Turkey: Making the state protect women

The Guardian
The state's duty to protect the right to life has been applied in a domestic violence context for the first time in Turkey.
Last week, the European Court of Human Rights made an important ruling against the government of Turkey (which is a signatory to the European convention on human rights) for failure to protect Nahide Opuz and her mother against Opuz's violent ex-husband.
Although the legal principle of the state's duty to protect the "right to life" of its citizens has been with us for some time, it has never before been applied in a domestic violence context. Opuz's mother was killed by Huseyin Opuz who, on previous occasions, had stabbed Nahide and tried to run both the women over in a car.

The court judgment ruled that the Turkish state had failed the women under the ECHR and ordered it to pay €36,000 to Nahide. The judgment was also significant because it found the Turkish government to be in breach of article 14 of the ECHR – the prohibition of discrimination – because the violence suffered by the women was "gender-based", it amounted to a form of discrimination against women. A first.

While this case will provide an impetus to those in the UK and other parts of Europe poised to bring similar challenges, for Opuz herself it is a pyrrhic victory. Her own position is even more vulnerable than before. Her ex-husband was released by a Turkish court after six years of serving a life sentence, pending an appeal on the grounds that he had killed his mother-in-law because she had destroyed his family honour by encouraging her daughter to stray. Opuz is in hiding, terrified that her husband will find her and kill her. She was forced to leave her children with her father-in-law where her ex-husband also lives and believes that she has lost them for good. Press reports suggest that, despite the latest judgment, the government has not taken steps to protect her.

Those like Jane Nichol Bell who have argued, on Comment is free, in response to the Sabina Akhtar case, that it is "a ridiculous notion" to expect the state to protect the "right to life" of its citizens should take heed. Who else could someone like Opuz turn to for protection if not the police? Akhtar had told the police that she had been battered by her husband 25 times and that he had made threats to kill her before he eventually stabbed her to death. Refuge and Helena Kennedy are hoping to support the Akhtar family in actions against the police and the CPS. Bell argues that the police acted within the law. Whether the Akhtar case is strong enough to be a test case is a matter for legal opinion but surely the principle of getting the police to take domestic violence seriously is hugely important.

In the UK, we have seen case after case of police failing to protect women from violent family members despite repeated pleas for help. Women's groups have tried various ways of holding the police accountable. Southall Black Sisters have over the last 30 years made it a policy to document every police failing, to complain in writing and to ensure that the really serious cases get investigated. So far, the best result has been the rare apology, and even more rare, words of warning to the officers involved, as in the Banaz Mahmod case. Mahmod's body was found in a suitcase; she had been strangled by a bootlace, murdered on the orders of her father and uncle for falling in love with a man who belonged to a different Kurdish clan. Her sister, Bekhal, who is pursuing further action against the police with the support of Southall Black Sisters, is torn between the desire to improve the protection regime for others and fear for her life and retaliation from her family and community, like Opuz.

Lawyers Bhatt and Murphy, acting in the Mahmod case, are pressing for an inquest as this will provide an opportunity for public scrutiny of the exact circumstances of her death. Raju Bhatt believes that Opuz's case will be an "encouragement for those seeking to hold the state accountable". Let us hope that cases like these, pursued at considerable personal cost, bring about wider changes in police practice and reduce the number of preventable murders.

19 June 2009

By Rahila Gupta

Source: The Guardian