Law enforcement officials sent to police the region devastated by Türkiye’s 6 February earthquakes have beaten, tortured, and otherwise ill-treated people they suspect of theft and looting, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today. One person died in custody after being tortured. In some instances, law enforcement officials have also failed to intervene to prevent individuals from violently assaulting other people they allegedly suspected of crimes.
While there have been reported incidents of theft and looting of homes and shops in the aftermath of the earthquake, presenting law enforcement officers with an enormous security challenge, international law and Türkiye’s own laws forbid the commission of torture or other ill-treatment of suspects under any circumstances. The Turkish government has long claimed to uphold a “zero tolerance for torture” policy.
“Credible reports of police, gendarmes and military personnel subjecting people they suspect of crimes, to violent and prolonged beatings and arbitrary, unofficial detention are a shocking indictment of law enforcement practices in Türkiye’s earthquake region,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia Director at Human Rights Watch.
“Law enforcement officials are treating the state of emergency for the natural disaster as a license to torture, otherwise ill-treat and even kill with impunity.”
Law enforcement officials are treating the state of emergency for the natural disaster as a license to torture, otherwise ill-treat and even kill with impunity.Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia Director, Human Rights Watch
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch interviewed 34 people and, where available, reviewed video footage regarding 13 cases of violence perpetrated by police, gendarmerie — police in rural areas — or soldiers deployed to the area, involving 34 male victims. Researchers heard additional accounts and saw videos of other people being severely beaten by security forces, but were unable to fully corroborate these incidents. The people interviewed included 12 victims of torture or other ill-treatment, two people who gendarmes threatened at gunpoint, witnesses, and lawyers.
While in four cases documented by the organizations private individuals assisting with earthquake relief also participated in beating the victims, the main focus of the research was on abuse committed by public officials. All but three cases of torture and other ill-treatment occurred in Antakya city in Hatay province. In four cases, the victims were Syrian refugees and the attacks bore signs of additional xenophobic motivation.
All incidents occurred in the 10 provinces covered by a state of emergency, announced by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 7 February and approved by the parliament two days later. The state of emergency during a natural disaster grants the government powers such as issuing decrees ordering the use of private and public resources — land, buildings, vehicles, fuel, medical supplies and food — in the rescue and relief effort, the use of the military to assist, control over opening hours of businesses in the affected region and restricting entry to the region.
One Turkish man said that a gendarme threatened him, saying: “There is a state of emergency, we will kill you…We will kill you and bury you under the rubble.” One Syrian man said that a police superintendent to whom he complained when an officer punched him in the face told him: “There’s a state of emergency here. Even if that officer kills you, he won’t be held accountable. No one would be able to say anything to him.”
On 17 March, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch wrote to Türkiye’s interior and justice ministers to share the research findings and request information about investigations into complaints of abuse lodged and video evidence circulating on social media. On 29 March, the human rights directorate of the Ministry of Justice responded in the name of both the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Interior. The ministries asserted that the government of Türkiye has a zero tolerance for torture and alleged that the findings Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch shared were “vague claims devoid of a factual basis.” The response did not address the human rights organizations’ findings or the questions asked about specific cases or policing practices in the earthquake region under the state of emergency. The ministries’ joint response instead focused on the scale of the earthquake, the devastation and relief efforts.
Most victims described being apprehended by groups of police, gendarmes, or soldiers while involved in search and rescue efforts of buildings destroyed by the earthquake or while passing through neighborhoods in Antakya. In the majority of cases, victims were not taken into official custody, but were immediately beaten or made to lie or kneel down while being kicked, slapped and sworn at for prolonged periods, sometimes while handcuffed. Some were forced to confess to crimes. But in only two cases has there been any subsequent investigation pursued against the victims for alleged crimes, casting serious doubt on whether there was ever any real suspicion that they may have been acting illegally.
“My house is ruined, I live in a tent and on top of it the police beat me and held a gun to my head,” one man said. “They acted like it was the wild west.”
A 19-year-old victim said: “I lost all sense of time and it felt like the whole thing went on for an hour and a half or two. First it was the three, then a whole big group of police came and joined in, with punches, kicks.”
