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Thousands in Turkey Held Without Trial: Rights Groups

  • Dorian Jones

A Turkish soldier stands guard at the watch tower at a prison in Antalya, Turkey, December 13, 2007 (file photo).

A Turkish soldier stands guard at the watch tower at a prison in Antalya, Turkey, December 13, 2007 (file photo).

Human right activists in Turkey charge that thousands of political activists and over 100 journalists in the country have been imprisoned, and that many have been detained for years without trial. Both domestic and international rights groups are raising concerns that the Turkish authorities are using pre-trial detention as a form of punishment.

On Thursday, leading Turkish academics came together to launch a campaign against the increasingly frequent detention of fellow academics and students under Turkey's anti-terror laws. A leading academic said over 100 students have been detained under the laws, most on charges of supporting the PKK, the outlawed Kurdish rebel group.

Campaign organizer Professor Zeynep Gambetti says one of their chief concerns is the lack of transparency in the use of the anti-terror law.

"Officially there are 100 students who are arrested," said Gambetti. "There is [a] student who was arrested a year ago for wearing a Kurdish scarf, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we don't know the charges against him, he is in prison since last year. This is the recent anti-terrorist law, which makes it possible people can be detained without trial. Some wait for two years."

Around 150 people were detained under the anti-terror law this week, as part of a probe into an alleged conspiracy supporting the PKK. Only a handful were released, while the rest remain in jail. According to human rights groups, over 6,000 people have been detained in the same probe, with many being held for many months, if not years, without having been formally charged, let alone faced trial. Critics claim the state is using pre-trial detention is as a means of punishment.

That concern is well founded, according to Thomas Hammerberg, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights. He says pre-trial detention is being abused.

'It very frequent much too frequent, and I think the judges in many cases are much too prepared just to sign a request for detention coming from the prosecutor without looking into the case," said Hammerberg. "Without motivating why its necessary to detain these people. So it has become almost a routine."

Stung by growing national and international criticism, Turkish Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin promised to act.

Ergin said decisions pertaining to arrest, or the refusal of a request for release on bail, will now have to be clearly written out. Ergin also announced a series of reforms to address the concerns over pre-trial detention.

The reform package is currently being considered by parliament, with the goal of it becoming law by March. The government says the reforms specifically concern prosecutions of journalists and arbitrary detentions without trial.

But human rights groups have criticized the reforms for not going far enough or adequately addressing the issues of restrictions on freedom of expression and unfair trials.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch calls the reform package cosmetic. The group's Turkey researcher, Emma Sinclair-Webb, said it was little more than window dressing.

Riza Turmen, a former European Court of Human Rights judge who is now an opposition member of Turkey's parliament, warns that under the country's anti-terror law, the problem of pre-trial detentions will continue despite the promised reforms.

"You have to examine whether there is a real danger of absconding or whether there is a real risk of destroying the evidence. In these categor[ies] of crimes the judge is free not to examine these issues," said Turmen. "These are not acceptable by the European Court of Human Rights. So the [reform] amendments brought by the Minster of Justice do not address this problem."

Turkey had the most convictions in the European Court of Human Rights last year, and 83 out of the 228 convictions were in relation to pre-trial detention. With thousands of people being imprisoned for years without trial or, in some cases, formal charges, observers warn that many more convictions against Turkey in the Strasbourg, France-based court are likely.