On 15 July 2016, Turkey experienced a violent coup that became a significant turning point in its political history. President Erdogan placed the blame for the coup on the Hizmet movement, a faith-inspired civic organization led by Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim scholar and spiritual leader based in Pennsylvania. The followers of this particular movement, settled in different parts of the globe with the intention of building schools and spreading peace around the world, were accused of being terrorists and harboring hostility towards the Turkish government. Although the allegations of parallel state-building were unfounded, the Turkish government initiated a process of arresting and imprisoning members of the Hizmet movement in the absence of any legal proof or evidence.
Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used various despotic techniques to maintain his authority over the people and hold over the presidency. Since the coup attempt in July 2016, “the Turkish government has improperly imprisoned 130,214 homemakers, teachers, NGO workers, academics, judges, prosecutors, and journalists.” The Erdogan regime’s control of media outlets, suspension of basic human rights, and its propaganda machine slandering the Hizmet movement not only provoked the Turkish public to harbor hatred towards the members of this particular organization, but was also instrumental in the transition from an at least partially democratic country to an authoritarian regime.
According to Advocates of Silenced Turkey’s report on human rights violations in Turkey, “more than 217,000 have been detained and 160,000 have been arrested, 130,000 public servants dismissed as a witch hunt.” These actions were undertaken without the provision of any supporting evidence or proof. Thousands of Turkish citizens were subjected to legal persecution, separation from their loved ones, and the pressure to survive in a land where law ceased to exist as a fair entity, signaling dark days ahead for Turkey. Even though it has been seven years since the coup, victimization and oppression continue to mount each year.
This article is based primarily on an interview with Büşra Yılmaztürk, conducted via a telephone conversation in February 2021. The purpose of this writing is to offer an insight into the current human rights violations taking place in Turkish prisons by comparing the current laws practiced by the Turkish government with recognized and ratified documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and “10 Stages of Genocide.”
The Story of Büşra Yılmaztürk
Büşra Yılmaztürk found out about the arrest warrant for herself and her husband two weeks after the coup attempt while she was on her way to visit her family in Çanakkale. Upon learning of the frightening news, she, alongside her husband’s company, called a family lawyer who suggested that they go into hiding due to the uncertainty and chaos currently taking place in the country. Heeding the lawyer’s advice, Büşra and her husband hid in Çanakkale for three months. However, the two decided to move to Istanbul once they received news of the police raiding their relatives’ houses. The Yılmaztürks stayed in hiding in Istanbul for 22 months before getting arrested. During that period, Büşra found out that she was pregnant. However, since she faced unjust arrest by the authorities if found, Büşra was unable to access to proper medical care during her pregnancy and thus suffered a miscarriage.
Furthermore, she had no choice but to give birth to her dead baby at home because she knew she risked certain arrest if she went to a hospital. Thousands of women in Turkey do not have access to adequate medical care. Like many others, Büşra had to endure the agony of being unable to exercise a critical right, which resulted in the death of her child and a decline in her own health. The atmosphere of pressure and fear fostered by the government, coupled with the trauma of losing her baby, deeply affected Büşra’s mental and physical health. While she narrated her story, she expressed the tremendous heartbreak and pain she suffered during those days, which were the hardest in her life. Emphasizing her sorrow, she says:
“I wish the story I’m telling was a movie I’d seen rather than what I lived through.”
On February 28, 2018, the sudden appearance of police officers at Büşra’s doorstep at 2:30 AM scared her. Unable to make sense of the situation, the police rushed in as soon as she opened the door. While searching the house, police officers displayed disrespectful behavior as they insulted and carelessly rummaged through their household items. They also verbally harassed Büşra and her husband as they demanded to know if the couple possessed any weapons or instruments of crime. When the search was complete, Büşra and her husband were taken to the police station where they were held in custody for a week. During her interrogation, Büşra was pushed to plead guilty to crimes such as giving scholarships to students, being a member of a Hizmet platform, having a Bank Asya account, and using the Bylock application. All of these actions had been legal only a few years ago. When she denied the allegations, the attitude of the police officers shifted as they tried to threaten and intimidate her into accepting the charges. Later, she was taken to court and the judge decided on her detention. As a result, she was immediately taken to prison, where she lived in dismal conditions and endured human rights violations for 16 months.