Victims or their families lodged official complaints about the violence they were subjected to by officials in just six cases out of the 13 examined, one by a man who reported that he and his brother were subject to prolonged bouts of torture in gendarmerie custody and that his brother subsequently collapsed and died in detention.
In the other seven cases, victims said they would not lodge official complaints because they were afraid of reprisals and because they felt the chance of obtaining justice was remote. Several also said the death of family members and friends in the earthquake and the momentous upheavals in their own lives overshadowed the abuse they endured at the hands of the police and gendarmerie.
Syrians in particular were most reluctant to file an official complaint. One woman who was working as a translator for foreign search and rescue teams said: “Most of the gendarmes treated Syrians like thieves and were very aggressive towards them. They didn’t accept Syrians in the rescue teams and grew very angry.”
Most of the gendarmes treated Syrians like thieves and were very aggressive towards them.Translator working with foreign search and rescue teams
Another Syrian search and rescue volunteer, who helped save several Turkish and Syrian people buried in rubble but found himself a victim of gendarmerie and crowd violence, said: “I won’t lodge a complaint because I believe nothing will happen. I am afraid to go out because pictures of my car appeared on social media and there were videos circulating of us… We are afraid of being attacked again. I didn’t go to hospital or get a medical report because I was afraid of being considered a looter and we are Syrian.”
One witness described “three young men of around 20-25 who looked like workers and poor being beaten by soldiers as ‘looters,’ with the soldiers encouraging private citizens standing around to join in the beating.” Another interviewee said he saw a seemingly senior military officer address a crowd of people in Samandağ, near Antakya, from his car and say: “When you catch looters, beat them up as you like, give them their just desserts, but don’t kill them, call us.”
Turkish officials should conduct full, prompt, and impartial criminal and administrative investigations into all reports from the earthquake region of police, gendarmerie, and military personnel torturing or otherwise ill-treating people, regardless of whether they suspect the victims of criminal activities, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said.
“The harrowing descriptions and images of wanton violence by law enforcement officials abusing their power in the midst of the worst natural disaster the country has ever faced cannot be just swept away,” said Nils Muižnieks, Amnesty International’s Europe director.
The harrowing descriptions and images of wanton violence by law enforcement officials abusing their power in the midst of the worst natural disaster the country has ever faced cannot be just swept away.Nils Muižnieks, Europe Director, Amnesty International
“All victims, including those who are refugees, have a right to justice and reparations for the harm they have endured. The authorities must launch criminal investigations without any delay, into all cases of torture and other ill-treatment by police, gendarmerie and other law enforcement officials and bring those responsible to justice.”
Findings and accounts
In the aftermath of the February 6 earthquakes, politicians in the region made threatening comments about incidents of theft in the affected provinces. Ümit Özdağ, leader of the small far-right Victory Party (Zafer Partisi) tweeted that police and soldiers should be given the order to shoot looters. On February 10, government spokesman, Ömer Çelik, told the media during a hospital visit to injured earthquake victims: “I want to be loud and clear, we will be extremely ruthless. We warn those who engage in looting, they should know that they will live with the shame for the rest of their lives.”
From February 10 onwards, video footage of people wearing police, gendarme and military clothing beating people in locations that resembled the earthquake area began to circulate on social media. Several videos came from Telegram channels with names that made reference to looting, sometimes with a derogatory implication, such as “Earthquake Looter Crooks” (Deprem Yağmacıları Şerefsizler)) or “Looter Bastards” (Yağmacı Piç Kuruları).
Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab verified details of 10 videos showing violence by people apparently wearing official security forces uniforms. Four of the videos clearly show official security forces beating people, sometimes while the victims’ hands were bound. All the footage, which is available online and has been widely circulated, shows official security forces openly committing violent acts and merits further investigation.
Amnesty International also used videos to confirm the location of two incidents in which people wearing vests used by emergency volunteers participated in an attack while police or gendarmerie were present. In at least four cases documented, photo and video evidence corroborated the testimony of victims and witnesses interviewed by the organizations.
Case of Ahmet and Sabri Güreşçi
Among the cases examined was the harrowing evidence of the torture by the gendarmerie of brothers Sabri Güreşçi, 37, and Ahmet Güreşçi, 27, leading to Ahmet’s death in custody. No video footage was located, although Sabri Güreşçi said that gendarmes had filmed them while beating them.
