07/01/2021 | Writer: Sibel Yükler

Our third guest is the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV-HRFT) Secretary General Metin Bakkalcı. We discussed torture and ill-treatment on account of sexual orientation and gender identity with Bakkalcı.

“An approach with no ifs and buts” Kaos GL - News Portal for LGBTI+

Bakkalcı says that TIHV, which has been combatting against torture and ill treatment for 30 years, has adopted “an approach with no ifs and buts”, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation. However, he states that they have difficulties in reaching LGBTI+ persons who face torture on account of sexual orientation: “The issue of not knowing us may be a reason of this to some extent, they may not know, or those who know us may not trust us enough”.

Bakkalcı reminds that, “The founding principle of TIHV is “to work on the representation of gay and transgender persons” and he emphasizes that it is vital that human rights and LGBTI organizations should work together and it is never too late.

Human Rights Foundation of Turkey was founded in 1990. Since its establishment, it has been a right defender against torture and ill treatment. Could you tell us more about the reason for existence and mission of TIHV?

Human Rights Foundation of Turkey was founded 30 years ago. The reason for its existence is to provide the treatment and rehabilitation for survivors of torture. When you use the word “survivor of torture”; you are talking about a person, you are actually talking about a situation where absolute prohibition of torture is violated, you are talking about a person who is subjected to a violation. Therefore, we actually contribute to the “fulfillment of the right of remedy” for the persons facing violations. We are not a charity or aid organization. We contribute to the fulfillment of that right in a holistic manner we call remedy/redress, which is the right of a person who faced violation. Of course, science of medicine plays a decisive role here undoubtfully, but we have an approach that we should not merely medicalize this issue from the very beginning. Because the issue that you call treatment and rehabilitation in case of torture is about the definition of what we call torture, which is the artifactual violence perpetrated by the “government officials” who are actually assigned for ensuring the safety of persons in the society.

But this is not like any violence or torture, as you said; we are talking about the torture inflicted by state officials and public officials. What distinguishes torture and ill treatment resulting from the abuse of public authority from other forms of torture and ill treatments?

We are not talking about any other perpetrator of violence. We are talking directly about the persons who have the public authority. What we call public authority is the “authority” we give them as the society. Of course, we give this authority to them for a responsibility. We say, “You will not damage physical integrity, you will protect us“. Therefore, any action that harms this integrity is defined within the framework of torture and ill treatment. It is an artifactual situation, which is inflicted by public officials based on the authority we have given them as a society, and harms the sense of trust from the beginning. Because you assign a duty to someone, they inflict torture and ill treatment, which is an extraordinarily powerful factor in shaking your sense of trust. The treatment and rehabilitation process of this is a kind of recovery. Therefore, it cannot be a pure medical approach, if it is based on such a ground, it should be a holistic approach. Firstly, we should highlight “Why did this happen, why did this happen to us?” we call it “the right to truth”. The other important question here is “Who was behind this?” All the responsible persons should also be punished absolutely. Before this punishment is ensured, that is, before the truth is revealed and the responsible ones are punished, it is not an easy for persons subjected to torture to recover completely even if they get “the most qualified medical treatment and rehabilitation”. If “Why did this happen, why did this happen to us?” is not answered, the truth cannot be revealed, and the responsible persons cannot be punished. Moreover, impunity is a reality in countries like ours. This can lead persons to develop a perception that those incidents can happen again and this may force victims into self-blaming.

However, a holistic manner is necessary here, the truth should be revealed, the punishment of all those who are responsible should be ensured and an atmosphere of trust in which these kind of incidents will not be repeated should be built. There are many elements at the legal level, practice level and discourse level in order to build this environment of trust. What we use in everyday life for this is the word “prevention” Prevention of torture. The main reason for the existence of TIHV is this: Like many people living in this country at that time, I was in prison on September 12, I was released in 1986. The Human Rights Association was established in 1986 with the contributions of many respected people. In the human rights environment, after the military coup of 12 September 1980, the first broad field of activity was initiated by the Human Rights Association. We did not establish Human Rights Foundation of Turkey as an alternative for Human Rights Association in order to conduct the same studies. Rather we established it considering the fact that, in this country, as of today, more than one million people were subjected to torture and hundreds of thousands of people were tortured during the 1980 military coup, we established it in order to contribute to the concrete need in that regard in some way, as a result of the discussions in the Human Rights Association and the Turkish Medical Association at that time. We have a main function here, we are talking about torture. We are addressing the treatment and rehabilitation of those who were tortured, regardless of who or wherever or whenever, regardless of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, within or out of the borders of this country, today or 5 years ago, we have an approach with no ifs and buts; regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. This is our fundamental principle.

