Turkish police can't hide brutality behind balloons and bunting
Turkey has a Police Day – it’s April 10th, founding date of its police force in 1845 during the Ottoman empire. Events and parades have the aim, according to the Turkish National Police, of bringing the police “closer to all citizens in the country”.
Last year I was in Istanbul as an Amnesty trial observer the week of Police Day and walking across Taksim Square to my hotel saw a rather sad attempt by the police to get closer to their fellow citizens. Taksim square is a muddle of cars, taxis, buses and people crossing, socialising and buying at stalls. In a corner next to Istiklal Caddesi, the long, pedestrian boulevard where crowds of Istanbulites window-shop and promenade late into the night, police had set up their own stall, marked off with crowd-control barriers, this time decorated with balloons. More balloons and bunting hung above in zigzag – next to a huge outdoor screen broadcasting their Turkish police pop video.
The bouncy police tune filled the square whilst on screen a charming policewoman and handsome policeman jigged smiling along to the beat in their car, perfect “partners in crime” (although somewhat difficult to replicate widely as women currently make up only 5% of the police force). Interspersed was footage of the various police tasks from traffic to drugs and border control to forensics to community policing. But the impact was like an English fete in the rain – each time I crossed the square, I looked and saw no-one approach the lonely police-officers for a chat, leaflet or balloon.
The police in Turkey do not have a happy reputation. I say this with respect to Turkish police officers I have known who work hard at improving the situation. Nevertheless, the Amnesty 2013 report still noted: “There were frequent allegations of excessive use of force by police during demonstrations, including beatings, throughout the year. Three deaths at demonstrations, allegedly as a result of excessive use of force, were reported.” The current police violence in response to the demonstrations at Gezi Park next to Taksim Square, first in Istanbul and then in other cities in Turkey underlines this.
It’s a long standing problem. In the early 1990s, non-Turkish Amnesty members joined a peaceful, sit-down demonstration with Turkish relatives of the disappeared. Known as the Saturday Mothers they met in silence with photos of their disappeared relatives in Galatasary Square midway down Istiklal Caddesi and were dispersed aggressively each week by the police. It was a cold October but we were advised not to wear hats; our hair colour would show we were not Turkish and the police would leave us alone. In the event, the police did not intervene that time – perhaps because Turkish and international media were there - but they lined the streets to Galatasary Square and had armoured vehicles in readiness.
I saw that readiness still in April last year. In Taksim Square an area was given over to crowd-control barriers and armoured vehicles; an armoured vehicle would be in front of small police stations. In the 1990s, the police responded to criticism of violence towards the Saturday Mothers by handing out tea to the relatives of the disappeared; this year, after the apology by the deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinç, police in Ankara handed out flowers.
This video from Andrew Gardner, Amnesty researcher on Turkey, spells out that this is really not enough.
Barbara is our volunteer Turkey Country Specialist.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.