Most countries in the world have an emergency telephone number for the police. But in Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, an emergency telephone line has been launched for victims of police violence.
The İmdat Polis (Help, Police! ) initiative comes in response to a spate of highly publicized incidents of police violence in the city. “We always knew about abuse in the prisons and police precincts, but now there is an increase of [police] attacks against people in the streets,” said criminal lawyer Taylan Tanay, one of the hotline’s creators.
The phone line, established by the Progressive Lawyers Association, which Tanay heads, is open 24 hours a day to anyone who has a complaint about his or her treatment by Istanbul police. In an emergency, a lawyer from a network of 150 legal volunteers is dispatched immediately to the scene.
The hotline was conceived as a response to a high-profile case of police violence in June, when police in the conservative neighborhood of Fatih brutally beat a man with batons and belts over a traffic dispute. Using a cell-phone camera, a passerby recorded the beating. The images, accompanied by the screams of the victim’s wife, made headline news and prompted the creation of the emergency line.
Tanay is currently representing the victim, Ahmet Koca, in his case against the police for brutality. He is also helping to fight counter-claims from the police that Koca resisted arrest and used undue force. Such counter-charges nearly always follow a complaint of police brutality, he alleged, with the courts “nearly always” siding with the police.
But, with the hotline, victims can now fight back.
“With more and more people recording such violence with phone cameras and witnesses prepared to speak along with media reports, we can successfully bring cases [against the police],” Tanay asserted.
Observers attribute the perceived increase in police violence to everything from the government’s desire to court nationalist voters by allegedly giving the police a freer hand, to the declining impact of European criticism on halting rights abuses.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however, has dismissed the claims of growing police violence as “black propaganda.”
His government points to EU-inspired reforms such as introducing cameras into police stations, having zero-tolerance for torture and prosecuting police who mistreat citizens.
Nonetheless, the perception of police impunity persists. Earlier this year, police officer Sedat Selim Ay was appointed deputy-chief of Istanbul’s anti-terrorism department despite a past conviction for torture (a verdict which he appealed) and involvement in two European Court of Human Rights rulings against Turkey for cases related to rape and torture. Yet while some government ministers deplored Ay’s appointment, he was not removed.
Tanay argues that such practices explain why many people in the past have preferred to keep quiet about police abuse.
Not anymore. In its first week of operation this August, the police-violence hotline received 80 calls for help, four of which were deemed emergencies.
Fifty-year-old taxi driver Serkis Yogurtcu was among the first assisted.
“The police were called to my house because of a domestic dispute with my wife. I was standing outside the house and the police immediately handcuffed me from behind and then beat me,” Yogurtcu alleged. “I was then taken to a side street near the police station where they again beat me, kicking, punching and using batons against me.”
Yogurtcu’s wife called the hotline. In response, a volunteer lawyer headed to the police station – a legal presence that, according to Tanay, “always” prompts police to be “polite and cooperative” and ensures that medical tests and forensic reports “are compiled correctly.”
Yogurtcu has now filed a case against the police, as well as fighting counter-charges against him. If he loses, he could face jail time.
But the hotline’s lawyers can easily fall victim to police violence as well. In August, hotline lawyer Sule Erdem was summoned to a textile-factory-worker protest and ended up with a broken arm and fingers from police batons.
“I arrived and identified myself to the police; many knew me already as I had met them in the police stations,” Erdem recounted. “But within minutes of arriving, they attacked the workers, using gas and batons. They beat me to the ground and kept hitting me, breaking my arm and two fingers.”
The experience has not deterred Erdem, who says he has since “opened several cases against the police” for unjustified use of force.
But not all calls are for help. Volunteers claim that 20 percent of the calls they received in the hotline’s first week were threatening calls from people claiming to be from the police.
Undeterred, the hotline is continuing its battle, making headlines earlier this month when it published a list of the top ten worst Istanbul police stations for violence. The number-one, Taksim, is in the heart of Istanbul, in a multi-ethnic district heavily frequented by tourists and known for its nightlife.
But, sometimes, it’s the police themselves who are calling for help. The hotline rings and a policeman asks a volunteer whether the lawyers can help in legal problems with their superiors. “Of course,” Tanay answered.
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.