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Turkey: police violence must not go unpunished

Visit to Turkey

Strasbourg 08/07/2013

"All instances of excessive use of force by the police must be fully investigated and adequately punished" said Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights at the end of a five day visit to Istanbul and Ankara, during which he discussed the Gezi Park events and other human rights issues. The Commissioner recalled that, according to the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights, the failure to effectively investigate the misconduct of security forces was a human rights violation in itself, and that Turkey had been condemned on numerous occasions by the Court precisely for this reason.

The Commissioner had received serious allegations of human rights violations committed by law enforcement forces against demonstrators, backed up by witness accounts, photos, videos, forensic evidence, as well as the number of deaths and injuries over the course of the events. Most of these reports concerned excessive and improper use of tear gas, and ill-treatment by police at the time of apprehension. On the other hand, members of the government and security forces considered that the use of force had been proportionate in view of the actions of marginal groups hijacking the demonstrations, except for isolated incidents which are under investigation. 

"The only way to bridge this gap in perceptions, and to allow the healing process Turkey needs, is to conduct independent, impartial, and effective investigations with the involvement of victims into all allegations of misconduct by security forces, in accordance with the clear guidelines of the Strasbourg Court. Given Turkey's track record before the Court, this requires a novel approach and determination by all relevant actors" said the Commissioner. 

The Commissioner added that those demonstrators who resorted to violence must obviously also face the consequences of their actions, but stressed that it must be the absolute priority of every democratic state to safeguard the trust of their citizens in law enforcement by combating impunity. 

The Commissioner also noted that members of certain professional groups, such as doctors, lawyers, academics, teachers, media professionals, expressed fear of intimidation, as well as of administrative and judicial measures against them as a result of their non-violent actions during the protests. The Commissioner urged the Turkish authorities to allay these fears as a matter of urgency and to ensure that any perception of reprisals is averted. 

The Commissioner also stated that there were certain shortcomings both in the Turkish legislation concerning the right to assembly and the role of law enforcement, and its application by the competent authorities. "The legislation and practice puts too much emphasis on the lawfulness of demonstrations, as opposed to their peacefulness, contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights" stated the Commissioner, adding that the overwhelming majority of demonstrators in the Gezi Park events, given the total participation of 2.5 million, had thankfully been peaceful. 

Underlining the crucial role of the judiciary in the coming months, the Commissioner welcomed the fact that only a relatively small number of detention decisions had been taken in the context of the Gezi events. "This suggests that the Turkish government's reform efforts are starting to bear fruit. The momentous decisions of the Turkish Constitutional Court in the past week are another testimony to the internalisation of the European standards by the Turkish judiciary". 

The Commissioner also referred to his meetings with the newly established Ombudsman Office and the Turkish Human Rights Institution, stating that the latest events provided a unique opportunity for these institutions to establish their credibility in the eyes of the Turkish public. He stressed that citizens with grievances should also use the Ombudsman Office for redress, including for actions of the security forces during demonstrations.