Is the study of TIHV on taking measures, combating impunity and revealing the truth directly a part of rehabilitation?

Of course, but we are not an institution of law, there are many very valuable such institutions in the country. In this holistic study, it would be an exaggeration to claim that we undertake all the functions of prevention. In order to fulfill all the functions of prevention, we have always made efforts to mobilize volunteer networks in the human rights environment as a whole with healthcare professionals from different disciplines, lawyers, and those working in other fields. That is why, as of today, we have 6 centers, there are permanent workers, contracted employees, but the basic ground is voluntary work since the beginning. In particular, we are a more dominant institution in terms of medical rehabilitation. We are a huge authority on medical documentation, which is critical in prevention, not only in this country, but also in the world. The United Nations has only one document; its short name is the Istanbul Protocol for the documentation and effective investigation of survivors of torture. Why is it Istanbul? Because it was created in 1999 with the contribution of this country, with the knowledge that has been filtered scientifically taking into account the deep pains of this country with the efforts of the respected persons, institutions while equipping it with human rights and it was presented to UN. A rehabilitation process is already inevitable, medical reporting, medical documentation are carried out by us, but beyond that, we also have a network in terms of social, legal, political and other aspects. We are trying to develop and enrich these networks, and we have been continuing the “prevention” activity together, from the very beginning.

You mentioned that an approach with no ifs and buts is your fundamental principle. What is your perspective on gender, sexual orientation and gender identity in these principles?

Saying “no matter who it is” does not mean that we do not pay special attention. Every person who face torture is unique, we take an approach based on the concrete conditions and needs specific to that person’s uniqueness. What are those concrete needs? We are also trying to develop and train ourselves; here the critical threshold is the gender equality perspective. We are trying our best to realize all these in the light of gender equality perspective: from our daily life to the design of our spaces, from the profiles of our colleagues here, to the relations we establish with each other. But more importantly, we are here not for ourselves, but for the survivors of torture. Here, our relation processes with those who faced torture are similar in the whole treatment process from the first moment. Gender identity and sexual orientation are unique. We try to improve ourselves. This is a journey.

I wonder about this journey you mentioned. In 1995, the Gay and Lesbian Rights Commission, which also includes Ankara Kaos GL activists, was established in the Ankara Branch of the Human Rights Association. However, when the board changed, the commission was not approved and the activists left IHD. Could you tell us about your experiences about those days and the stage where you reached today?

As far as I know, the first public activities of our LGBTI friends in Ankara were when they came to the Ankara Branch a year or two after the establishment of IHD, and I was there at that time. I remember that encounter, that first contact. We, too, developed ourselves over time, but I would like to admit here that we had a deep gap when we first met. In terms of my personal history, I remember very well after this encounter, for years we try to determine “There is such a situation, how should we approach?”. I mean, we have not been at our present point since childhood. We have also developed over time. Kaos GL and LGBT persons working in this field have been conducting valuable studies in this country and not only in terms of “programs they determined for themselves” but also in terms of democratic life in Turkey while opening such a valuable area extraordinarily. This is a very precious study, they enrich us all, and an empowerment specific to this area is precious in itself. From this point, of course, we tried to improve ourselves to approach the specific survivors of torture with a gender equality perspective.

Is Human Rights Foundation of Turkey able to reach LGBTI+ persons in terms of rehabilitation and treatment after torture and ill treatment?

The main mission of TIHV is to conduct a documentation study documenting human rights violations under some basic titles including torture, after referring the survivors of torture to treatment and rehabilitation. We are doing this from time to time together with the Human Rights Association (IHD) in particular, in the reports we have prepared for the Human Rights Day. IHD is essential here, but we also prepare daily bulletins about human rights violations, prepare annual reports, prepare special reports. We address these under five basic and subjective titles such as the right to life, personal safety, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and conscience, the right to assembly and demonstration, and the Kurdish issue. Therefore, it is useful to mention the social sexual equality perspective, which is also valid in documentation studies.

