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State Department 2019 Human Rights Report on Turkey

2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Turkey

Executive Summary

Turkey is a constitutional republic with an executive presidential system and a 600-seat parliament. The unicameral parliament (the Grand National Assembly) exercises legislative authority. In presidential and parliamentary elections in 2018, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers expressed concern regarding restrictions on media reporting and the campaign environment that restricted the ability of opposition candidates, including the jailing of a presidential candidate at the time, to compete on an equal basis and campaign freely. In March municipal elections, Council of Europe observers expressed similar concerns about limitations on freedom of expression, particularly for the media, and about a legal framework that contributed to an unequal campaign environment. The observers also criticized the Supreme Electoral Council’s decision to rerun the Istanbul mayoral race in June and several decisions replacing winning opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) candidates with second-place governing-party candidates.

The National Police and Jandarma, under the control of the Ministry of Interior, are responsible for security in urban areas and rural and border areas respectively. The military has overall responsibility for border control and external security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over law enforcement, but mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption remained inadequate, and impunity remained a problem.

Under broad antiterror legislation the government restricted fundamental freedoms and compromised the rule of law. Since the 2016 coup attempt, authorities have dismissed or suspended more than 45,000 police and military personnel and more than 130,000 civil servants, dismissed one-third of the judiciary, arrested or imprisoned more than 80,000 citizens, and closed more than 1,500 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on terrorism-related grounds, primarily for alleged ties to the movement of cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accuses of masterminding the coup attempt, and designated by the government as the leader of the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” (“FETO”).

Significant human rights issues included: reports of arbitrary killings; suspicious deaths of persons in custody; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention of tens of thousands of persons, including former opposition members of parliament, lawyers, journalists, foreign citizens, and employees of the U.S. Mission, for purported ties to “terrorist” groups or peaceful legitimate speech; the existence of political prisoners, including elected officials and academics; significant problems with judicial independence; severe restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, and the internet, including violence and threats of violence against journalists, closure of media outlets, and unjustified arrests or criminal prosecution of journalists and others for criticizing government policies or officials, censorship, site blocking and the existence of criminal libel laws; severe restriction of freedoms of assembly, association, and movement; some cases of refoulement of refugees; and violence against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons and members of other minorities.

The government took limited steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish members of the security forces and other officials accused of human rights abuses; impunity remained a problem.

Clashes between security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist organization and its affiliates continued, although at a reduced level compared with previous years, and resulted in the injury or death of security forces, PKK terrorists, and civilians. The government did not release information on efforts to investigate or prosecute personnel for wrongful or inadvertent deaths of civilians linked to counter-PKK operations.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:


There were credible allegations that the government contributed to civilian deaths in connection with its fight against the terrorist PKK organization in the southeast, although at a markedly reduced level compared with previous years (see section 1.g.). The terrorist group PKK continued to target civilians in its attacks; the government continued to work to block such attacks.

According to the International Crisis Group, in the first 11 months of the year, 26 civilians, 82 security force members, and 343 PKK militants were killed in eastern and southeastern provinces in PKK-related clashes. Human rights groups stated the government took insufficient measures to protect civilian lives in its fight with the PKK in the southeast. In one such incident in August, government soldiers in a helicopter opened fire in the border province of Hakkari, killing 14-year-old Vedat Ekinci and wounding another person.

The PKK continued its nationwide campaign of attacks on government security forces and, in some cases, civilians. On June 11, PKK terrorists killed two construction workers at a military outpost construction site in Yuksekova, Hakkari. On September 13 in Diyarbakir, PKK terrorists allegedly detonated an improvised explosive device (IED) that killed seven civilians and wounded nine.

There were reports that Jandarma forces, a rural police force that at times is called upon to play a paramilitary role and sometimes act as border guards, shot at asylum seekers of Syrian and other nationalities attempting to cross the border, resulting in civilian killings or injuries. There were credible reports that children were among the asylum seekers killed.

There were credible reports that the country’s military operations outside its borders led to the deaths of civilians. On June 27, four Iraqi civilians were reportedly killed by Turkish air strikes in northern Iraq as part of the Turkish military’s counter-PKK Operation Claw.

