Voiceover: Gülbahar, like Eren, is convinced that the abduction bears all the hallmarks of Turkey’s anti-terror branch.  Today, along with Fatma and Azad, she’s placed her hopes in the European Court of Human Rights.  So far, Eren has won seven of these cases, and she’s confident of winning more.

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Voiceover: Most lawyers expect the police and public prosecutors to convict criminals.  In Turkey, Eren finds some of them are trying to put her behind bars.  She’s been charged with insulting the state, security forces, and courts.

Eren Keskin: More than 200 cases have now been filed against me.  The former military chief of staff, General Yaşar Büyükanıt, has made a criminal complaint against me.  I said the military are the biggest obstacle to Turkish democracy.  That was the main thing that made them cross.  Now I’ve got my make-up on.  I’ll get dressed and go to court to defend myself.

Voiceover: Eren currently has 21 active cases against her.  She’s about to defend herself for the second time this week.  She seems surprisingly confident, given she faces a possible six-month jail sentence.  The hearing today, underneath this noisy flyover, was started by the chief of police of İskenderun, a popular tourist town on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

Eren Keskin: I acted for two young women from İskenderun who were sexually abused.  I wrote a report about them.  A lawsuit was filed against me because my report “insulted the state security forces.”  Now I’ll give a statement about this case.

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Voiceover: Eren’s enemies accuse her of inciting separatism.  Others say she belongs to the PKK.  She denies both charges.  We asked her detractors to have their say, but the former Military Chief of Staff, the Justice Minister, an MP, and even journalists all declined our invitation.

Eren Keskin: They have to get used to it.  If you ignore an issue, you can’t discuss it or find a solution.  I believe Kurds and Turks can live together, even if they use the word “Kurdistan.”

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Voiceover: This report from the Prime Minister’s office shows that allegations of torture have more than doubled since 2007.  And as tensions grow in the southeast, Eren has new cases.

Eren Keskin: We’ve heard about new cases of sexual abuse in the conflict area.  I’m going to Diyarbakır and Mardin.  I’ll take statements form women who’ve been taken into custody.

Voiceover: In Turkey today, soldiers, policemen, and members of the security forces are occasionally convicted of torture, but almost never of sexual crimes.  Their critics say that they are protected by colleagues, superiors, and members of the judiciary and that this culture of torture is the hidden shame of Turkey.

This program was broadcast by Al Jazeera on 10 February 2008.  The text above is a partial transcript of the program.