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Journalists and writers face harsh conditions in Turkish prisons

(WiPC/IFEX) - The following is a WiPC report on conditions in Turkish prisons:

Deaths and Ill-treatment in Turkish Prisons

March 2002

On 5 March 1999, Suleyman Yeter, Turkish journalist and trade union activist, died while under interrogation by police. He and four other staff of his newspaper, Dayanisma, had been taken to the anti-terrorist branch of the Istanbul police headquarters where they were set upon by sixteen policemen. While under questioning, Yeter was reportedly stripped and beaten, sprayed with cold water and forced to lie on ice. Yeter's colleagues testify that throughout the night of their detention, they could hear cries from the cell next door where Yeter was held. The next morning, the prosecutor reported that he was dead. Yeter was one of several detainees who had previously reported being tortured in early 1997. His allegations were under investigation at the time of his re-arrest. His colleagues believe that he may have been singled out by police for his previous torture testimony. The trial against the sixteen policemen accused of involvement in Yeter's death is still underway.

This incident is just one illustration of the brutality that is meted out to political prisoners in Turkey, including writers. International PEN has recorded hundreds of arrests of writers, journalists, editors and publishers in recent years. Although for most their treatment was relatively humane, others, such as Yeter, did not survive and there is concern that the officers involved have escaped proper prosecution.

A prominent PEN current case is that of Asiye Güzel Zeybek, a young woman who became embroiled in left-wing politics in the mid-1990s. In February 1997, she was arrested after a demonstration protesting links between the mafia and government. Charged in connection with her editorship of the Marxist Leninist Communist Party (now defunct) newspaper Isçinin Yolu (Worker's Path), she is accused under Article 168 of the Turkish Penal Code of being a member in an "illegal organisation". Over five years later, she is still on trial and yet to be sentenced. What has brought her case to the fore has been Zeybek's testimony that she was raped by eight policemen while under interrogation. The accused policemen were brought to court in November 1998, but in November 2000 it was decided to drop the case against them. Zeybek remains defiant, having published a book in prison detailing her ordeal. As Zeybek's own case drags on without conclusion, International PEN grows increasingly concerned that she is being held in denial of her right to a speedy and fair trial. It is also calling for a review of the decision to drop proceedings against the police accused of her rape.

Zeybek was one of the prisoners who found themselves caught up in a wave of prison protests, some of which led to the killings of inmates. In December 2000, an operation was underway to transfer political prisoners to new "F-type" prisons. Prisoners were concerned that the new prisons would increase the number of isolation cells and in turn this would lead to a rise in ill-treatment by prison guards. Thus, more than 1,000 inmates nationwide staged prison protests. The result was clashes between prisoners and guards. Gunfire, gas, stun-guns and explosives were used in an attempt to quell the protests. Thirty prisoners and two officers were killed as the security services rounded up and transferred the prisoners. Many more were wounded, among them Zeybek who sustained bullet wounds to her back and legs.

Another observer of these events was Nevin Berktas, imprisoned since 1994 for her membership in an organisation accused of extremist activities, for which she was sentenced to twelve and a half years. She had previously served a prison term from 1978 to 1991 for her radical political activities. In 2001, Berktas wrote a book in prison entitled The Cells, on her experiences of the F-type prison riots. In November that year, she and her publisher, Elif Camyhar, found themselves brought before the courts under Article 169 of the Penal Code for "supporting terrorists". Statements that are seen to side with the prison protests and hunger-strikes are deemed tantamount to support for terrorism. Both were found guilty. Berktas was given 45 months in addition to her existing sentence. Camyhar was sentenced to a fine. While International PEN has no position on the reasons for Berktas' twelve and a half year sentence, it is alarmed that she is to serve an additional three years and nine months in prison only for having written her account of the events in December 2000.

The new F-type prisons were already causing concern in Turkey, well before the events of December 2000. In July 2000, photographer Mehmet Özer issued a press statement condemning the new prisons, for which he has found himself before the courts. Outraged, a group of fourteen writers and artists formed the Initiative of Intellectuals and Artists, published their own condemnation of the situation, and presented themselves for prosecution in September 2001. They were duly charged under Article 169 of the Criminal Code and their first trial hearing has been set for 8 April 2002 before the Ankara State Security Court.

In her report to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Special Rapporteur on Summary, Arbitrary and Extra-Judicial Killings, Asma Jahangir, describes the state of Turkey's prisons as "critical" and refers to the "callous attitude towards … those killed during the December 2000 security operation." She recommends that the issue be addressed as a matter of urgency and that an amnesty of political prisoners be granted. She refers to the impunity that the security services enjoy and urges that mechanisms for punishing those accused of human rights abuses need to be strengthened. International PEN fully endorses Ms Jahangir's recommendations and adds its voice to calls for change as a matter of urgency.

For further information, contact the WiPC, International PEN, 9/1

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