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Turkish youth dies in police custody as impunity soars in wake of Turkey's killer quakes

Vigilantes and members of the Turkish gendarmerie are brutalizing some survivors in the provinces struck by the earthquakes in Syria and Turkey.
Turkish soldiers stand next to a destroyed building in Hatay.

Sabri Guresci was sitting inside a tent on the grounds of his family cottage in Hatay’s Altinozu district on the morning of Feb. 11 when gendarmerie officials showed up firing warning shots in the air. “They asked for Sabri then shoved him into their vehicle without explanation,” his father, Ibrahim, recalled. “Why are you taking my brother?” Sabri’s younger brother Ahmet asked, only to be hauled off to the local police station as well.

Around six hours later, Ahmet’s lifeless body was spirited out of the station. When dusk fell, Ibrahim went to the station asking what had happened to his boys. He was greeted with blank stares and told to leave. As he stood outside waiting, Ibrahim saw a body being taken out. It was wrapped in a blanket.

“I knew it was one of my sons,” Ibrahim told Al-Monitor. “I went straight to the morgue. Thanks to the intervention of friends, I was shown the body and sure enough it was my Ahmet. My other boy was worse than dead.” The pair were detained on suspicion of looting, rape and vandalism, crimes Ibrahim insists his sons did not commit.

Ahmet, 26, was allegedly beaten to death by members of the gendarmerie amid a wave of impunity that rights advocates say is gripping the 10 provinces placed under emergency rule after a pair of massive earthquakes struck southern Turkey on Feb. 6. Hatay was among the worst affected.

Ahmet Guresci, 26, with his pet cocker spaniel Odi shortly before his death in police custody on Feb. 11. (Image courtesy of the Guresci family)

Ahmet Guresci, 26, with his pet cocker spaniel Odi shortly before his death in police custody on Feb. 11. (Image courtesy of the Guresci family)

Unverified videos showing people in uniform attacking civilians said to be in the earthquake zone are making the rounds on social media. Some of the claims have proven to be fake. Others not.

Omar Hassoun, a Syrian refugee, was brutalized by a group of vigilantes as he stood outside the remains of a building awaiting news of his two sons who were trapped underneath. His assailants thought he was trying to steal victims’ belongings from amid the rubble. Online rumors implicating Syrians in such crimes have sharpened xenophobic feelings that were already high before the earthquakes.

At least three reporters have been detained in the stricken areas.

Irem Afsin, a journalist working for an international media outlet, said Urfa province’s police chief threatened her on Feb. 8, The chief said to her, “If you dare to speak badly of our state, I will cut [your broadcast], I will kick you out of here and I will do what is necessary to you.” Afsin said the police grew more hostile after Erdogan declared a three-month state of emergency on Feb. 7, according to the Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

In Antakya province, which was shaken again Monday by two large earthquakes, journalist Hazal Guven and her cameraman, Umutcan Yituk, said they were driving in their car when they were stopped by a group of unidentified men carrying rifles. The terrified pair made a U-turn and fled.

Sabri Guresci is recovering from his assault in a gendarmerie station in Alrinozu district in Hatay province. (Image courtesy of the Guresci family)

Sabri Guresci is recovering from his assault in a gendarmerie station in Altinozu district in Hatay province. (Image courtesy of the Guresci family)

“There are lots of allegations of serious abuses by police and gendarmerie that need investigating,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director for Human Rights Watch. Most people “are too hopeless, too afraid and too demoralized to lodge official complaints. Being ill-treated by police and gendarmes in the midst of such destruction and loss of life adds insult to injury,” she added.

Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu is a lawmaker for the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) for Adiyaman, a Kurdish-majority area that is among the worst affected by the Feb. 6 temblors. “Before the earthquake, we already had a police state. Since the imposition of emergency rule, things have gotten even worse — repression, impunity have spun out of control,” Gergerlioglu told Al-Monitor. “Syrians are the most vulnerable.”

His party announced today that it had lodged a criminal complaint against the governor of Hatay and the police chief of Iskenderun for “heavily torturing” 10 citizens who lost their loved ones and homes in the earthquakes. Victims included an HDP official. “They were beaten. There were serious lesions on their faces and bodies. They were subjected to insults and demeaning treatment," the complaint stated.

The government has shrugged off the reports as either malicious disinformation or justification for imposing emergency rule. But the case of Ahmet Guresci’s murder in police custody is clear cut, said Umit Buyukdag, secretary general of the independent Progressive Lawyers’ Association, which is investigating abuses in the region. “Ahmet was tortured to death,” Buyukdag told Al-Monitor. He likely died of a brain hemorrhage.”

Today, the association posted a photograph on its Twitter account of an unidentified man whose back was crisscrossed with welts and bruises. They said they ran into him as he was being attacked by special forces in Hatay and whisked him away to safety.

Pressure from the group prompted a formal investigation, but not before Buyukdag and fellow lawyers were threatened by authorities as they pressed for Sabri’s immediate release on Feb. 12. Members of the security forces warned them, “The same fate could befall you.”  

The Guresci family has formally pressed charges. One of the gendarme officers implicated in Ahmet’s death has been taken off duty.

The 37-year-old unemployed construction worker described their ordeal in an interview with Al-Monitor, his first ever since the tragedy struck. He was speaking via Whatsapp from the tent his family erected with its own means after their two story home collapsed in the earthquakes. He moaned and gasped for breath, his voice breaking when he spoke of his brother.

“They beat us all the way to the police station. Once we arrived, around ten men, set up on us with batons, plastic hoses and their bare heads. For more than an hour they didn’t even say what we were being accused of. They then stripped us naked and poured water on us. They kept landing blows on our heads, our stomachs, our legs demanding we confess. They were bent on killing us, beating us to death,” Sabri recalled.


He insists that he and his brother are innocent of the crimes they were accused of saying it was a case of mistaken identity. He identified nine of the assailants in a police line-up of 50 men.

Sabri identified the station’s commander, Ali Arik, as one of the perpetrators. “Torture is absolutely prohibited in all circumstances in international law and in Turkey’s law, and that includes the police beating people they suspect of crimes,” Sinclair-Webb noted.

Sabri says he survived because he managed to hold onto his leather jacket and used it to shield his head. “But Ahmet was not as lucky.” Buyukdag believes he is still alive because “we were alerted to his situation in time.” Ibrahim, the father, doesn’t think Sabri will make it. “Listen to him. They beat him so badly. His lungs are a mess.”

Either way, he is determined to get justice for his boys. “I will never give up,” Ibrahim said.

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