Human Rights Violations
Section 01: Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Büşra and her husband were discovered and arrested on February 28, 2018, in Istanbul where they had been living in secrecy. They woke to the sound of the police on their doorstep at around 2:30 am. This was not an arbitrary arrest since Büşra and her husband were aware of the search warrant issued on their behalf. However, the search warrant’s grounds were arbitrary since no crime was committed by the two to prove their criminality. This violates Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 20 of the Turkish Constitution, which state, respectively,
- “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.”
- “Everyone has the right to demand respect for his/her private and family life. Privacy of private or family life shall not be violated.”
Unable to comprehend what was going on, Büşra and her husband watched the police officers as they raided the house. At some point, Büşra fainted due to the intense shock and fear of the situation. During the search, police officers rifled through the belongings and household items and displayed an aggressive and disrespectful attitude towards Büşra and her husband. Instead of maintaining a civil or objective attitude, they only yelled in an insulting and abrasive tone, repeatedly asking whether the Yilmazturk’s possessed weapons in their house even though both denied the existence of such elements of crime. When they were taken to the police station in Tekirdağ, the cruel treatment continued. At one point during custody, the police commissioner insulted Büşra by accusing her of being a traitor to her nation. Denying such an allegation, Büşra told him how much she loved her country and how she had served it throughout her life, but this did not alter the perception of the commissioner who was certain that she was guilty. Indeed, innocent until proven guilty is not a principle that applies in Turkey.
During Büşra’s interrogation, the police officers tried to pressure her into accepting culpability for various crimes and into pleading guilty under Turkey’s “effective remorse law.” This law stipulates that Büşra could be offered freedom if she admitted her affiliation with the FETO terrorist organization. Resisting the pressure, Büşra protested that she was innocent and denied membership in any terrorist group. When the officers recognized that she would not give in, their attitude changed and became intimidating. To describe this shift in behavior, Büşra said:
“They got very angry when I said I was innocent; their demeanor changed, it was as if they were saying ‘you’ll see what we can do to you.’”
The psychological pressure applied to coerce Büşra into incriminating herself violates Article 38 of the Turkish Constitution, which reads:
- “No one shall be compelled to make a statement that would incriminate himself/herself or his/her legal next of kin, or to present such incriminating evidence.”
In addition, attempting to coerce someone into confessing one’s alleged crimes with their freedom hanging in the balance violates Article 24 of the Turkish Constitution, which declares:
- “The statement of the suspect must be based on his/her free will. Physical or psychological interventions such as maltreatment, torture, giving medicine, exhaustion, deceiving, using force or threats, using certain means cannot be made to prevent this. An illegal benefit or promise cannot be promised.”
After spending a week in police custody, Büşra was taken to court on March 3, 2018. Among her actions that constituted crimes under the new system were making scholarship donations to students, working as the general secretary of Trakya Inci Association (an organization affiliated with the Hizmet movement), having a Bank Asya account, and downloading the ByLock application on her phone. Even though these actions do not violate any type of domestic law, the Turkish government exploited the justice system to persecute objectively innocent individuals like Büşra. Accusing individuals of committing crimes based on actions that were perfectly legal violates Article 2.1 of the Turkish Constitution, which states that:
- “Nobody shall be subject to penalty or security measure for an act which is not clearly prescribed by law as a criminal offence. A penalty or security measure shall not be imposed unless it is prescribed by law.”
While at court, Büşra realized that the judge seemed uninterested in what she was saying. At that moment, she understood that she was going to be imprisoned and that the oppressors had seized justice in Turkey. She narrates the surrealism of the incident saying, “It was like a play at a theater; [but] we were the people who were forced into [specific] roles.”
