(Istanbul) – Istanbul police wrongfully detained activists and mistreated them and their lawyers around a July 20, 2023 commemoration of an Islamic State (ISIS) suicide bombing in the southeastern Turkish town of Suruç in 2015 that killed 33 young socialist activists, Human Rights Watch said today.
The police arbitrarily arrested and abused a group of about 45 demonstrators who were handing out fliers in advance of the protest, then assaulted and detained protesters on the day of the demonstration, detaining another 154 people. On both days, the police “kettled” the protesters, herding them into an enclosed space and using excessive force to prevent them from dispersing. Police officers later restricted lawyers’ access to their clients for hours at the police station, verbally and physically abusing the lawyers.
“Turkey’s authorities should promptly and thoroughly investigate the Istanbul police’s allegedly abusive and unlawful conduct toward activists and lawyers involved in the Suruç bombing commemoration,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Demonstrators have a right to protest peacefully without being attacked by the police, and those detained have a right to promptly see their lawyers without mistreatment.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed three demonstrators released from police custody and eight lawyers – including from the Istanbul Bar Association’s human rights and lawyers’ rights centers, and examined medical reports and video footage of the episode.
The police first violently intervened on July 17, when 45 activists gathered to distribute leaflets on a main street in Istanbul’s Kadıköy district to announce the July 20 Suruc commemoration. A large number of police officers surrounded the group and arrested them.
A video filmed on July 21, 2023 by Zehra Kurt, a lawyer and observer from the Istanbul Bar Association, shows approximately 40 lawyers being mistreated by police officers at Istanbul Security Directorate in Vatan Street. ©2023 Zehra Kurt
Upon the request of the Istanbul Anatolian Courthouse Terrorism and Organized Crime Prosecution Bureau, the Istanbul Anatolian 2nd Criminal Peace Court ruled that six of those arrested should be sent for pretrial detention on suspicion of violating the Law on Meetings and Demonstrations (Law No. 2911) and resisting arrest, and that three others should be released under judicial control measures and with travel bans. The rest were released. The court decision to hold people for pretrial detention for distributing leaflets, which Human Rights Watch examined, provides only abstract reasons and no concrete evidence to justify pretrial detention as a necessary and proportionate measure.
Nearly all of the detained activists who testified at the court session said that the police had used unnecessary or excessive violence while they were distributing leaflets and then surrounded them. The police, allegedly without ordering or permitting the demonstrators to disperse, then arrested them.
While Turkey’s restrictive Law on Meetings and Demonstrations is often used against people who exercise their right to peaceful protest, in general the police intervene to disperse protests without warning and detain protesters.
Sait Çetin, who was detained on July 17 and released the next day, said that the police hit him, bursting his eardrum. He showed Human Rights Watch his medical report, which confirmed the injury. He said that the police squeezed about 45 people into a very tight police circle and insulted the activists. He said that while in custody, police officers had kicked him and refused to let him see his lawyer for 11 hours.
On July 20, the police detained 154 activists, taking them to the Vatan Street Security Directorate, then released 121 after holding them in buses for up to 10 hours.
The remaining 33 were held overnight, then taken before the Istanbul Anatolian Courthouse Terrorism and Organized Crime Prosecution Bureau. The prosecutor released 29 of them without taking their testimonies and interviewed just four of them.
Two were released under judicial control orders and with foreign travel bans, and two were referred to the Istanbul Anatolia 3rd Criminal Peace Court, which sent them to pretrial detention pending completion of the investigation. The court provided no concrete justification for the measure, referring without explanation to the behavior of the demonstrators toward the police and the probability that they would tamper with evidence.
Nevruz Tuğçe Çelik, who was detained on July 20 and released the next day, told Human Rights Watch that police had intervened violently against demonstrators, surrounded them and held them in a circle, even though they had been dispersing. Çelik said that police officers beat her and handcuffed her behind her back, and that a male police officer kicked her when she was getting on the detainee bus. Her statement says that the police without authorization opened her bag, confiscated her mobile phone, and in the process broke her watch.
Çelik said that the police used tear gas against those held in the police circle in very hot weather conditions, and that as a result two demonstrators had needed urgent medical care. She said that after healthcare personnel in an ambulance had treated the demonstrators, the police detained them.
She said they were held in a bus for more than 10 hours in extremely hot weather, then held in custody at the courthouse, and she had not been allowed to contact a lawyer for 21 hours. The protesters were not given water or food and very limited bathroom access for many hours. One lawyer said that water was not provided to the detainees for over eight hours and that the conditions on the detainee buses were unsuitable as the air conditioning was not working.
Düşün Altuntaş, one of the lawyers that Human Rights Watch interviewed, said her client was detained on July 20 and told her that the police had spat in his face, used abusive language, and behaved violently toward him. She said that the police at Vatan Security Directorate did not permit the approximately 60 present lawyers to see their clients for about 9 hours, and that when lawyers insisted on their right to meet with them, the police started to beat the lawyers. Altuntaş said the police pulled her hair, kicked her, squeezed her arms, and pushed the lawyers out of the police station.
Other lawyers interviewed confirmed their mistreatment. Bilge Sayıcı said the lawyers had not been allowed to use restrooms at the police station and that the police beat the lawyers and pulled their hair while ejecting them from the police station. Human Rights Watch has seen footage showing police pushing, hitting, and expelling lawyers through a revolving door at the police station.
Another lawyer interviewed, who preferred not to be named, said that one male and two female police officers had dragged her out by her hair. The lawyer provided Human Rights Watch with her medical report, which shows signs of violence, and said she would file a formal complaint.
Lawyers from the Istanbul Bar Association’s human rights and lawyers’ rights centers were at the police station to observe detainees’ treatment and to report on any police obstruction of lawyers to represent their clients. The Istanbul Bar Association issued a media statement confirming the mistreatment of the lawyers and filed a criminal complaint against police officers for attacking lawyers.
Zehra Kurt, a lawyer from the Bar Association human rights center, said that when she was at the police station, she heard police officers call lawyers “terrorists” and use other abusive language. Kurt said that she saw police mistreat about 40 lawyers, and that some officers marched lawyers out of the station with their heads forced down while expelling them.
She said that when the police tried to surround some lawyers, they grabbed the lawyers and dragged them into the police circle. When bar association and other lawyers told the police they were committing a crime, the police ignored them.
In a July 21 statement, the Union of Turkish Bar Associations expressed concern about the police behavior and pointed out that attacks against lawyers violate their rights and freedoms. Under the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, “[g]overnments shall ensure that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference; and are able to travel and to consult with their clients freely.”
“The Istanbul police seem to have ignored all rules and regulations governing arrest and detention, endangering the people in custody as well as their lawyers,” Williamson said. “The Turkish authorities need to investigate this incident and take appropriate measures against those responsible for abuse.”