Turkish law enforcement officials have beaten, tortured, and otherwise ill-treated people they accuse of theft and looting in the aftermath of the devastating February earthquakes, according to new research by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International published on Wednesday.
The international organisations interviewed people and reviewed available video footage of violence perpetrated by police, gendarmes and soldiers deployed to the area. The research concluded that Turkish gendarmes threatened at least two people at gunpoint and at least 12 were tortured by security forces. The research also indicates that some of the victims were Syrian refugees and that the attacks bore signs of xenophobic motivation.
“Credible reports of police, gendarmes, and military personnel subjecting people they suspect of crimes to violent and prolonged beatings and arbitrary, unofficial detention are a shocking indictment of law enforcement practices in Turkey’s earthquake region,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia Director at HRW. “Law enforcement officials are treating the state of emergency for the natural disaster as a license to torture, otherwise ill-treat and even kill with impunity.”
The Turkish authorities responded to the HRW and Amnesty’s research findings and information request about ongoing investigations on the issue by describing the research as “vague claims devoid of a factual basis.”
“Rather than dismissing our research, Turkish officials should be investigating any and all allegations of abuse by law enforcement officers responding to the quake,” said HRW, recalling that the Turkish government has long claimed to uphold a “zero tolerance for torture” policy.
Following the twin earthquakes on 6 February, many people started sharing videos of others taking things from shops and markets. In many cases, the people in the videos were earthquake victims who were trying to obtain essential supplies in the face of severe disorganisation in humanitarian aid distribution.
After this, footage allegedly showing security forces beating people caught while looting started to circulate on social media.
On 11 February, a man lost his life after being arrested for theft by gendarmes in Turkey’s earthquake-hit southern province of Hatay. A preliminary medical report indicated he was severely tortured.
Some accused the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of escalating the violence in the earthquake area, after the AKP spokesperson Ömer Çelik said on 10 February that they would “intervene mercilessly in cases of looting”.