Considering the data of our documentation center, we are very sorry that we have not been able to reach LGBTI+ persons enough in terms of treatment and rehabilitation after they are subjected to torture due to their sexual orientation, despite there are large number of examples in that regard.

What is the reason for not reaching them enough? For example, according to the report of Prof. Dr. Melek Göregenli and Evren Özer prepared on the basis of the news published in the newspapers: “Torture in Turkey from the 1980s till today”, there are rare applications made by LGBTI+ persons in the first 20 years of TIHV.

We question this a lot. We reach them difficultly. Some of this is about us. We have difficulties in reaching LGBTI+ persons who face torture on account of sexual orientation, because they do not trust us. The issue of not knowing us may be a reason of this to some extent, they may not know, or those who know us may not trust us enough.

I do not want use pretentious sentences, but it is worth discussing whether it is their preference to deal with these problems in their own environment, and mainly their lack of trust in other environments. But we are trying a lot, for these reasons; we had a kind of two-day private meeting with friends working in all LGBTI fields in Istanbul the previous year. Before that, we had many meetings, and we shared our experiences on contacting with torture and trauma survivors, interview principles, methods of protection from secondary trauma, documenting violations and specifically documenting torture. These meetings were also gatherings that we held about learning things and developing ways of doing things together.

As far as I observed, we got a total of 908 new applications in 2019, very few of them made by LGBTI persons, we are very sorry about that.

How does TIHV receive and distinguish the applications of torture and ill treatment on account of sexual orientation and gender identity?

There is a gender identity section in our application files. In the gender section, there are four options: women, men, trans women and trans men, and we record it with these questions. But there is no question about sexual orientation. We do not ask questions about sexual orientation, but if the person shares it, it will be recorded. We do not ask any specific questions to any of the applicants, and the reason for this approach is the feeling of trust. Because in each question, the relationship between you and the applicant develops in a very special way, the feeling of trust is essential. Questions such as religious belief, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation that could potentially damage the sense of trust, are not asked, since there is a risk of causing different perceptions, the feeling of trust is essential for us. But gender identity is an explicit situation, other identities or special situations are recorded when the person discloses it with us, that information is protected in line with the principle of privacy, it is something that becomes explicit to the extent of the consent. As a result, the persons may not have expressed their sexual orientation in applications because we are not explicitly asked.

For example, suppose that transgender persons informed you about the torture and ill treatment they faced and applied you by sharing their sexual orientation in addition to their gender identity. From this point, how does TIHV contact the applicant and what procedure does it follow?

In the first interview for those who have been tortured, the story with all its elements is taken first. In accordance with the principles of interview, taking the story is done with a didactic way by asking questions and getting answers, but in a way that enables the emergence of the original situation in a process. This causes the feeling of trust to be built. Therefore, everything is not completed in the first interview; it progresses as that feeling of trust is built. Until that stage, it has to be carried out very carefully, the first interview may not be enough, and it may be complemented in the second interview. Our fellow physicians complete the appropriate interview processes, including history taking, then a medical assessment is made. There is a psychological dimension for medical assessment, but also how valuable the assessment to be made by psychological committee is shared with the applicant, and if necessary, such assessment is performed by this committee in that regard, and our social worker friends also complete the social service interview processes. After all this process is completed, that is, after the necessary consultation needs and laboratory needs are completed, an effort to provide a diagnosis is made. After a diagnosis is provided, a treatment process is initiated with physical, psychological or other dimensions based on that diagnosis. In the meantime, since all these are recorded, the basis of medical documentation is formed and as a result, if the person requests a report from us, a report is prepared based on medical documentation. Then, depending on the person’s condition, a treatment process is initiated, which will take a certain period of time. A follow-up process occurs for us to see the treatment is completed and for the person to feel that the treatment is sufficient. As a result, the process after applying to the TIHV does not proceed with immediate contact.

Torture practices based on gender identity or sexual orientation may change. A law enforcement officer can cut the hairs of the trans sex workers in custody, or they can be forced to undergo medical test without their consent in the hospitals. But the same practice may or may not be applied to gays. Do you see any difference in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity? So I want to ask this: Are you conducting a broader interview in the applications you got regarding torture and ill treatment on account of sexual orientation or gender identity?

