The Observatory has been informed about the acts of torture, threats and physical and verbal attacks against human rights lawyer Aytekin Aktaş, a member of the Progressive Lawyers Association (Çağdaş Hukukçular Derneği – ÇHD) and Lawyers for Justice (Adalet İçin Hukukçular), while he was representing a Life Watch protestor detained by the Gendarmerie in Hatay province, in the region affected by the deadly February 6, 2023 earthquakes. The earthquakes caused the death of over 52,000 people, left thousands more injured and displaced millions in Turkey and Syria. This humanitarian crisis prompted President Erdoğan to enact a three-month state of emergency in the affected areas, which led to disproportionate restrictions to fundamental freedoms and abuses by law enforcement. The Life Watch protests are peaceful gatherings of Hatay residents who survived the earthquake that went on for several weeks against the dumping of rubble in various locations across the province without sufficient precautions in place and by putting public health at risk, particularly of those who live around the dump sites.
On April 4, 2023, Aytekin Aktaş, who was in the earthquake region to provide voluntary legal support, arrived at the Yeşilköy Neighborhood of Samandağ, a district in Hatay, after being informed that Gendarmerie officers detained a participant of the Life Watch protest, where earthquake survivors had gathered to read a press statement. Upon Aktaş’s arrival at the protest location behind the Samandağ-Antakya Road in Yeşilköy, he identified himself as a lawyer to the Gendarmerie and asked to see his client. The Gendarmerie first stated that his client was held inside a vehicle, but when Aktaş asked whether the Gendarmerie had a detention order concerning his client as per the law, the Gendarmerie became hostile by insulting and roughing him up and denied providing information on the detention order.
After Aktaş insisted that detention without the prosecutor order and interference with lawyers performing their professional duties are unlawful, both Aktaş and protestors at the site were battered by the Gendarmerie, and forcibly removed from the area where the detention vehicles were. When Aktaş started recording the violence with his phone, the Gendarmerie officers removed the name tags off their uniforms and took his phone. At least 10 Gendarmerie officers then attacked Aktaş and dragged him to a more concealed location between vehicles. Officers tortured Aktaş by beating him with batons, kicking and punching him, stepping on his neck with boots, dragging him on the ground, and twisting his arm by encouraging each other to “break his arm”, while insulting and threatening to kill him by saying: “This is the state of emergency region, we will kill you here and no one can do anything about it”. They later put Aktaş in a vehicle where they continued to torture him, trapped him inside the vehicle and refused to release him, while violently detaining others at the protest site who witnessed the Gendarmerie’s attacks against Aktaş. After approximately 30 minutes, the Gendarmerie released Aktaş.
While he was gathering plate numbers and names of the officers involved in the attacks, Aktaş was once again assaulted by Gendarmerie officers. This second attack ended when Aktaş was able to escape the Gendarmerie. ÇHD filed a criminal complaint following these violent acts with the Hatay Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Since the February 6, 2023 earthquakes, debris removal and rubble piling are being carried out in the earthquake-affected areas, and particularly in Hatay province, at the epicentre of the earthquake. Earthquake survivors who organise the Life Watch protests are highlighting both public health and environmental risks associated with piling debris in agricultural land and near residential areas and contamination of soil with asbestos and other harmful chemicals. Their demands have been met with violent attacks from Gendarmerie and other law enforcement forces.
The Observatory notes with concern that since the February 6 earthquakes, human rights lawyers who are taking up cases of survivors are particularly targeted. On February 12, 2023, lawyers Erdoğan Akdoğdu and Mehdi Zana Akkaya were threatened by Gendarmerie officers while providing legal assistance to a client victim of torture while in detention.
The three-month state of emergency declared in the ten provinces affected by the earthquake seriously risks deteriorating the situation, given Turkey’s track record of widespread human rights violations and abuse of state of emergency legislation during 2016-2018.
The Observatory strongly condemns the acts of torture committed against Aytekin Aktaş, which are only aimed at punishing him from exercising his legitimate activities as a human rights lawyer.
The Observatory urges the authorities in Turkey to guarantee in all circumstances the physical integrity and psychological well-being of Aytekin Aktaş, to carry out an immediate, thorough, and impartial investigation into the acts of torture against him, and to ensure that all human rights lawyers and human rights defenders in the country can carry out their legitimate human rights activities without any hindrance or fear of reprisals. The Observatory recalls that full respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms must be ensured in the aftermath of the earthquake, and that no exceptional circumstances may be invoked to justify any act of torture.
How You Can Help
Please write to the authorities of Turkey, asking them to:
1. Guarantee in all circumstances the physical integrity and psychological well-being of Aytekin Aktaş as well as all human rights defenders in Turkey;
2. Carry out a prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigations into the above-mentioned acts of torture against Aytekin Aktaş, and bring the perpetrators to justice in accordance with international standards;
3. Put an end to all acts of harassment – including at the judicial level – against Aytekin Aktaş and all other human rights defenders in Turkey, and ensure in all circumstances that they are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance and fear of reprisals;
4. Ensure that state agents abstain from using any type of excessive force, acts or threats of torture or inhumane treatment and ensure that law enforcement officers and detention authorities are properly instructed and warned about the prohibition of this conduct with an effective sanction mechanism in place;
5. Repeal the state of emergency rule, to resort to powers conferred under existing legislation designed specifically for disaster response and to ensure that any measure taken in this context is strictly necessary and proportionate to address the current crisis and fully compliant with Turkey’s international human rights obligations.
- President of the Republic of Turkey, Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Minister of Justice, Mr. Bekir Bozdağ. Email: email@example.com.
- Minister of Interior, Mr. Süleyman Soylu. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com
- Ambassador Mr. Faruk Kaymakçı, Diplomatic Mission of Turkey to the European Union in Brussels, Belgium. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com
- Ambassador Mr. Güven Begeç, Permanent Mission of Turkey to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please also write to the diplomatic missions or embassies of Turkey in your respective country.