An alliance of 46 organisations in Turkey has started a campaign against hate crimes. ‘Victims hardly ever lodge a complaint, if they live to tell their story.’
Istanbul – The woman who was abused by a taxi driver, punched in the face and kicked out of the taxi, just because she was Armenian: that is not just an attack on that woman, but on the whole community she is a part of. Just as the whole Kurdish community is victimized when a man is lynched by a group of nationalists because he wants to hear a Kurdish song in a night club. Justas all trans-sexuals are victims when two of them are killed on the street. Crimes of hatred: in Turkey a campaign has started to fight them legally.
Hate crimes occur regularly in Turkey, but they don’t always make it to the news. Only if you start following certain organisations and websites will you come across one shocking incident after the other. Murder, lynching, fire-bombing: every month a few serious examples can be found. Main victims: Roma, Kurds, homo- and trans-sexuals, but also Christians and Alevi, a liberal path in Islam.
Broken index finger
Because many Turks have no knowledge of these hate crimes, the Association for Social Change, an alliance of 46 organisations, has started a long term campaign against hate crimes and is making as much noise as possible about every incident. On the internet you can even vote for the ‘hate crime of the month’. The case of the taxi driver who assaulted the Armenian woman was the winner in October. In December the race was between the Kurd who was lynched and an incident in the maternity ward of a hospital: a Kurdish woman was hit while in labour and her index finger was broken by a nurse, because she was a ‘dirty Kurd’. ‘Joke’, was the response from the hospital when the woman and her husband demanded an explanation some weeks later.
The goal of the campaign is to introduce strong laws against hate crimes. The current law doesn’t oblige judges to punish a crime more harshly when it is based on hate against a certain group in society.
An example is the murder of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007: the killer, a young nationalist, was convicted of the murder, but the hatred of Armenians that was behind it was not taken into account. Legislation is also of symbolic importance, says Levent Sensever, general secretary of the Association for Social Change: ‘The state has to give the signal that hate against certain groups in society is not tolerated’.
Ulas Karan, lecture in law at Bilgi University in Istanbul, goes one step further: ‘Making hatred an issue in the penal code can help to bring people together. You can put measures in the law that only apply in the case of a hate crime. For example, you can force perpetrators to start a dialogue with the group to which the victim belongs. In that way, a law can help to punish and to reconcile.’
The Turkish penal code does have legislation against spreading hatred: article 216. Ironically enough that article is being used to silence dissident voices. Especially Kurdish politicians and journalists are being convicted of it, for example when they demand more rights for Kurds or if they file reports about PKK fighters. ‘A typical example of vague legislation’, says Sensever. ‘The law can be interpreted in many ways, so you can use it to convict whoever you want.’ The article is a ‘sister’ of the infamous article 301, that makes ‘insulting Turkishness’ a punishable offense. Sensever: ‘Such laws are being used to curtail freedom of speech. What we want is that real crimes, like murder and assault, are punished more severely when they are committed out of hate.’
Almost all EU countries have legislation against hate crimes. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OCSE) tries to get legislation against hate crimes established in the whole of Europe. To that end the OCSE cooperates intensively with local groups, including in Turkey with the Association for Social Change.
A team of lawyers
How difficult the subject is becomes clear from the progress reports of the OCSE: governments hardly ever make data available, often because the data don’t exist. And in Turkey there are hardly any statistics: crimes that don’t exist officially cannot of course be registered. Levent Sensever: The judiciary too is blind to it. A Turkish judge can, outside the law and on his own initiative, give a harsher sentence when a crime is committed out of hate, but this happens very rarely. Prosecutors are not informed, nor are the police, and victims don’t report the crime, if they live to tell it.’
For many years, NGO’s haven’t been working with the Turkish government, but nowadays some dialogue is going on – for example about a new constitution, which could also contribute to decreasing discrimination. That gives the Association for Social Change some hope. As well, the discussion of the Kurdish question is heated, since Kurds are the main victims of hate crimes.
The Association doesn’t detect any political will to introduce new legislation. ‘It’s too early for that’, says Sensever. ‘At the moment, we are working hard to get statistics with which we can convince politicians of the need to legislate. We collect data from all kinds of pressure groups. They know very well what is happening to people in their communities.’ When the time is right, a draft law will be prepared, says Sensever. A team of lawyers from several organisations is working on that already. Levent Sensever, in a hopeful vein: ‘It would be wonderful if legislation is introduced in three, four years.’