This is an article I wrote a while ago for The Guardian’s International Development Journalism Competition. I was very proud that it was successful in being shortlisted for the competition as it’s an issue very close to my heart. I’m also glad that in some way the issue gained some public attention, even if only a little. Horrendous issues such as this go unheard of for too long in Turkey, and many other countries in the world. The article contains some graphic imagery. As Angelina Jolie has been urging more action to be carried out against sexual violence in war torn countries, I felt the need to post my article as it relates to the issue.
The rape and torture of Kurdish prisoners in Turkey are disturbingly commonplace.
“I was blindfolded, stripped naked, beaten…and they tried to put sticks up my anus. I fainted,” stated 37-year-old mother of three, Hamdiye Aslan.
Hamdiye Aslan’s alleged perpetrators were five police officers. According to a report from Amnesty International in 2003, she had been detained in Mardin Prison, south-east Turkey, for almost three months in which she was reportedly blindfolded, anally raped with a truncheon, threatened and mocked by officers.
Horrific and shocking as it may sound, activists state that Hamdiye’s case is one of many.
They say that such methods of abuse are regular practice in Turkish prisons, and have reportedly been used on many Kurdish and Alevi women to enforce fear and to humiliate. Hamdiye was told she was being arrested for sheltering the Kurdish rebel movement, the PKK; a charge she denied.
Reporting on cases of sexual abuse in Turkey is often difficult; the issue is still taboo in Turkish culture, as well as the fact that much of Turkish media don’t report on such cases as they tarnish the country’s modern and secular image. The result of this is that many injustices within Turkey, including systematic rapes carried out in prisons to maintain power over communities, go unheard by the rest of the world.
In the early hours of June 28, 1993, Şükran Esen, then aged 21, was accused of assisting the PKK by a group of gendarmes who had arrived at her house. She too denied the charges. A trial observation report by the Kurdish Human Rights Project (KHRP) states that, in an aggravated felony court in the province of Mardin, a prosecutor indicted 405 members of the Derik District Gendarmerie Command, 65 of whom were senior officers, for raping Şükran Esen.
The victim stated that on the three occasions that she was detained she was: raped vaginally by the gendarmes and their officer; given electric shocks; put inside a vehicle tyre and rolled over; subjected to high pressure jet sprays of cold water; and threatened with death. On one occasion, as a result of the sadistic sexual violence, she was finally taken to hospital whilst haemorrhaging. Esen was blindfolded throughout the ordeal and was never able to recognise her perpetrators. Although nine witnesses testified to the arrest of the victim by the gendarme, the accused not only denied committing the alleged offences, but failed to acknowledge that Şükran Esen had ever been detained. A medical report from the International Berlin Torture and Rehabilitation Centre, where Esen had undergone treatment, certified that her injuries were the result of torture.
Both the women’s cases offer examples as to why Turkey has been denied entry into the EU by the European Commission due to the country’s human rights issues. The Turkish State classifies the activities of many pro-Kurdish organisations as ‘terrorism’ because they’re viewed as damaging the state. As a result of this, there have been many cases of Kurdish women allegedly sexually abused while in custody on accusations of being associated with such organisations.
There have been reports of women and children raped with serrated objects, beaten, and forced into so-called ‘virginity tests’ by government officials.
In April this year, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan hailed the withdrawal of PKK rebels from Turkey as the end of “a dark era” and stated: “Turkey is changing its ill fortune and is entering a new phase.” However as sexual violence against women, men and children by state agents remains both common and unmitigated, this promise of a change comes with a dark cloud of doubt looming over it. It’s poignant to question whether Turkey’s idea of fighting terrorism is being used, as it has previously around the world, to undermine human rights in more concealed ways.
The Turkish State doesn’t appear to openly accept its bloody history; the most recent incident being the Uludere massacre in 2011 where Turkish warplanes bombed teenage Kurds crossing into Turkey from Iraq. As time unravels, reports of rape during the systematic ethnic cleansing of Kurdish and Alevi people in the 1937 Dersim massacre have also come to light, though remain unpublicised.
Amnesty International’s 2003 campaign, ‘End Sexual Violence against Women in Custody’ highlighted the “state’s inability to implement its own new legal code and its failure to act with due diligence when complaints are made.” Furthermore, stating that there is “a general climate of impunity for those suspected of torture in Turkey.”
Recent years have revealed that children too are subject to sexual violence in Turkish prisons. In 2012, Turkish newspaper Dicle News reported on the alleged sexual abuse and torture inflicted on Kurdish children whilst imprisoned in Pozantı Juvenile Prison in southern Turkey. The children, all between the ages of 13-17, weren’t only sexually abused by prison officers, guards and soldiers, but denied medical attention and hung from basketball hoops until close to choking as a means of torture.
“Some of our friends were raped by the ordinary prisoners dozens of times. They sometimes tried to force our trousers down. Our experiences cannot be described,” claimed 15-year-old H.K.
With the use of social networking sites, the Pozantı case was exposed. The children were moved to another prison. Their crimes: throwing stones, or as some would point out, they were Kurdish children throwing stones. The Pozantı case is not an “isolated” case, as Turkey’s ruling right-wing Justice and Development Party (AKP) was quick to trumpet to its people. The same government was also very quick to detain the journalists first to report on the Pozantı children, on accusations of being linked to the KCK; a Kurdish organisation linked to the PKK.
Human rights abuses continue to be reported with a rise in complaints by Kurdish women who’ve found the courage to speak out. However, there remain many obstacles in the way of these women getting justice. Many women don’t have much faith in either the Turkish penal system or the police, and so don’t feel that fighting against the history of sexual violence carried out by those with power in patriarchal Turkey is a war which they can prevail.
This feature was written before May 12 2013 as part of the Guardian International Development Journalism competition.