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Rights Group: Gays in Turkey Face Climate of Violence


U.S.-based Human Rights Watch this week published a damning report on the treatment of gay people in Turkey. Turkey is one of the few Muslim countries in which homosexuality is legal. But the report said there was a crisis, citing an alarming level of public attacks and police harassment. This comes as the country's gay rights movement has become increasingly stronger, particularly in Turkey's largest city Istanbul, from where Dorian Jones sends us this report.

"We are in front of my boyfriend's apartment building, and we were coming here with a friend," recalled Turkey resident Emre Can. "Two men followed us. Apparently they saw us kissing so they were offended by that, somehow. They attacked us right where are we standing now. They threw a full beer bottle at us and yelling and screaming, all sorts of slurs, so now I do feel kind of edgy when I go outside."

Emre Can's experience is an all too frequent occurrence for gay people living in Istanbul. According to a report published by U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, Turkey's gay community lives in a climate of violence.

But as Bora Bengusin from the Istanbul gay rights group Lambda explains, it is not only attacks by the public that pose a threat.

"More than 12 police officers came to our office," he noted. "They did not find anything which is a criminal offense. But despite this fact, they took our documents about our financial systems and membership systems."

The police accuse Lambda of using its premises for prostitution, because transvestites and transsexuals were seen visiting the center.

These raids, however, are the least of Lambda's worries.

Istanbul's governor has started proceedings to have the group closed down for violating public morality. Turkey's loosely worded laws on decency are frequently used by the authorities to crack down on gay groups.

Bora Bengusin blames the recent crackdown on the higher profile gays have obtained in Turkey.

"As much as we try to be more visible, pressures over us increase at the same level," he added. "If we live closed behind the doors nobody says anything to us. If you want some rights, if you want the state to recognize us, our sexual orientation and our gender identities then pressure increases at the same level. They don't want us to be visible in the society and in the streets in the public area."

Earlier this month in Ankara, the gay society held a meeting to tackle the problem of anti-gay attitudes Turkey. The head of Turkey's parliamentary human rights commission attended, despite strong condemnation from the religious media.

Though their attendance was key, Human Rights Watch's Scott Long, who spent three years compiling a report on the situation facing gays, says the government has to do more.

"There is a systematic pattern of violence by the police and in the communities in the family, gay men face and transgender people face violence at every hand," he said. "There is still vaguely written laws to arrest and harass anyone they chose. In Ankara the capital, there is a special police team called Balios which means hammer, and again and again transgender people told us that they've been beaten, that they've been raped by this police team and it's goal is to clean the center of the city of transgender people. And most conspicuous of all, the government does not intervene to stop it."

The Turkish security forces have strongly denied such charges. But it is not difficult to find accusations of police brutality from the country's transsexual and transvestite community.

In one of Istanbul's recently opened gay bars, transexual Gul, 50, sits drinking tea. She is a well known figure in the city's transsexual transvestite community. Gul, whose home was recently raided by the police, says life is becoming increasingly difficult for people like her.

"On the night of May 15 I heard a banging on my door when I opened the door a dozen armed police with batons and shields stormed in. They searched my house without a warrant and took me to the police station. I wasn't even allowed to speak to my lawyer. Gul said, ever since last year's new anti-terror law - which gives the police power to enter anyone home without a warrant - they have been using this against people like ourselves. The Islamic AK city authorities are trying to force us out of the center of the city."

A European Union report this month on Turkey's membership bid raised concerns over the slow pace of human rights reforms. Observers warn the outcome of the closure case against Lambda, along with Human Rights Watch's critical report will no doubt add to those concerns.

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