In an interview with our researchers and a February 13 official complaint to the police, Sabri Güreşçi said that on February 11, gendarmes detained him and Ahmet at their home in the Büyükburç neighborhood of the Altınözü district of Hatay, on suspicion of looting and other crimes.
As soon as the gendarmes arrived, Sabri Güreşçi and his wife said, the gendarmes fired four or five times into the air even though he and his brother showed no resistance. After the brothers were put into a vehicle, up to 15 gendarmes beat them on their heads, arms, and legs with batons, slapped and punched them, and insulted and threatened them. This continued until they arrived at Altınözü Gendarmerie Station.
In contravention of the law, the brothers were not taken to a doctor for a medical examination before being taken to the station. They were held in a place that resembled a storage room instead of a cell, where up to 10 gendarmes hosed them down with water and beat them for a prolonged period, stripped them naked, squeezed their testicles, and attempted anal rape of the men with batons.
Sabri Güreşçi quoted the gendarmes as saying: “There is a state of emergency, we will kill you… We will kill you and bury you under the rubble… We’re going to say the public lynched you.” After this, Sabri said, Ahmet lost consciousness and vomited blood, upon which he was taken to hospital and pronounced dead.
A February 12 autopsy with the prosecutor present found an injury to the brain that might have caused his death and multiple bruises on his body. The Forensic Medical Institute’s full evaluation of the autopsy report to determine the exact cause of death is pending.
A subsequent medical report on Sabri Güreşçi found multiple abrasions, lesions and long bruises on his shoulders, back, buttocks and limbs, and a broken thumb, consistent with his account of having been beaten with batons and kicked by the gendarmes. The Altinözu Public Prosecutor’s Office initiated an investigation (file no. 2023/302), requesting a secrecy order for its duration, which a court granted.
Sabri was released from detention, with a travel ban pending the outcome of the criminal investigation against him. Three gendarmerie officers have reportedly been suspended from duty pending investigation. Sabri Güreşçi said he identified nine of the officers who played an active role in torturing him and his brother, resulting in his brother’s death.
Case of Five Kurdish Men from Diyarbakır
A second very serious allegation of torture by the Adıyaman gendarmerie and police was reported to the Diyarbakır chief public prosecutor’s office on February 14 by lawyers representing R.T., İ.T., E.T., Y.A., and A.T., five young Kurdish men from Diyarbakır who had travelled in a group of seven to Adıyaman to assist with search and rescue efforts on February 11. As in some other cases, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are using initials for them to protect their privacy, at their request.
The men’s complaint to the prosecutor said that gendarmes took them from the site of a collapsed building, where rescue efforts were underway, without explanation. They were taken to a nearby tent full of gendarmes and police, who accused them of looting or stealing. Four or five gendarmes and a police officer, along with some people in civilian clothes, beat them.
About an hour later, they were taken to a police station in a white minibus with two of the gendarmes, one of whom said: “In case one of them moves, blow their brains out.” At the police station at around 10 p.m. about 30 police officers reportedly slapped, punched, kicked, and beat the men with hands, feet, batons, and sticks. Some police officers apparently recorded the torture on their phones. Then, the police seized their phones, IDs, wallets, and clothes, leaving the men in their underwear.
They were forced to get back on the same white bus and were not allowed to sit but rather were crammed between the seats. As the bus moved off, police officers forced them to falsely confess to looting and say “we are thieves and sons of bitches,” which the police officers also recorded on their phones. They were beaten and subjected to insults and death threats during the journey.
At around midnight, they were forced out of the minibus at a deserted area almost 10 kilometers outside the city. In sub-zero temperatures, the police poured water over the stripped men and forced them to crawl on the ground. After giving their IDs back, the police abandoned them there. One man had managed to hide a phone in his underwear and was able to call for help.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch examined the criminal complaint, spoke to R.T., who confirmed the details, reviewed video footage of the men when they were rescued that had been shared on social media, and spoke to a journalist who was one of the first to interview them at the Adıyaman location where they were taken after their ordeal. One of the men was hospitalized after the incident with a serious eye injury.