In October Turkish armed forces launched Operation Peace Spring in Syria’s northern border region. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch reported claims from local and regional human rights activists and media organizations that Turkish forces and Turkish-supported armed groups caused civilian casualties, including attacks on civilian infrastructure, attacks on residential areas, and some instances of civilian targeting, as well as some extrajudicial killings, and looting and property seizures in areas newly under Turkish control. The government rejected these reports but acknowledged the need for investigations and accountability related to such reports and relayed that the Turkish-supported Syrian National Army had established mechanisms for investigation and discipline. The government stated that the military took care to avoid civilian casualties throughout the operation.

According to the Washington Post and various human rights groups, citing information from multiple sources, Turkey-supported armed group Ahrar al-Sharqiya ambushed the October 12 convoy of Kurdish politician and secretary general of the Future Syria political party, Hevrin Khalaf, killing Khalaf and her driver. In separate incidents in the same area, Ahrar al-Sharqiya allegedly killed other Syrian civilians, including at a hastily established checkpoint.

Reports of civilian casualties differed. As of October the Kurd-led and YPG-affiliated administration’s health authority in northeast Syria alleged that at least 218 civilians had been killed during the Turkish offensive. At the same time, Turkish authorities reported that 18 civilians had died, including an infant, and 150 had been injured in Turkey, as a result of mortar attacks they attributed to YPG forces in Syria. Turkish authorities also reported civilian casualties in Turkish-controlled parts of Syria in vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attacks they attributed to the YPG. (For more information see the Country Reports on Human Rights for Syria.)

Within Turkey, human rights groups documented several suspicious deaths of detainees in official custody, although reported numbers varied among organizations. The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT) reported 38 suspicious deaths in prison related to illness, suicide, violence, or other reasons. In April, Zaki Hasan, arrested on charges of spying for the United Arab Emirates and who authorities connected with the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was reported to have committed suicide in Silivri Prison. Family members disputed these claims and alleged an autopsy done by the public prosecutor in Egypt revealed evidence of torture resulting in death.

By law National Intelligence Organization (MIT) members are immune from prosecution, and other security officials involved in fighting terror are also granted immunity from prosecution, making it harder for prosecutors to investigate extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses by requiring that they obtain permission from both military and civilian leadership prior to pursuing prosecution.

The law authorizes the Ombudsman Institution, the National Human Rights and Equality Institution (NHREI), prosecutors’ offices, criminal courts, and parliament’s Human Rights Commission to investigate reports of security force killings, torture, or mistreatment, excessive use of force, and other abuses. Civil courts, however, remained the main recourse to prevent impunity. National and international human rights organizations reported credible evidence of torture and inhuman treatment, particularly of detainees in custody, asserting that authorities took insufficient action against abuses. The government did not release information on its efforts to address abuse through disciplinary action and training. In some cases it was alleged that officials sometimes countersued or intimidated individuals who made allegations of abuse in civil courts.


Domestic and international human rights groups reported disappearances during the year, some of which these groups alleged were politically motivated. HDP member of parliament Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu reported 28 individuals disappeared or were the victims of politically motivated kidnapping attempts in the first seven months of the year. In August several opposition political party members noted via social media that four of six individuals disappeared around the same time in February, whom authorities suspected of having links with the Gulen movement, had been found after the Ankara Antiterror Branch Office called their families to inform them that the individuals were in police custody. They included Erkan Irmak (reported missing February 16), Salim Zeybek (reported missing February 21), Ozgur Kaya (reported missing on February 13), and Mikail Ugan (reported missing on February 13). In November Mustafa Yilmaz (reported missing on February 19) and Gokhan Turkmen (reported missing February 7) were “found” in Ankara. Eyewitness reports in February alleged that approximately 40 plainclothes police officers in Ankara abducted several of the men and took them away in an unmarked van. The government declined to provide information on efforts to prevent, investigate, and punish such acts.


The constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, but domestic and international rights groups reported that some police officers, prison authorities, and military and intelligence units employed the practices. Domestic human rights organizations, the Ankara Bar Association (ABA), political opposition figures, international human rights groups, and others reported that government agents engaged in threats, mistreatment, and possible torture of some persons while in custody. In late May public reports alleged that as many as 100 persons, including former members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed under the 2016-18 state of emergency decrees due to suspected ties to the Gulen movement, were mistreated or tortured while in police custody. The ABA released a report that detailed its interviews with alleged victims. Of the six detainees the ABA interviewed, five reported police authorities tortured them. According to their testimonies, authorities blindfolded them and made them kneel, dragged them across a room, hit them on the head and body with a baton, and threatened that unless they “talked,” batons would be inserted into their rectums. The Turkish National Police denied the claims.

