This past weekend I was detained and taken into custody by Turkish police near Ankara’s Kizilay Square, a few blocks away from my family’s apartment on the 1 year anniversary of the 2013 Gezi Park protests. The most dangerous weapon I was in possession of was a Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS 10 camera and while Article 34 of the Turkish Constitution allows peaceful demonstrations to be held without prior permission, 118 people including myself were rounded up in Ankara.
My 8 hour detention gave me a firsthand look into a dangerous process that has become disturbingly routine in Turkey for citizens and foreigners alike. Such demonstrations tend to occur in busy areas travelers are likely to frequent, like Istanbul’s Taksim Square, and the risk of death is very real. Police have fatally shot demonstrators in the head, killed 15 year old Berkin Elvan by firing a tear gas canister at his head, and been so brazen that even Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has been videoed punching a protestor.
You are seriously risking abuse, injury, or death by a police force that often travels in gangs, both in uniform and plain-clothed, arresting and beating people at will if they are found anywhere near a demonstration. Take caution to avoid protests but in case you can’t or decide to be a one-person media outlet, this is what to expect and how to prepare.
Your Passport Won’t Matter
The first parts of such an ordeal will generally be the same whether you’re a Turkish citizen like me or a foreign national. Your nationality won’t provide you any protection as CNN’s Ivan Watson recently demonstrated by being detained while giving a live report from Istanbul.
Police often implement a similar tactic of crowd and pounce on civilians near a demonstration. They’ll typically set up lines of provocation in disproportionate numbers, attempting to block the movement of demonstrating groups. Multiple tear gas canisters will be at best, shot above demonstrators, at worst, directly at them, causing stampedes, as police rush forward before quickly retreating back to their original line.
As all of this goes on, smaller groups of about 20 police run around side streets with batons waving in a government sanctioned meet and greet. These scenes are repeated several more times while police stealthily position themselves around protestors. The rush and retreats seem designed to desensitize everyone so when they finally do come, you’re caught off guard. Many of those detained are random targets although a number seem to have been carefully picked out in advance.
The Arrest Is The Most Dangerous Point
The moment in which police, usually in teams of 5-10, take you under arrest is the most dangerous for you physically. The amount of tear gas fired makes seeing beyond a few meters very difficult; within a few seconds to minutes the gas begins to suffocate your disoriented body. You’ll be yelled at and may be accused of having weapons or committing crimes in a threatening manner. Verbal taunting is nearly guaranteed but within the chaos there are other abuses. Ten minutes after I was tied in plastic handcuffs, a police officer sprayed me point blank with pepper spray. Given what others endured that evening, I was very fortunate to not have suffered any major physical injury.
Do not speak with police beyond giving them your identity and nationality if asked. Try to remain calm as many of the young, agitated police are a wrong gesture away from becoming violent.
Your First Stop Is Hospital
After you are apprehended, you’ll eventually be escorted to a police car that will take you to a local hospital. During the ride police will likely ask you more questions, make accusations, and incite fear by mentioning punishments. Fortunately, over 100 volunteer lawyers from groups like the Cagdas Hukukcular Dernegi (“Progressive Lawyers Association“) will be waiting for you at the hospital to tell you the truth while providing council. Photos of any injuries – another good reason to never travel without insurance – will be taken and documented by the group of lawyers.
The volunteer lawyers work without pay to defend and inform you of your rights, answer any questions, and contact family members. In the case of foreign nationals, they will get in touch with the appropriate embassy. Many will know English but for those not confident speaking the language, it’s in your best interest to let the lawyers know right away so they can make arrangements for a translator to be present.
Then, depending on the total number of people detained, you’re going to wait around to see a nurse that will take a health report. Let them know of any physical harm you’ve come under before they breathalyze you. (It’s not illegal to drink alcohol in Turkey or be drunk; this test is standard for anyone taken into custody.)