That day, on March 3, 2018, Büşra was handed a decision for pre-trial detention. She was terrified by the ambiguity of her bleak prospects and aggrieved by her nation’s betrayal of her. Still, she knew she had to be strong.
Section 02: Prison and Detention Center Conditions
The gathering of large numbers of people in a small space is only one of the many factors contributing to the inhumane conditions in the prison. In a ward with a maximum capacity of ten people, Büşra was expected to live with 22 people. This constitutes a violation of Rule 42 of the United Nations Nelson Mandela Rules, which states:
- “General living conditions addressed in these rules, including those related to light, ventilation, temperature, sanitation, nutrition, drinking water, access to open air and physical exercise, personal hygiene, health care and adequate personal space, shall apply to all prisoners without exception.”
In addition to living in a crowded and confined place, the sanitary conditions of the prison were unfavorable to human health. When Büşra arrived at the prison, she was given a dirty bed that smelled awful and had urine stains. Similarly, the food served daily was inadequate and poorly cooked. Most of the time, prisoners like Büşra had to buy their own food items such as cheese, olives, and bread from the prison canteen to survive and remain healthy. The absence of healthy food violates Rule 22 of the United Nations Nelson Mandela Rules, which states:
- “Every prisoner shall be provided by the prison administration at the usual hours with food of nutritional value adequate for health and strength, of wholesome quality and well prepared and served.”
As though these conditions did not complicate life enough, the prison administration would routinely cut off the water supply. Typically, running water would only be available for an hour a most, after which it would be unavailable for a long time. As a result, prisoners were unable to wash themselves or their belongings, thus deteriorating the overall hygiene of the prison cell. Büşra and her cellmates believe that this was a deliberate decision by the administration in order to exert psychological pressure on the inmates. The intentional restriction of the water supply violates Article 94.3 of the Turkish Constitution, which states:
- “Convicts must be given the opportunity to wash themselves at short intervals within the institutional possibilities.”
Adding insult to injury, the personal items purchased by the prisoners from the canteen were regularly confiscated by the guards. The arbitrary searches conducted during the week would cost the inmates their necessary items such as bed covers, detergent, bathroom slippers, or blankets. Büşra notes that the guards would predict the things that would most bother the inmates and specifically use this knowledge to target them or cause them discomfort. For instance, Büşra narrates that everyone in prison possessed two basins; one to wash dirty clothes and the other to hold the wet ones. During one random search, the guards confiscated almost all the basins and left them with only two out of the 44 total. Beyond making life unnecessarily difficult, this could also have led to the spread of disease since they lived in such close quarters. Altogether, the confiscation of the basins and the harassment during random searches violates Rule 52 of the Nelson Mandela Rules, which reads:
- “Searches shall not be used to harass, intimidate or unnecessarily intrude upon a prisoner’s privacy. For the purpose of accountability, the prison administration shall keep appropriate records of searches, in particular strip and body cavity searches and searches of cells, as well as the reasons for the searches, the identities of those who conducted them and any results of the searches.”
Along with the confiscation of personal belongings, items used to fulfill religious duties were also seized and the guards completely disregarded prisoners’s needs. Since Turkey is a majority-Muslim country, the inmates were all Muslims obligated by their faith to conduct five daily prayers. Since the prison ward had cold and hard concrete floors, the inmates would place cushions underneath their prayer mats to keep their feet warm as they stood in prayer. The guards confiscated these cushions and sarcastically commented that the Prophet Muhammad also used to pray on the bare floor back in Arabia. This seizure of religious property violates Article 24 of the Constitution of the Republic of Turkey, which declares:
- “No one shall be allowed to exploit or abuse religion or religious feelings, or things held sacred by religion, in any manner whatsoever, for the purpose of personal or political interest or influence, or for even partially basing the fundamental, social, economic, political, and legal order of the State on religious tenets.”
Moreover, Büşra and others were denied access to crucial feminine hygiene products such as pads. It is important to note that this is a serious issue because the prison is required by law to meet the biological needs of women. Büşra also claims that they did not have any paper towels to substitute for pads. Women were supposed to purchase pads, tampons, etc. through the canteen. To request items, they would prepare a list and wait for their arrival. Most of the time, some items would either be missing or would arrive late. To access feminine hygiene products, Büşra and others wrote complaints and petitions to the prison warden. To explain her desperation, Büşra says,
“I’m sorry, but we did not even have access to paper towels, let alone pads. How can they confiscate items in a place where everything is a luxury?”
Given this level of psychological abuse and actual neglect, the administration clearly did not address women’s issues. The reluctance of the prison system in providing access to feminine hygiene products violates Rule 57 of the Nelson Mandela Rules, which notes:
- “Every request or complaint shall be promptly dealt with and replied to without delay. If the request or complaint is rejected, or in the event of undue delay, the complainant shall be entitled to bring it before a judicial or other authority.”
At times, inmates were also unduly denied visitation rights. Büşra notes that while they knew which days were visitation days, inmates did not know when they would be called, so they had to be prepared to see their families at a moment’s notice. As someone who could not see her husband at regular intervals, Büşra desperately missed talking to him. One morning, a guard called Büşra’s name and demanded that she be ready immediately. Büşra was dressed already but had not yet put on her headscarf. As a result of yet another sleepless night due to her health problems, her hands were trembling as she tried to get ready. She asked for three minutes, but the guard only responded by yelling at her. When recounting this experience Büşra says, “As he yelled, my hands shook even more from the combination of anger and sleeplessness … I wasn’t okay, I couldn’t get ready, my hands were shaking so much that I just couldn’t put the pin through my headscarf!” Büşra again politely asked the prison guard to wait for a few minutes. She told the guard that according to the prison guidelines, she was allowed to get ready in a few minutes and then ring the bell in the cell to notify the guard to take her. This infuriated the guard, who shouted that she had no such luxury and that this was a prison. After a few moments of arguing, the guard slammed the door shut and exclaimed that her visit had now been canceled. Unable to comprehend this reaction, Büşra rang the bell and begged to be allowed to see her husband in accordance with her rights since she had not violated any rules nor displayed rude behavior. Soon, several guards and the prison warden entered the cell and, in a grotesque manipulation of the actual events, told Büşra that they had come to take her to visitation but she simply did not want to go and that the cameras had recorded this. Thus, Büşra was prevented from seeing her husband a week before her first trial. She held the cell’s peephole and begged again, repeating that her trial was next week, that she had the right to see her husband, that her requests to see the doctor were being denied and that her condition would surely worsen if she could not see her husband. Essentially, this ordeal violates Article 83 of the Turkish Constitution, which states:
- “The convict, on the condition of documenting, by his/her spouse, relatives up to third degree and his/her guardian or trustee, and also, at admission to the institution, by a maximum of three persons to whom their names and addresses are not changed, except in compulsory cases, can meet once a week for not less than half an hour and no more than an hour during working hours.”
Because she was denied her rights, Büşra says that she could no longer restrain herself and that she yelled “You scum!” to the guards. As a result, she was given a disciplinary punishment of a two-month revocation of visitation rights. Büşra says that this is an inconceivable punishment because isolation can cause a person to literally lose their mind. According to Büşra, one only comprehends that life outside is still going on by seeing their loved ones. Indeed, even as she recounts this story from Greece where she now resides over a year after her release from prison, Büşra says that her head becomes heavy and that she cannot come to her senses for a few days after discussing her trauma.
Beyond the psychological toll of isolation from the outside world, Büşra’s health also deteriorated due to the unhygienic, poor conditions of the prison. The miscarriage she had suffered three months before her imprisonment combined with malnutrition disrupted her health tremendously. She had serious trouble sleeping, but her written petitions for medication or to be relocated to the infirmary were ignored. When she was finally taken to the hospital for treatment, she was to be examined by a male gynecologist as five other male soldiers stood watch beside her. Feeling intensely uncomfortable by this situation, Büşra had to refuse treatment. Article 11 of the Turkish Constitution states:
- “The examination of the woman is carried out by a female physician upon her request and whenever possible. In cases where a woman doctor is not available despite the request for one; care is taken to ensure that another female healthcare professional is present with the doctor during the examination.”