In February 2018 the UN special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, expressed serious concerns about the rising allegations of torture and other mistreatment in Turkish police custody. Melzer said he was alarmed by allegations that large numbers of individuals suspected of links to the Gulen movement or PKK were exposed to brutal interrogation techniques aimed at extracting forced confessions or coercing detainees to incriminate others. Reported abuse included severe beatings, electrical shocks, exposure to icy water, sleep deprivation, threats, insults, and sexual assault. The special rapporteur stated authorities appeared not to have taken any serious measures to investigate these allegations or to hold perpetrators accountable.

In Van three Kurdish minors between the ages of 14 and 17 said they were subjected to torture while in police custody in February. The youth told the Van Bar Association that police beat them with batons, kicked them in the head, and forced their heads into toilet bowls. On September 15, media reported the prosecutor in the case asked the Van governorship for permission to investigate 66 police officers implicated in the complaint. The governorate denied the request, stating that the officers “used proportionate force” against the victims.

Human rights groups also reported torture and mistreatment of persons in police custody. Reports indicated that police abused detainees outside police station premises and that mistreatment and alleged torture was more prevalent in some police facilities in parts of the southeast, including Sanliurfa and Van. The Human Rights Association (HRA) reported that during the first six months of the year, it received 65 complaints that alleged torture or inhuman treatment in the east and southeast regions. The HRA also reported that intimidation and shaming of detainees by police were common and that victims hesitated to report abuse due to fear of reprisal. The HRA reported separately that in the first 11 months of the year, it received 840 complaints of abuse by security forces, including 422 complaints alleging torture and inhuman treatment. In December the minister of interior reported the ministry had received 31 complaints in 2018 alleging abuse while in custody.

The government asserted that it followed a “zero tolerance” policy for torture. Human Rights Watch (HRW) maintained, however, that it was “not aware of any serious measures that have been taken to investigate credible allegations of torture.” In its World Report 2018, HRW stated: “Cases of torture and ill-treatment in police custody were widely reported through 2017, especially by individuals detained under the antiterror law, marking a reverse in long-standing progress, despite the government’s stated policy of zero tolerance for torture. There were widespread reports of police beating detainees, subjecting them to prolonged stress positions and threats of rape, threats to lawyers, and interference with medical examinations.” According to 2018 Ministry of Justice statistics, the government opened 2,196 investigations related to allegations of abuse. Of those, 1,035 resulted in nonprosecution, 766 resulted in criminal cases, and 395 in other decisions. The government did not release data on its investigations into alleged torture. Human rights groups asserted that individuals with alleged affiliation with the PKK or the Gulen movement were more likely to be subjected to harsh treatment.

A May report by the Sanliurfa Bar Association alleged that officials tortured 54 men, women, and children in Halfeti, Sanliurfa Province, on May 18. The report asserted the individuals were subjected to torture in detention following the death of a police officer in the town.

Some military conscripts endured severe hazing, physical abuse, and torture that sometimes resulted in death or suicide. The Association for Suspicious Military Deaths and Victims reported there were 202 suspicious deaths between 2012 and 2015, with the numbers decreasing each year during that period. The HRA and HRFT reported at least 17 deaths as suspicious deaths during the year. In July the HRA reported a Kurdish soldier serving in Adapazari was severely beaten by other soldiers in his brigade because of his ethnic identity.


Prisons generally met the UN special rapporteur’s standards for physical conditions (i.e., infrastructure and basic equipment), with the notable exception of problems with overcrowding (particularly following the mass detentions after the 2016 coup attempt) that resulted in increased inmate demand for healthcare with fewer resources available to meet inmate needs. This year the government allocated funding for additional prisons.

Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding remained a significant problem. According to the Justice Ministry, as of November the country had 353 prisons with a 218,950-inmate capacity and an estimated total inmate population of 286,000. Although no official figures were available, observers estimated the government held 3,000 inmates in solitary confinement during the year. The use of solitary confinement rose, and some observers assessed it contributed to an increase in the suicide rate in prisons, although official figures were not available.

If separate prison facilities were not available, minors were held in separate sections within separate male and female adult prisons. Children younger than six years of age are allowed to stay with their incarcerated mothers. The Human Rights Association estimated that, as of December, at least 780 children were being held with their mothers. Pretrial detainees were held in the same facilities as convicted prisoners.

The government did not release data on inmate deaths due to physical conditions or actions of staff members. According to a September report by a local media outlet, 14 inmates died in an eight-month period at an Izmir prison. The report alleged that overcrowding and lack of proper hygiene and nutrition led to the outbreak of an epidemic that resulted in the quarantine of one ward.

Human rights organizations asserted that prisoners frequently lacked adequate access to potable water, proper heating, ventilation, lighting, food, and health services. In September a member of parliament’s Commission for Detainee and Convict Rights affirmed that prisoners with whom he met complained of these problems.

A Ministry of Justice Prison and Correctional Facilities official reported to parliament that as of September, more than 1,300 health workers were serving a prison population of 286,000. Of these, there were eight medical doctors, 65 dentists, and 805 psychologists. Human rights associations expressed serious concern regarding the inadequate provision of health care to prisoners, particularly the insufficient number of prison doctors. According to Human Rights Association statistics, in December there were 1,334 sick prisoners in the country’s prisons; 457 of them were in serious condition.

Reports by human rights organizations suggested that some doctors would not sign their names to medical reports alleging torture due to fear of reprisal. As a result, victims were often unable to get medical documentation that would help prove their claims.

Chief prosecutors have discretion, particularly under the wide-ranging counterterrorism law, to keep prisoners whom they deem dangerous to public security in pretrial detention, regardless of medical reports documenting serious illness.

Administration: Authorities at times investigated credible allegations of abuse and inhuman or degrading conditions but generally did not document the results of such investigations in a publicly accessible manner or disclose publicly whether actions were taken to hold perpetrators accountable. The government did not release data on investigations (both criminal and administrative) of alleged prison violence or mistreatment. Some human rights activists reported that prisoners and detainees were sometimes arbitrarily denied access to family members and lawyers. There was at least one report of prison authorities denying access to religious observance.

Independent Monitoring: The government allowed prison visits by some observers, including parliamentarians. The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) visited the country in May and interviewed a large number of prisoners at various sites. As of December the government had not approved the public release of the CPT report and findings.

The government did not allow NGOs to monitor prisons. The Civil Society Association in the Penal System published a report on prison conditions in January, based on information provided by parliamentarians, correspondence with inmates, lawyers, inmates’ family members, and press reports.


The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of arrest or detention in court, but numerous credible reports indicated the government did not always observe these requirements.

Human rights groups noted that, following the 2016 coup attempt, authorities continued to detain, arrest, and try hundreds of thousands of individuals for alleged ties to the Gulen movement or the PKK, often with questionable evidentiary standards and without the full due process guaranteed under law (see section 2.a.). On the three-year anniversary of the July 15 coup attempt, the government announced that 540,000 individuals had been detained since the coup attempt on grounds of alleged affiliation or connection with the Gulen movement. The Ministry of Justice reported in September that since July 2016, the government had convicted nearly 30,000 individuals on charges related to the coup attempt or ties to the Gulen movement. It had also opened more than 150,000 secret investigations related to the coup attempt. Approximately 70,000 cases were pending trial. A majority of the individuals were reportedly detained for alleged terror-related crimes, including membership in and propagandizing for the Gulen movement or the PKK. Domestic and international legal and human rights experts questioned the quality of evidence presented by prosecutors in such cases, criticized the judicial process, asserted that the judiciary lacked impartiality, and said defendants were sometimes denied access to the evidence underlying the accusations against them (see section 1.e., Trial Procedures).

The courts in some cases applied the law unevenly, with legal critics and rights activists asserting court and prosecutor decisions were sometimes subject to executive interference. In May an Ankara court acquitted a high-ranking member of the armed forces after he was arrested for alleged ties to the Gulen movement. In its decision, the court justified the acquittal because the burden of proof was not met. Critics pointed out that earlier in the year, authorities arrested 39 others on similar charges who were not acquitted.

The government acknowledged problems in the judicial sector and in October launched a Judicial Reform Strategy designed to strengthen the independence of the judiciary while fostering more transparency, efficiency, and uniformity in legal procedures.


The law requires that prosecutors issue warrants for arrests, unless the suspect is detained while committing a crime. The period for arraignment may be extended for up to four days. Formal arrest is a measure, separate from detention, which means a suspect is to be held in jail until and unless released by a subsequent court order. For crimes that carry potential prison sentences of fewer than three years’ imprisonment, a judge may release the accused after arraignment upon receipt of an appropriate assurance, such as bail. For more serious crimes, the judge may either release the defendant on his or her own recognizance or hold the defendant in custody (arrest) prior to trial if there are specific facts indicating the suspect may flee, attempt to destroy evidence, or attempt to pressure or tamper with witnesses or victims. Judges often kept suspects in pretrial detention without articulating a clear justification for doing so.

While the law generally provides detainees the right to immediate access to an attorney at any time, it allows prosecutors to deny such access for up to 24 hours. In criminal cases the law also requires that the government provide indigent detainees with a public attorney if they request one. In cases where the potential prison sentence for conviction is more than five years’ imprisonment or where the defendant is a child or a person with disabilities, a defense attorney is appointed, even absent a request from the defendant. Human rights observers noted that in most cases authorities provided an attorney if a defendant could not afford one.

Under antiterror legislation adopted in 2018, the government may detain without charge (or appearance before a judge) a suspect for 48 hours for “individual” offenses and 96 hours for “collective” offenses. These periods may be extended twice with the approval of a judge, amounting to six days for “individual” and 12 days for “collective” offenses. Under the previous state of emergency law, authorities could detain persons without charge for up to 14 days. Human rights organizations raised concerns that police authority to hold individuals for up to 12 days without charge increased the risk of mistreatment and torture. During the year there were numerous accounts of persons, including foreign citizens, held in detention beyond 12 days awaiting formal charges. For example, child rights activist Yigit Aksakoglu was held without charge for four months before prosecutors named him in part of the larger March indictment for those involved in the 2013 Gezi Park protests. According to media reports, more than 50,000 people were in pretrial detention in the country.

The law gives prosecutors the right to suspend lawyer-client privilege and to observe and record conversations between accused persons and their legal counsel. Bar associations reported that detainees occasionally had difficulty gaining immediate access to lawyers, both because government decrees restricted lawyers’ access to detainees and prisons–especially for those attorneys not appointed by the state–and because many lawyers were reluctant to defend individuals the government accused of ties to the 2016 coup attempt. The Human Rights Joint Platform reported the renewed 24-hour attorney access restriction was arbitrarily applied. The HRA reported that in terrorism-related cases, authorities often did not inform defense attorneys of the details of detentions within the first 24 hours, as stipulated by law. It also reported that attorneys’ access to the case files for their clients was limited for weeks or months pending preparations of indictments, hampering their ability to defend their clients.

Private attorneys and human rights monitors reported irregular implementation of laws protecting the right to a fair trial, particularly with respect to attorney access. In April Human Rights Watch reported authorities frequently denied detainees access to an attorney in terrorism-related cases until security forces had interrogated the alleged suspect.

Some lawyers stated they were hesitant to take cases, particularly those of suspects accused of PKK or Gulen movement ties, because of fear of government reprisal, including prosecution. Government intimidation of defense lawyers also at times involved nonterror cases. International NGO Freedom House in its 2018 Freedom in the World report stated, “In many cases, lawyers defending those accused of terrorism offenses were arrested themselves.” According to an April statement by the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, since 2016 authorities had prosecuted 1,546 lawyers, arrested nearly 600, and sentenced 274 to lengthy prison terms. This practice disproportionately affected access to legal representation in the southeast, where accusations of affiliation with the PKK were frequent and population density of lawyers was low.

Arbitrary Arrest: Although the law prohibits holding a suspect arbitrarily or secretly, there were numerous reports that the government did not observe these prohibitions. Human rights groups alleged that in areas under curfew or in “special security zones,” security forces detained citizens without official record, leaving detainees at greater risk of arbitrary abuse. In June the Sanliurfa Bar Association announced officials at the Sanliurfa Provincial Security Directorate held a 15-year-old girl along