Now To The Police Station
Just as the situation begins calming down at the hospital, you’re moved to a police station where your identification is again processed. Keep in mind questions will continue to be asked about any and all things – from religion to politics to what you were doing at the time of your arrest. Under Turkish law, you aren’t obligated to say anything other than information pertaining to your identity. Take a page out of The Art Of War: be brief and don’t volunteer information.
All of the belongings on your person, like mobile phone, which you’ve had access to this entire time will be confiscated. The police will carefully document every item in your wallet, pockets, jewelry, plus your shoelaces before taking them. You get to keep any cash before signing a document verifying what you just handed over. Now, it’s starting to feel more like jail.
Men and women are all processed separately but in any event you’ll get to spend a few hours sitting in a holding room with members of the same sex.
Briefing Before Statement
Eventually it will be time for everyone to be moved to another part of the building to give statements. Prior to the questions, a group of the lawyers who were previously at the hospital will give you a briefing, so you know what to expect. They’ll give you advice on statement semantics, not leaving your side until police document what you have to say.
<Insert a lot more waiting around here.>
Now, you’re going back to the hospital for one more check up (to make sure the police didn’t abuse you at the station basically). Some more documenting and under most circumstances if you weren’t causing damage or harming others, you’re released… unless you’re not a Turkish citizen.
- Next, What Happens If You’re Not A Turkish Citizen – After all of the above, you’ll be sent to a special police processing center for foreigners. After some time there plus a few days, chances of your deportation are fairly good.
Hours After The Hours Of Release
Anything that’s been confiscated is returned, whether you’re a Turk or foreigner, as the first night of detention is nearly over. Assuming you haven’t actually committed a crime (e.g. vandalism), you’re either released or deported. (In the case of the latter, that process can take several days.) Although I can’t speak to the specifics after this point, for all detainees, the state prosecutors may try to open a case against you.
The first night however has ended and as the sun begins to light the sky, dawn awakens you to the fact that none of this should have happened at all. Since it has, you realize everything could have been done in an hour if the powers that be had been bothered not to make every step along the way as inconvenient as possible.
Wow! What a story..process. My heart goes out to all my friends in Ankara. It’s great that you came out of this relatively unscathed.
Thank you for the support, I appreciate it.
Hi Anil: Very chilling to read about something that happened in Istanbul, in the exact spots I stood just months earlier. I wonder about a couple of things. 1) Are you now going to be deported? and 2) I see that you have removed one video and that afp has blocked a second video that they have posted, despite the fact that they have enabled sharing, which I also find concerning. Any more information/thoughts on this?
I cannot be deported as a Turkish citizen. As for the videos, I see the CNN one has been taken down, I’ll replace with an alternative. Thanks for letting me know.
Anil, that was a very scary post. A couple of us are planning a trip to Istanbul in a few weeks and want to know whether we should defer. Glad you are safe.
There aren’t any planned demonstrations or anniversaries that I know of but in any event, if you avoid them if so, you shouldn’t have any problems.
Hi Anil, Thanks for sharing your story.
It’s interesting to get an insider’s story?
I believe you mentioned your dad is a political writer, how is he faring in this regime?
What a scary story. I can’t imagine the terror those police has given you. If it was me I would cry all the time while they were questioning me. Thanks for giving insights on Turkish law, I’d stay from the demonstration whenever I’m on the area.
The situation sounds like it is getting intense there. Thank you for sharing. I’m glad you got through it.
It’s a tense situation not defusing:
“You are seriously risking abuse, injury, or death by a police force that often travels in gangs, both in uniform and plain-clothed, arresting and beating people at will…”
Sounds like cops just about everywhere… whether near a demonstration or not. I’m sorry you had this experience.
Anil great article… informative.
The scenes look quite violent (not to mention the police tactics). Was this a peaceful demo gone wrong, or a flat-out riot march? I wonder about the percentage of demonstration instigators versus peaceful ones or “turncoat” undercover police? It seems likely the cops prefer to escalate demo’s into riots—is this accurate?
Glad you got out relatively unscathed!
The demonstration was peaceful but escalated quickly into a standoff with police who tried to disperse the crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets.