By BETÜL SAĞKOL
The number of women in jails in Turkey has never been this high, even at times of war, military coup, martial law or state of emergency. As a result of operations launched by President Erdoğan after the July 15 “controlled coup” –as described by the leader of the main opposition party CHP– to clear out all opposition groups, the number of women taken into jails in Turkey has reached 17,000 –women who are judges, prosecutors, teachers, doctors, journalists, housewives; women from all walks of life. Among them, there is such a group of women who are spending most sensitive, very special and very critical stage of their lives in prison: pregnant and puerperant women.
In addition to the conventions securing the fundamental rights and freedoms such as the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 12 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to which Turkey is also a party, emphasises the situation of pregnant women and imposes some obligations on the states parties “during their pregnancy and post-natal periods”. With this convention, pregnant women and women in their postnatal recovery are sought to be taken under an extra care and special protection. As we will explain below, the arrests and detentions imposed on pregnant and puerperant women in Turkey in the course of the past year are certainly not in compliance with the obligations Turkey is bound under the convention.
Not only the international conventions but also domestic laws consider the special circumstances of pregnant or puerperant women and regulations are secured with a view to protect them. Article 100 of the Turkish Criminal Code of Procedures clearly orders that there shall be no arrest warrant rendered if arrest is not proportionate to the importance of the case, expected punishment or security measure. Article 16 of the Law on the Execution of Sentences and Security Measures states that “Execution of sentences for pregnant and puerperant women shall be delayed for six months”. Article 116 of the same law says that the execution of a sentence may be delayed for detained persons due to an illness. Even when we evaluate the situation of these women under only these three provisions let alone the universal principles of law, it is clearly understood that pregnant women may not be detained, unless they have committed an exceptionally series crime.
Prohibition of arresting pregnant or puerperant women is a fundamental right within the scope of the rights to life and health. This right may only be restricted by law and under certain very compelling circumstances. As clearly stated under Article 13 of the Constitution, even when duly restricting these rights, the essence of the fundamental right to life/health may not be infringed.
Brain development of a baby is mostly completed in the womb of its mother. The first three months of pregnancy is very important for the baby’s brain development and the intake of nutritious food by expectant mother during this period of time is especially crucial to meet the requirements for the baby’s fast growth rate and brain development. Considering that foods from outside are not allowed into the prison and those supplied by the prison lack proper nutrition, it is obvious that a detained mother-to-be will not be able to provide her baby most of the needed basic nutrients.
For their health, pregnant women also need to keep their muscles fit, be active, make sports and take walks in the fresh air during the nine-month period. An inactive pregnancy can cause complications both during and after giving birth. Since a pregnant woman who is staying with many other detainees in prison where she is not allowed to go out to fresh air as much as she needs and cannot move enough, it is obvious that neither she nor her baby can inhale sufficient amount of oxygen under these conditions.
Stress is a major issue during pregnancy. Because of the hormones extracted during pregnancy, pregnant women become stressful and are more prone to anxiety and depression. Scientific researches suggest that high stress level of a pregnant woman directly affects her baby’s brain functions and behaviours. The stress that the expectant mother has suffered during pregnancy can cause her baby to have hyperactivity disorder and emotional/behavioural problems. To be exposed to a stressful situation in the first three months of a woman’s pregnancy, during which the vital organs of the foetus are getting developed, increases the rate of her child to be born with a congenital disorder by 50 per cent, while an extremely high level of stress can even cause baby’s death.
In the light of such informative scientific data, it is not difficult to estimate what kind of adverse effects this type and level of stress may have caused on the physical and emotional health of the babies and the pregnant women. They were accused of being terrorists whilst looking forward to embracing their babies; their houses were raided by the police; they were arrested and kept for hours standing up and denied going out even for toilet; and they have since been put into detention; they live with the worry that they might lose their babies at any time and witness the tragedies of other women staying in the same ward.
Despite the free media is blacked out to a great extent in Turkey, the news leak out via social media depicts a very worrisome picture. It has become an ordinary event anymore to hear that the police waits in front of maternity wards to arrest new mothers. There are women who had to give birth to their babies under extreme pressure knowing that they are going to be arrested as soon as they give birth. There are women arrested accompanied with their babies just after birth, who are in need of special further treatment. There are newly born suckling babies who have been separated from their mothers until their mothers are taken into custody. There are women who have been straightaway sent from maternity ward to prison,and are forced to stay in normally 5-8 person-wards with 33 other women and have to sleep on the floor beds because there are not enough bunk beds and even have to use the beds on the floor in turns. Yet these are just some small snaps from their ample tragic victimisation.
Currently in Turkey, a country where the highest number of journalists are held captive according to the report of the CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists), the news about the bad treatment that pregnant or puerperant women are subjected to are not published in the mainstream media. Journalists who cover such victimasitons are labelled as opposing the government and even face themselves with victimisation including arrest and detention. Nevertheless, there are still very few columnists who occasionally write about these victimasations.
