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20 October 2006

The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued the following statement today:

A group of independent experts reporting to the United Nations Human Rights Council on unlawful detention, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, concluded today an official visit to Turkey. The two-week visit (9 to 20 October 2006), which took place upon an invitation from the Government, took the delegation to Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir and Diyarbak?r. The delegation was led by the Working Group’s Chair, Leila Zerrougui, a judge and law professor from Algeria, and also included Manuela Carmena, a Spanish judge.

In each of the cities visited, the delegation met with judges, prosecutors and police commanders. The delegation visited not only police prisons, remand detention facilities and penitentiaries, but also institutions where people are held against their will outside the criminal justice system: two mental health institutions and two immigration holding facilities. In all the detention centers, the experts conducted interviews in private with the detainees. The delegation further met with criminal defence lawyers, non-governmental human rights organizations and other civil society groups.

In presenting the experts’ first impressions at the conclusion of the visit in Ankara, the Working Group’s Chairperson stressed how the entry into force on 1st of June 2005 of the new Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Code, as well as of many connected laws, had strengthened the safeguards against arbitrary detention in Turkey’s criminal justice system. The new criminal procedure law establishes limitations on the duration of police custody and of remand detention of persons awaiting trial and judgment. “The suspect’s access to a lawyer while in police custody is now much better protected. Declarations made to the police in the absence of the lawyer have no longer any value as evidence. Juvenile offenders are now held by specialised police forces supported by psychologists and social workers, and are prosecuted by specialised prosecutors before special courts for minors. To sum up, the new laws represent a great achievement for Turkey and we think that both the present and future generations of Turkish citizens will hugely benefit from them.”, Ms. Zerrougui said.

“Our great concern, however”, continued Ms. Zerrougui, “is that there are in practice two criminal justice systems in Turkey, one for common offences and the other for terrorism related crimes. In the first system, the reforms are showing their beneficial effects, police custody is limited, and trials are fairly expeditious. In the second system, all this does not apply.” For example, the new criminal procedure law provides that for persons suspected of terrorism related offences police custody can be extended to up to four days. The experts found the situation of numerous persons accused of terrorism who have spent seven, eight, ten, in some cases thirteen years in detention without being found guilty most disturbing. “Their trials register a perfunctory hearing every month or two. The prosecutors told us that evidence was still being gathered and analysed, but it is not clear to us what evidence could possibly need to be analysed thirteen years after the terrorist crime was committed, no matter how complex the case is”, the experts said. Moreover, they pointed out that in order to be able to maintain these persons in detention for several years more without a judgment, the limitations on the duration of remand detention introduced by the 2005 new criminal procedure law will enter into force only in April 2008.

The experts also recalled that all their interlocutors, both those representing the authorities and those behind bars, had stated that torture and ill-treatment by the police had dramatically decreased already before the entry into force of the new criminal laws. “From a widespread practice used by the police to obtain self-incriminating statements from the suspect, torture (aimed at extorting confessions) has become the exceptional misconduct of individual police officers or gendarmes. Combined with the already mentioned provision whereby statements made to the police in the absence of the lawyer have no value, this means that arbitrary detention based on coerced confessions is much less likely to occur”, the experts stated. They noted, however, that the ban on statements made in the absence of a lawyer was not being applied retroactively to declarations made to the police before the entry into force of the new law. The experts called on the Government to extend the application of the provision also to pending cases in which such statements were made before 1 June 2005. “Turkey’s obligations under the Convention Against Torture and fundamental considerations of justice require it”, they stated.

The Working Group delegation also spoke about its impressions with regard to the deprivation of liberty of foreigners awaiting expulsion and of persons kept involuntarily in mental health institutions. They noted that in both cases Turkey lacked both a sufficient legislative foundation for these forms of administrative detention and a process for the persons held against their will to challenge detention. “Just as we do not in any way dispute the right of the Government to regulate the entry of foreigners into Turkey, to expel those who are here without a legal basis, and to detain some of them pending expulsion where it was really necessary, there is no doubt that some persons have to be deprived of their freedom in mental health institutions in order to prevent them from seriously harming themselves and others”, Ms. Zerrougui stated. She added, however, that “whenever a government, also for the most legitimate purposes, decides to deprive someone of his or her freedom, international law provides that it needs to do so on a sound legal basis and to provide an opportunity to challenge the deprivation of liberty before a court.”

As a result of the visit, the independent experts will write and submit to the Human Rights Council a public report on their findings and recommendations.

Link to full statement in English and Turkish.