ISTANBUL // When a group of several hundred students gathered in central Istanbul last weekend to protest against the government's approach towards higher education, police officers in riot gear were waiting for them. The officers beat the students with batons and drove them away with teargas.
Although police violence is nothing unusual in Turkey, Saturday's scenes, documented by TV crews and news photographers, have caused a public uproar because the brutality displayed by officers was extraordinary even by Turkish standards. Pictures of students lying on the ground and crying out in pain while policemen beat them appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the country. Passers-by, the students, as well as several non-governmental organisations condemned the attacks by the police.
After initially defending the police action, authorities are now saying they are looking into possible misconduct by officers. Besir Atalay, the interior minister, said yesterday an investigation was under way. Seven students have asked a state prosecutor to bring charges against Huseyin Capkin, Istanbul's police chief, and other police officials. In Ankara, the opposition called on the government to suspend Mr Capkin from his post.
Several students were injured by the police officers, and a 19-year-old female student was quoted as saying that she had been pregnant for five weeks but had lost the foetus because she was beaten so severely. "Even though I told them 'Stop, don't hit me, I am pregnant,' they hit me in the stomach," the student, who was only identified by her initials OE, told Turkish media. Another student, Mirac Ekrem Efe, said he had his nose broken by a policeman.
Under its application to join the European Union, Turkey has cleaned up its dismal human rights record by strengthening civil rights, toughening laws to punish offenders, as well as by reforming police training and declaring a "no tolerance" approach towards torture and ill-treatment. But five years after the start of Ankara's EU accession talks, violence against street protesters and suspects in police custody continues, although the number of torture cases has gone down significantly, human rights activists say.
Emma Sinclair-Webb, a researcher on Turkey for Human Rights Watch, an international rights group, said: "Over the period of the last eight years, there has been a great drop in torture cases, they especially abandoned methods like the 'Palestinian hanger' and electro shocks. But there is still a very common pattern of violence."
The "Palestinian hanger" is a device to suspend suspects by the arms or wrists, a tool that used to be common in Turkish police stations only 10 years ago.
Ms Sinclair-Webb said there was still widespread abuse in police custody. Also, "the mentality of policing demonstrations is still very problematic", as the clashes in Istanbul last weekend showed.
Even critics from within the police force say that officers use force in violation of laws and regulations.
Vahit Bicak, a law professor at Turkey's police academy, dismissed the argument, often brought forward by police officers after clashes with demonstrators, that security forces had to act against protests staged without proper permission from authorities.
"One does not need any permission to stage a peaceful demonstration," Prof Bicak told the Turkish news channel NTV earlier this week. Even if force was used to protect lives or property, it had to be proportionate, he added. Police in Istanbul had clearly used disproportionate force. "There was no resistance" on the part of the demonstrators, the professor said.
Ms Sinclair-Webb said a lack of proper investigation and punishment by police superiors and by the judiciary was preventing more progress in quelling police violence. International observers, such as Ms Sinclair-Webb, and EU officials say there are incidents of stonewalling by the police during investigations by the state prosecutor, and a reluctance to hold officers to account, resulting in a culture of impunity.
The European Union, in a major report on Turkey's progress as a candidate country published last month, said a Turkish parliamentary committee had found that "none of the 35 lawsuits filed against 431 members of the Istanbul police for ill-treatment or torture resulted in a conviction" in 2009. "Only two per cent of police officers accused of ill-treatment or torture are subject to disciplinary sanctions."
Only stricter oversight can solve the problem, Ms Sinclair-Webb said. "Once the message gets through to the police that you will get punishment, cases will go down."