For example, Ahmet Taşgetiren, a columnist of Star newspaper famous with his editorials supporting the government has once shared a story: “A pregnant female judge has been taken into interrogation. While being questioned, ‘May I have some water?’ she asked. ‘Do you want us to serve you also frothed coffee with it?’ she was replied mockingly.” This is an actual story that depicts the severity of the situation in Turkey. Another occasion that was revealed by the same writer stating that a woman at her puerperium was denied nursing her baby while under arrest shows that even the most simple human let alone legal values are brushed aside. The level the victimisation reached in Turkey today has urged even a writer who is a strong advocate of the government – which is directly responsible for all those unjust treatments – to ask “What do the hearts of whom I don’t know say about all this?”
Another example is published by Emin Çölaşan, a columnist of Sözcü newspaper as direct words of the victim: “In this prison ward, we are 14 judges and prosecutors who have been dismissed from our profession. I have been detained for more than two months now. Although there are hundreds of detainees and convicts in the prison, there is only one GP attending all of them, and he only comes on Thursday afternoons. I am now 27-week pregnant. This is my first pregnancy. They are taking me to hospital tied with metal handcuffs. I am contented even only when the doctor say that the baby is OK. I cannot even recall asking about the baby’s weight, height or scan picture. There are also moments that I cannot choke back my tears. Believe me, I give no hoot all this, but what really wears me out is that my baby is growing under these conditions. We are both going through really hard days.” Everything is so clear, there is no need for any comment!
Another victimisation story published by Emin Çölaşan belongs to Rahime Yıldız, an English teacher in Mersin. Mrs. Yıldız gave birth on 4 August 2016 and she was detained on 9 September 2016 with the claim of being “a member of a terrorist organisation” together with her less than two months old baby. 60 women are staying in the 30-person ward and her baby is staying in the same ward with her. The prison GP has issued a report suggesting that the conditions of the prison is not suitable for the baby but all in vain. Mrs. Yıldız is still kept in prison with her baby without any conviction.
In another of his editorials, Emin Çölaşan quoted a letter written by a detainee which explains how inconvenient the conditions of prisons are for pregnant women and how insensitive the prison managers are towards these women: “We are currently staying in 21-person ward,” she says. “Some of us sleep on the floor. The ward is bursting at the seams. There is only one shower for everyone. Physical conditions are terrible. We ourselves made the bathroom and toilet painted. We are not allowed access to the library. Because the wards are teeming with cockroaches, they sprayed the wards with insecticide. The workers who sprayed the wards were wearing gas-masks, but they did not allow us to go outside of the ward. Our 5-month pregnant ward-mate felt faint.”
Another tragedy written by a partner whose dream of becoming a father turned into a nightmare: “In the third year of our marriage, my wife became first time pregnant. We were going to have twins. The regular doctor checks were showing that everything was normal. However, she met with the prison environment at the 14th week of her pregnancy. Because she was expecting twins, the living conditions were extra important for her. Although she is not convicted of any crime, I requested the authorities to keep her at least under probation, even if she has to give signature every day so that her pregnancy would not be imperilled. The objection we had filed on these grounds with the attached health reports was rejected without even being examined. 6 October 2016 was the 40th day of my wife in prison and the 19th week of her pregnancy. Unfortunately we lost our dear twin babies on that day. The two lives who had not yet opened their eyes to the world had struggled for life in the conditions of 25-person ward of Sinop Prison but lost the battle. With the sorrow of losing our babies, my wife became worse. She stayed in hospital for two days under the surveillance of gendarmerie. Not even without getting over the shock of losing her babies, she was placed back into the custody. The objection, health reports, her surgery, losing our twins, nothing convinced them to release her.”
In her editorial titled “Please, do not kill that baby!” Ayşe Arman from Hürriyet newspaper shared the tragedy of eight-and-a-half month pregnant Şule Gümüşoluk, detained in the Kayseri Enclosed Prison: “Her pregnancy reports show that their baby has a septal defect in her heart and her kidneys are growing abnormally. ‘If it had not been too late, we could have treated the baby while in the womb’ doctors said. That is to say that if the mother had not been detained, the baby could have been treated before birth. Due to the risks, she needs to give birth in a fully-equipped hospital. However, the court is insisting to keep Mrs. Gümüşoluk in prison.” “No matter what the offense the mother has committed, is it fair for the baby to serve the sentence?” asks journalist Ayşe Arman. “Does not all this mean that the baby’s right to life is taken away from her?”
Violation of the rights of pregnant and puerperant women as well as their babies in clear violation of international conventions ratified by Turkey, the Turkish Constitution and other domestic laws has unfortunately become a sytematical practice in Turkey. The voice of the victims is not heard enough neither in domestic nor in the international arena. It would not be realistic to expect the public in Turkey supressed under the one-man regime to display a strong response to all these victimisations. For this, before it is too late, all the respective units of international bodies and institutions including those of UN, Council of Europe and EU working in the field of children’s and women’s rights must act at once. It is of extreme importance to set out projects that deal with and resolve this problem and send delegations to Turkey and exert pressure on the Turkish government to sort out this problem. Meanwhile, the ECHR must not remain unresponsive to the victims of these unjust treatments who are desperately waiting for justice they have not been able to attain from the domestic judiciary and must at once start examining and deciding the applications filed by these unfortunate victims to prevent any further unrepairable victimisations.
*At a meeting he held in 2004, President Erdoğan showed members of Gulen Movement as targets for his supporters by saying, “We will not give them even water!” https://vimeo.com/90412501
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