Providing free legal services to victims of police torture

A group of attorneys in the Izmir Bar Association (IBA) in Turkey organized its members to provide free services to victims of police torture.

Torture, especially beating, is widespread in Turkish law enforcement and perpetrators are protected by the system. The public prosecutor can ignore a complaint of torture or ill-treatment. An accused person may say to the judge, “I was ill-treated at the station,” but the judge would ignore the statement saying that is a separate issue from what is currently being considered: the crime for which the suspect is being accused. However, international law, which Turkey has now signed to, provides that an effective investigation of complaints of ill-treatment must be conducted. These laws were reflected in the Turkish Penal Code but in the five years since the laws were in force, not one person had been imprisoned for the crime of torture.

In order to encourage victims of police torture to bring cases forward, the IBA provided participating attorneys with training in prosecuting torturers. This training included the medical aspects of torture, the listening and documentation skills needed to build a case and other aspects of human rights law.

The IBA also developed methods to advertise their services and encourage victims to come forward. They developed posters stating, “Don’t be scared; Don’t remain silent; Just phone us.” These poster messages were hung in NGOs and court houses. Business cards were produced that could be distributed with the number for the victims to call for help and assistance. The cards have been effective. In fact, one person called to let them know that he showed the card to a policeman who was going to beat him and the policeman let him go. There is also a 24-hour on-call service.

After the training, each lawyer took one case file to investigate, agreeing to provide their services for free. The Bar Association paid the costs for filing fees and other case expenses. The group also established committees to cover training and skill improvement, supervision, media and public relations, publications/translation, and international connections.

Founded by a group of 4-5 attorneys, the project initially included 45 attorneys willing to prosecute torturers. The group has grown to include 234 people providing direct or support services for human rights cases.

 In the year and a half since the project's implantation, 304 cases had been brought to the Association. They have developed a reputation among the police stations which likely has a strong preventative effect. The project has also heightened judges' awareness of the problem of police torture.

 The group’s reputation has continued to grow among police stations and government ministers receiving letters to the “group preventing torture.” In addition, they have been able to increase the awareness and sensitivity of many judges to such crimes. The European Union has taken notice of their efforts and mentioned their group as an indication of the improvements taking place in Turkey, as well as a sizable upcoming grant from the European Union to continue and expand their efforts. The tactic was successful reached far beyond their expectations. They greatly encourage similar structures to be implemented in other bar associations throughout Turkey.


New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Professional associations can be allies in carrying out human rights work.  This case study highlights a professional association of lawyers that used its members’ expertise in law to fill a gap in an effort to end impunity for torture.  It provides an example of a tactic that reduced fear among victims by connecting them to the necessary resources to take action against perpetrators of human rights violations.  It also highlights one way professionals can help raise awareness about human rights abuses among colleagues – in this case, through pro bono work, a group of lawyers was able to increase knowledge of police torture within the judicial system.