In light of this law, it was legally indefensible for the prison system to assign five male soldiers to Büşra during a medical examination. Besides, as she was neither aggressive nor dangerous, the presence of five male soldiers was unnecessary. Had the prison officials wanted to ensure proper surveillance and control, they could simply have assigned her female soldier(s) to maintain her privacy and comfort as directed by domestic law.
Büşra’s indictment was only prepared a full 12 months after her detention began, with the first trial to take place 3 months later on May 7, 2019. Thus, she served 15 months of pre-trial detention in Tekirdağ’s prison. The court decided to adjourn the first trial and to hand down the final decision 15 days later, on May 28, 2019. The judge sentenced Büşra to 6 years and 10 months in prison during the second trial. However, due to her health issues, the judge released her from serving this time at least until Büşra’s appeal process ended. Speaking of this extensive legal process, Büşra notes that she and her husband spent their entire life savings to hire attorneys, etc. She claims that they were left not only psychologically but also fiscally ruined.
Büşra’s husband served 18 months in prison but was conscripted into the army following his release. Ironically, he was made to serve the country that had labeled him a terrorist. While her husband was on duty, Büşra found out that she was pregnant. They tried to resume their life in Istanbul as soon as he returned. After giving birth to her son, Ali Vefa Yılmaztürk, on May 11, 2020, they wanted to begin their life anew. However, their previous imprisonment and social pressure, coupled with the fear of being arrested once again, made it impossible for them to survive in Turkey. Büşra says,
“There was so much pressure because of our membership of the FETÖ terrorist organization and our imprisonment. We couldn’t find a job, or even if we did, those workplaces were harassed just because they had employed us. People didn’t want to meet with us out of fear because they were afraid that the people would arrest them.”
This ultimately violates Article 60 of the Turkish Constitution, which states that:
- “Everyone has the right to social security. The State shall take the necessary measures and establish the organization for the provision of social security.”
Anxious that Büşra’s appeal would end in an affirmation of her prison sentence even though she had a newborn baby, the couple decided to flee the country. The relentless propaganda, social pressure, and harsh penalties that the Turkish government pushed over the past few years created an inhospitable environment for citizens like Busra and her husband, who had become afraid to freely associate and interact with others. To lead a better life for themselves and for their child, it seemed they had no choice but to leave Turkey.
On August 27, 2020, the family of three crossed the Evros River on a boat. When they set foot in Greece, the soldiers handed them over to police officers. Since the migrant camps and jails were full to capacity, they were not held in custody. Instead, the police officers dropped them off at a train station and recommended they go to Thessaloniki where they could apply for asylum with the United Nations. At the time of this interview, they had been living in Athens for six months.
When asked about her acclimating to a new life in Greece, Büşra expressed her gratitude to the Greek government for granting them the freedom and security that her country had denied her family. However, she also mentioned the challenges of adjusting to a new environment where she was foreign to the language, culture, and social norms. In fact, she describes fleeing to Greece with nothing but the clothes on her back as akin to plummeting from metres above down to concrete. Despite all this, she emphasizes that she is grateful for her freedom in Greece.
Büşra is one of the many who cross the Evros River in hopes of a peaceful life with their loved ones. She is among the lucky ones who have made the journey without accident — countless others have died while trying to reach freedom from oppression and persecution. It must not be forgotten that freedom is an inherent right, not a privilege.
Zeynep Akgedik earned her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Las Vegas, Nevada (UNLV) in 2022. Following this, she worked as a reading interventionist at Coral Academy of Science, Las Vegas (CASLV). Currently, she is a first-year law student pursuing her Juris Doctor at William S. Boyd School of Law.