Of all the abuse and torture, sexual torture, sexual violence is an issue in itself. There are many elements of sexual violence and torture such as verbal, physical violence and insulting, especially against women, children, LGBTI persons. Being tortured specifically on account of sexual orientation is another threshold. Unfortunately, according to our experiences until today, we have observed that such torture and ill treatment can be inflicted more easily. We know that those who are subjected to torture and ill treatment on account of their sexual orientation should be welcomed by a multidisciplinary delegation while trying to develop our approaches and train ourselves on this issue. To the extent that an atmosphere of trust cannot be built, the survivors of torture hesitate to share their psychological and physical experiences. This is a very vulnerable process. In the first meetings, these may not be shared in the first weeks as a result; it is something highly significant in building a sense of trust. As I mentioned, it is necessary to mobilize our more experienced friends, especially in this field, to ensure our internal journey by cooperating with other institutions.

We need this, and I would like to state that we need more joint studies with the institutions working in this field, especially to strengthen the treatment processes of those who faced torture, and to improve ourselves in a common way.

I think you have two different reporting studies. For example, Pride bans or trans murders are reflected in your daily reports. So how are the violations faced on account of gender identity and sexual orientation reflected in your reports?

Reporting is done in two dimensions. One of them is the reporting process, which we call medical documentation, of a person subjected to direct torture. This is a process belongs to the survivors of torture. This is being prepared in an approach that is manifested in what we call the Istanbul Protocol. The second one is the documentation and reporting of torture, ill treatment and violations under 5-6 main titles.

When a person is exposed to torture, Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, together with the experts, makes the medical assessment of torture faced by the persons and prepares a report on that. In other reporting, we try to closely monitor daily life in a specific framework such as the right to life, personal safety, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and conscience, the right to assembly and demonstration, and the Kurdish issue. At this daily monitoring, daily bulletins are prepared after the verification processes are completed as much as possible. It is then reported under certain issues. Certain titles and special reports can be prepared according to the agenda.

We monitor persons who lost their lives as a result of hate crimes on account of their sexual orientation or gender identity and we address these under the title of right to life. In the daily bulletin, it is always included under special titles in the reports we prepare from time to time, especially for 26 June International Day in Support of Victims of Torture and for 10 December Human Rights Week. In the context of personal safety, torture and ill treatment, we mention LGBTI persons subjected to this type of treatment in special bulletins, interim reports, under relevant titles. The prohibition of the Pride was reflected in the reports on the violation of the right to assembly and demonstration, and we monitored it day by day.

Have you been able to monitor the torture and ill treatment cases against LGBTI+ persons during the curfews during the state of emergency? During this period, there were torture and ill treatment by security forces against women and LGBTI+ persons. Are those cases reflected in your reports?

If I say for myself, I am one of those feeling that whatever works done will be not enough in this country, our works will not be enough. Those were not enough in the curfew issue, we were very active in the following processes, yes, but this was not enough. Your question aroused me: Lets do something together, it is not too late. Maybe it is too late on the one hand, but not too late on the other. Our Cizre Report, which we prepared together with various institutions, is based on the visit we made after the curfew ended after 79 days, for example, we addressed many issues there, but as you mentioned, torture and ill treatment of LGBTI persons was not included in the report. We could not do it; we addressed the children, but not LGBTI persons. For example, together with the Gündem Çocuk Association, we determined certain titles for this report at that time, but we later carried out a very valuable holistic work on children in armed conflict. As you say, it is too late on the one hand, yes, we apologize for this, but on the other hand it is not too late. We do not have much concrete data; this is something that needs to be worked on. Lets work together, please. Although we had such a perspective at that time, although we tried to look with this perspective, we could not make any meaningful work.

We will learn a lot, will learn together and develop this together. We want to continue our work in meeting the LGBTI persons I mentioned, we want to strengthen it. These must be ongoing relations to meet the needs.

Finally, I would like to ask you about the representation right of sexual orientation and gender identity in the “founding principles of TIHV”.

We have determined the new founding principles of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey in 2013. One of them is about representation of sexual orientation and gender identity. We encourage this in the recruitment of new founders and employees. We have a founding statement for ensuring the representation of gays and transgender individuals: “To conduct studies for the representation of gays and transgender persons who continue their struggle for human rights in the perspective of sexual orientation and gender identity”.

Translation: Özge Gökpınar

Tags: human rights