x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

In Turkey, police are called to account

Activists praise the strong ruling in the shooting of an unarmed teenager as a departure from the country's culture of impunity.

The lack of impartial investigations into allegations of human rights abuses by Turkish security forces has drawn criticism in an EU report.
The lack of impartial investigations into allegations of human rights abuses by Turkish security forces has drawn criticism in an EU report.

ISTANBUL // Lawyers and human rights advocates in Turkey hope an unexpectedly stern court ruling against a policeman, who was sentenced to more than 16 years in prison after shooting a teenager in broad daylight, will help put an end to a culture of impunity that is one of the most serious problems holding back the country's bid to become a member of the European Union. In the light of the verdict handed down by a court in the southern city of Antalya earlier this month, police officers "better think a thousand times before drawing a gun", Munip Ermis, the lawyer of the victim's family, said in a telephone interview from Antalya last week. "This verdict is a first for Turkey." On October 27 last year, the police officer Mehmet Ergin, 34, shot and killed Cagdas Gemik, who was travelling on a motorcycle, because he did not stop at a police checkpoint. Gemik, 18, died from a bullet wound in his head. "It was just a normal police control, and they killed him," Mr Ermis said, adding that nothing in the circumstances of the incident justified the use of lethal force. He said the decision was a "signal for Turkey". Suleyman Calikusu, Ergin's lawyer, argued that the police officer had warned Gemik to stop before shooting and pointed to verdicts in similar cases where officers had received only light sentences. But the court handed down a prison sentence of 16 years and eight months, a verdict that was greeted with applause by members of the victim's family in the courtroom, newspapers reported. Ergin has been arrested while the case is sent to Turkey's court of appeals in Ankara. The Antalya verdict attracted countrywide attention because the Turkish judiciary has been very reluctant to take members of the security forces to task over their actions, even if people are hurt or killed. In a decision handed down earlier this year in the western city of Izmir, a police officer who shot a young man in circumstances similar to the ones in Antalya was given a sentence of two years and one month. But he will not go to prison. According to the Turkish Human Rights Foundation, 40 people have been killed by police since new regulations giving officers more leeway in using force were introduced two years ago. The issue has also triggered criticism from Brussels. "There is a lack of prompt, impartial and independent investigation into allegations of human rights violations by members of security forces," the EU said in a report about Turkey's progress as a candidate for membership last year. After the Antalya verdict, members of the victim's family and rights activists said they hoped it would become a landmark decision. "This decision will be an example for coming generations," Hasim Gemik, Cagdas Gemik's father, said according to news reports. "The police will not be able to kill people like Cagdas without any reason." Sebnem Korur Fincanci, the president of the Turkish rights foundation, told the Radikal newspaper she hoped the court of appeals would uphold the verdict of the Antalya court and "take a position that will strengthen the public's feeling of justice". But while the decision in Antalya has been widely applauded, some observers said it is too early to tell whether the verdict marks the beginning of a new era of stricter judicial control over the police. "We cannot really talk about a change yet," said Feray Salman, the general co-ordinator at the Joint Platform for Human Rights, an umbrella organisation of several rights groups. There was no clear sign yet that the government was willing to do something about the culture of impunity, she said in a telephone interview from Ankara last week. It is still rare for Turkish authorities to admit mistakes have been made by the police. When officers brutally beat unarmed demonstrators during rallies marking May Day in 2008, the Istanbul governor Muammer Guler defended the actions as appropriate. A year before, a police officer wearing a gas mask was filmed hitting a 60-year-old man in a restaurant. Authorities later said they were unable to identify the officer. While authorities are still slow in tackling police violence, the public in Turkey is getting more vocal about human rights violations perpetrated by the security forces, Ms Salman said. "It is much better than it was 10 years ago. The security forces are more open to criticism." There were howls of protest in the media earlier this month after an incident in an ongoing court case against prison guards who are accused of having tortured and killed an inmate. In a recent hearing, witnesses had described how the victim, the leftist activist Engine Ceber, was severely beaten in prison after being arrested. "They beat him to pulp within two minutes," one witness said. But when lawyers later wanted to look at the minutes of the hearing, they were told that the automatic recording system in the courtroom had provided only pictures, but no sound. As a result, there is no record of descriptions of brutal behaviour by the guards, an important piece of evidence. "We have the suspicion that records have been erased," the lawyer Taylan Tanay told journalists. The court said the witnesses will now be heard again in October. tseibert@thenational.ae