Turkey's Abu Ghraib?

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Behind the walls of an Istanbul police station, and in a small room in Metris Prison, Engin Ceber was detained and beaten severely.

"That is what happens to those who do not get up for the count," said Fuat Karaosmanoglu, the prison’s deputy director at the time, according to testimony given at the trial. 

After the 29-year-old Ceber, a left-wing political activist, complained to his lawyer, he was transferred to a nearby hospital where he fell into a coma, dying of brain hemorrhage on Oct. 10, 2008.

Now, in a landmark case, a Turkish court has convicted a senior prison official for torture by guards under his command. Karaosmanoglu — a senior official at Metris — was sentenced to life in prison for having known about the torture and for having failed to stop it.

Along with Karaosmanoglu, three guards were sentenced to life in prison over Ceber's death; two other guards were sentenced to terms of seven years and three months for their role in torturing Ceber and his  fellow activists. Human Rights Watch (HRW) documents the case, in which the court also sentenced two police officers to seven years and six months for their role in torturing Ceber and other activists while in police custody.

Typically in previous investigations into human rights violations by the security forces or public officials in Turkey, senior personnel have been absolved of responsibility.

Ceber, along with two fellow left-wing activists, had reportedly been arrested in Istanbul on Sept. 28, 2008, for protesting the shooting by the police of another leftist activist.

“This is a real wake-up call for other prison authorities, who have been notorious for protecting torturers,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, of HRW, of the verdict.

Turkey’s image has long suffered from its association with torture, made infamous by Oliver Stone’s 1978 classic “Midnight Express.”

“It’s this stereotype that hangs over us,” a Turkish friend lamented the other day, exasperation in her voice. “I tell people that I’m Turkish and this look of pity passes over their face. 'Have you seen Midnight Express?' they ask."

The film tells the story of Billy Hayes, an American who, after being caught with bags of hashish at the Istanbul airport, is sentenced to 30 years in prison. Its brutal depictions of torture and rape have been denounced in Turkey, where most consider the film overtly racist. It was banned here for years, only making it to local TV networks in the 1990s.

But even if the film’s depictions of Turks are biased, the prevalence of torture and police brutality at the time was all too real.

Amnesty International first observed torture in Turkey after the 1971 coup, when as a matter of policy political prisoners were subject to brutal interrogation methods.

So how often does torture still occur in Turkey, a country which for all intents and purposes — and despite recent fears of an "axis shift" away from the West — still covets inclusion by Western institutions like the European Union?

Six years after the ruling Justice and Development Party declared "zero tolerance" for torture, most say that the practice is still widespread — and on the rise since 2005.

In 2008, the Justice Minister at the time announced that 4,719 people complained of torture, maltreatment and being exposed to excessive force in the years 2006 and 2007 alone.

Positive changes have been made. As part of its EU membership bid, the Turkish government has expanded legal protections against torture, which is explicitly banned in Turkish law and now carries a mandatory minimum three-year prison sentence.

But while the days of hanging positions and electric shocks are largely behind the country, torture is far from being history.

“They made us crouch on the floor in front of the cells and kicked us. As we were being transferred, the police told prison officials: ‘These are terrorists. They shoot soldiers,’” said Aysu Baykal, one of the activists arrested with Ceber. In an interview with Turkish daily Hurriyet, she added that one police officer took photos of another stepping on them while they were on the floor — a disturbing image reminiscent of the photographs that came out of Abu Ghraib.

Ceber was not ignorant of the dangers of dissenting in Turkey. He was arrested — somewhat ironically — for issuing a press release protesting the shooting by the police of a leftist human rights activist, and the ensuing lack of investigation.

Ceber’s death, also somewhat ironically, has brought about one of the most profound shifts in Turkey's position on such injustices.

“In my opinion, the state was caught red-handed,” said Ali Tekin, Ceber’s father. “They couldn’t deny it.”

For every case like Ceber’s that makes it to court, however, there are dozens of victims of torture who reportedly never get a fair trial. Cynics argue that the progressive ruling in Ceber’s case was more of a political maneuver than a sign of real change within Turkey’s prisons. This November, Turkey is being reviewed by the United Nations Committee against Torture, a group likely to take note of the landmark verdict.

Still, the conviction of Karaosmanoglu indicates a real effort within Turkey to come to terms with its contradictory relationship with torture. In the past it was only ever low-ranking policemen and, more rarely, gendarmerie who faced punishment.