Case of R.A. and Family Members
R.A., 51, said that on February 18 police special operations officers arrived at his cousin’s house in Iskenderun, where he and his family were staying after their home had been badly damaged in the earthquake:
“A special operations police officer dressed in full camouflage, mask, and a shield pointed a gun at me and told me to get down on the ground. In a few minutes, me, my son, my cousin and his three sons were all on the ground. They beat us all so terribly. They beat us with kicks, punches and batons. While beating us, they said, ‘You’re thieves. You’ve stolen.’ While searching the house, they broke every single door, damaged our personal belongings.”
R.A. and his son, and his cousin A.Y., and his three sons, were handcuffed and taken to a police bus where he said the beating continued as they were transferred to the Denizciler police station in Iskenderun. R.A. said a police officer in regular uniform “told me he was from Yozgat, pulled me to a spot with no cameras and beat me separately while other officers watched him and did nothing to stop him. They broke my teeth, my rib, bruised my eyes, there are so many bruises all over my body.” The police officer’s reference to being from Yozgat can be understood as a racist reference to the fact that R.A. is Kurdish since some people from Yozgat pride themselves on being Turkish nationalists.
R.A. said his cousin, A.Y., owns a telephone and electronics shop in Iskenderun and with his sons had removed all their products from the shop for security reasons. Another shopkeeper in the same bazaar reported to the police that electronic goods from his shop had been stolen and that A.Y. and his sons could have been the thieves since they were seen in the area. This prompted the police raid on A.Y’s house. Police also detained three Syrian men who worked in the same bazaar and were also staying at the house. R.A. was released under a judicial control order pending the completion of the criminal investigation.
Case of Ömer Türkmen and his Nephews
Ömer Türkmen, 37, said that, on February 24, special operations police officers attacked him and his two nephews, Nizam Doğan, 20, and Mehmet Ali Doğan, 18, outside his home in the Saraykent neighborhood of Antakya. His home had been damaged in the earthquake and the three were visiting it. One police officer ran an ID check on him, accused him of being a thief with a criminal record, and punched him on the left side of his face below his brow, knocking him down. The officer then struck him on the head with the butt of his gun, pointed the gun at him and said, “I’ll kill you here.” Other police officers also kicked him in the stomach as he was on the ground.
The police also beat his nephews, who had tried to help Türkmen. A half-hour later, when a police superintendent and other officers arrived in a vehicle, Türkmen explained that this was his home. The superintendent said there was no need to prolong the issue, that the matter was closed, and although he apologized, he said to Türkmen: “If I’d been here, you’d have been in an even worse state.”
On February 25, Türkmen obtained a hospital medical report documenting his injuries and on the same day filed a formal complaint at a police tent in the garden of the Antakya district governor’s office.
Case of M.G. and C.T.
All but three of the 13 cases documented involved police and gendarmes beating and otherwise ill-treating people outside formal places of custody without producing a written record of the apprehension or de facto detention of the individual.
On February 10, police badly beat M.G., and his friend C.T., both 19 and from Antakya. M.G. said they were beaten in the Armutlu neighborhood shortly after the two took a break from helping with rescue efforts at the building where C.T.’s aunt and cousin were trapped under the rubble. The two young men went into a nearby building to go to the toilet, after consulting a gendarme about where they should go for toilet facilities. M.G. said that police followed them into the building:
They gave us no time to explain and wouldn’t listen to us and just began to beat us. I thought it would stop when we got out of that building but it was just the beginning.
M.G. said that the police dragged him from the building first, where several people, among them police and gendarmes, attacked him:
“A whole big group came and joined in, with punches, kicks. I lost all sense of time and it felt like the whole thing went on for an hour and a half or two. We were taken to three different places, put in different vehicles. We were handcuffed from behind by police officers, unable to defend ourselves and made to lie face down. We couldn’t speak as they swore at us, laughed at us, one said he would get rid of his stress on us and said things like ‘God sent you to us’. When we managed to ask them to call C’s aunt and they called her, they realized we were not looters. They released us.”
M.G. and C.T. have medical reports documenting their injuries and on February 12 lodged a formal complaint with the police and prosecutor’s office in Ürgüp, Nevşehir, where they subsequently went to stay with relatives.
Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab also verified and analyzed a 32-second video of the two young men being beaten that circulated on four Telegram channels on February 12. C.T. confirmed that he and M.G. are the men in the video. The video shows a doorway to a building, with M.G. exiting with police officers and a group in civilian clothes attacking him with police officers participating and gendarmes present. C.T. is seen at the door but goes back inside as the beating starts.
