In recent weeks President Bush has given several speeches promoting Turkey as the type of democracy that Iraq and Afghanistan should strive to emulate. Mr. Bush even went so far as to state, “Turkey’s democracy is an important example for the people in the broader Middle East.” Turkey is far less repressive than many other Muslim countries. But it is a nation with such serious problems that it should not serve as a role model, even for fledgling Islamic democracies.
Torture and mistreatment are commonplace in Turkey. In 2004, citizens from all parts of the country reported that local police departments beat them while in custody. Many others reported incidents of electric shock, sexual assault, attempted drowning, and partial hanging. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture issued a report after visiting Turkey documenting, “consistent reports of electric shock…and medical evidence consistent with beatings.” The report noted that in southeastern Turkey the majority of citizens detained by the police are denied access to legal representation.
Both governmental and non-governmental organizations in Turkey have detailed many instances of recent torture. The European Commission issued a report in 2003 noting, “torture cases persist.” The Human Rights Directorate of the Office of the Prime Minister received 50 complaints of torture in the first four months of 2004. The Turkish Human Rights Association reported 692 incidents of torture or mistreatment in the first half of 2004. And the Turkish Human Rights Foundation received requests for medical treatment from 597 individuals who were abused in prisons during the first eight months of 2004.
In most cases, torture and mistreatment of Turkish citizens go unpunished. A report by the European Commission last year documented that, “numerous cases of ill-treatment including torture still continue to occur and further efforts will be required to eradicate such practice.” Torture is most common in rural areas, where police departments have little supervision.
In 2002, when Turkey sought admission to the European Union (EU), it was turned down, largely due to its human rights record. The EU cited a failure to promote “the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities.” Although President Bush maintains that Turkey can serve as a role model for other Islamic countries, the U.S. State Department has acknowledged that it is a known human rights offender. In 2003, the State Department’s Human Rights Report on Turkey concluded, “security forces reportedly killed 43 persons during the year; torture, beatings, and other abuses by security forces remained widespread….The rarity of convictions and the light sentences imposed on [the] police …for killings and torture continued to foster a climate of impunity.”
Turkey has had a longstanding battle with its Kurdish population. In the 1990s almost 400,000 Kurds were forcibly expelled from their villages in southeast Turkey by government forces. Most of the Kurds have not been able to return to their homes because the Turkish government has not made an effort to assist them. Many of their villages lack electricity, schools, and hospitals. Yet prior to their expulsion, most villages had electricity and access to a school system. When Kurds do return, government-sponsored village guards frequently beat them and steal their property. The mistreatment has resulted in domestic terrorism by the Kurdish Workers Party, which the Turkish government maintains has killed over 30,000 people.
Turkey has a poor record on civil liberties. A law adopted last year makes it a crime to insult the government. Numerous activists and writers were imprisoned in 2004. Nevin Berktas is presently serving a three-year prison sentence for writing a book critical of the prison system. Hakan Albayrak was sentenced to a fifteen-month prison sentence last month for writing a book about Turkey’s founder, Ataturk.
Discrimination against women is common. According to a report issued last year by the Turkish government, domestic abuse is widespread. The organization Human Rights Watch cited a recent study that determined that 39 percent of women have been the victims of physical abuse. The murder of a woman believed to have dishonored her family, referred to as “honor killings,” is a frequent occurrence. Typically, a family will encourage a brother to kill his sister for engaging in premarital sex or infidelity. According to the Turkish Human Rights Association, at least 40 women were the victims of “honor killings” in 2003.
The level of illiteracy is high among women. A recent report concluded that nationally, 23 percent of females are illiterate, compared to six percent of men. In rural regions, a study determined that 63 percent of women had never been to school, or were not permitted to finish their education.
President Bush’s recent praise for Turkey is undoubtedly linked to the war on terrorism. Turkey is the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, since it is a principal ally in the war on terrorism. This year, Congress granted $37 million in military aid and weapons, and the Bush administration has requested $28 million for 2006. And although the Turkish Parliament would not allow U.S. fighter planes to use an airbase near Iraq during the initial invasion, the Turkish and American governments are currently in discussions to house fighter planes at the base.
Turkey has undertaken some efforts in recent few years to become more democratic. And the Bush administration is correct to support those efforts. But Turkey still has considerable progress to make before it should be regarded as a model for the Middle East, especially for nascent democracies like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gene C. Gerard teaches American history at a small college in suburban Dallas, and is a contributing author to the forthcoming book Americana at War. His previous articles have appeared in Dissident Voice, Political Affairs Magazine, The Free Press, Intervention Magazine, The Modern Tribune, and The Palestine Chronicle. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Other Articles by Gene C. Gerard
of Civil Liberties are an American Tradition