A man in the background can be heard saying: “Come, come out. Get beaten so you come to your senses. Okay, bust up his face and mouth.” About nine people are seen in the video in addition to the two victims. Two are in gendarmerie uniforms. One man wears the light green vest of a construction company. Another man next to him holds a bar that looks like it is made of metal and appears to get ready to beat M.G. A voice in the background warns the man with the metal bar: “Not with metal.”
When the beating intensifies, two more men wearing camouflage appear and try to break up the beating along with the other two gendarmes. The man recording the video says “Looting ha? Beat the faggot. People are dealing with the earthquake and look what you’re doing.”’ Toward the end of the video, two police officers in uniform and another man in camouflage appear. C.T. confirmed that M.G. was the first to leave the building and was beaten, while the police officers inside the building pulled C.T. back.
Torture and other ill-treatment of Syrian Refugees Who Travelled to Antakya
Researchers interviewed seven Syrian refugees from neighboring towns and provinces who travelled to Antakya to help with the earthquake search and rescue efforts to save relatives, friends, and people unknown to them from the rubble. All those interviewed said that police, gendarmes, and soldiers treated them badly, roughly ordered them about, “repeatedly addressed with the hateful ‘Syrian, do this; Syrian, do that!’” as H, a 48-year-old man, described the humiliating experience of being verbally abused during identity checks.
During searches as they entered Antakya, three men, A., L., and H., said the gendarmes emptied their small backpacks into the street “because we were Syrian.” At other times they were addressed as “traitor, thief” and the verbal abuse escalated to physical violence and beating.
U., 28, said that he and a group of 11 friends had travelled from the nearby town of Reyhanlı to Antakya to help with search and rescue on the day of the earthquakes. On February 11, they had returned to Reyhanlı with two bodies recovered from the rubble, one of a man from the same village as U. in Idlib province, and with the electric bike of another man who had asked them to collect it for him. They stopped in Antakya to have some soup. U. said that a group of private people and gendarmes accused them of theft and started to beat them. Several managed to run away but at least six were beaten:
“People gathered round us and attacked us. They were wearing vests as they were civilians helping with the rescue effort. They accused us of stealing the bodies and a bike in the pickup truck. The gendarmes were there and fired into the air. We explained to them that we were taking the bodies in the car but they pointed Kalashnikovs at our faces, beat us up very badly, then another group of soldiers came and we were handcuffed.”
We explained to them that we were taking the bodies in the car but they pointed Kalashnikovs at our faces, beat us up very badly, then another group of soldiers came and we were handcuffed.
The men were taken to a place near the Prime Mall shopping mall in Antakya, made to hand over their phones and then instructed to open them with the pin numbers to prove they were the actual owners. The men suffered facial injuries and bruising but none have decided to lodge complaints saying they were concerned that the gendarmes would not be held accountable and that they could be subjected to reprisals. Researchers examined and verified footage of the attack on the men that was later posted on at least four Telegram channels.
The Turkish authorities should:
- conduct full, prompt, and impartial investigations into all allegations of torture or other ill-treatment perpetrated by police, gendarmerie, and military personnel in the earthquake region;
- conduct full investigations into xenophobic or racially motivated conduct, including verbal threats and physical attacks, by law enforcement personnel against Syrian or other foreign nationals;
- ensure that all victims have access to reparations for the harm they have endured, in line with their right, and Turkey’s obligations, under international law;
- review all available video footage of such incidents from social media, including Telegram channels, to identify members of the security forces directly involved in incidents of torture or other ill-treatment, or failing to prevent or intervene in incidents where private individuals have taken justice into their own hands by violently assaulting people with impunity;
- conduct a full review of whether senior police officers, gendarmes, and military personnel gave orders to personnel under their command indicating that the declaration of a state of emergency legitimized torture or other ill-treatment;
- conduct a full review of law enforcement in the state of emergency region to end the flagrant abuse of policing powers and to ensure the security and safety of the population; this includes ensuring strict adherence in all cases to lawful methods of apprehension, detention, and processing of suspected criminals, and full compliance with obligations to secure medical reports for detainees and take detainees promptly before prosecutors and judges.