In a landmark ruling that further undermined Turkey’s shaky reputation on human rights, a European Court yesterday found that the country’s government had failed to protect a woman who was brutalised by her husband for more than a decade.
The plaintiff in the case, Nahide Opuz, complained repeatedly about her husband’s violence to the police before he shot her mother dead. He was sentenced to 15 years in jail in 2008 only to be immediately released pending an appeal against the verdict. Police withdrew the protection that Ms Opuz had requested after only three days.
Ordering Turkey to pay Ms Opuz €36,500 (£31,400), the European Court of Human Rights said: “The general and discriminatory judicial passivity in Turkey created a climate that was conducive to domestic violence.”
Women’s rights activists in Turkey welcomed the decision, which is the first time the court has ruled domestic violence constitutes gender discrimination. The decision is binding on all 47 members of the Council of Europe.
“This is exactly what I was hoping for,” said Pinar Ilkkaracan, a co-founder of the Women for Women’s Rights group in Istanbul. “It says clearly that… laws are not enough. The state has failed… in not providing mechanisms protecting women under threat.”
Turkey began updating laws on domestic violence in 1998 and its legislation now barely differs from its European neighbours. But as Ms Opuz’s story shows, mentalities and implementation lag far behind.
On four occasions after 1996, Ms Opuz and her mother complained to the police about the violence of Ms Opuz’s husband, which ranged from beatings that doctors deemed life-threatening to running both women over with a car. Twice, the courts let him off with a fine.
After his release, the husband remained a menace. “He continues to threaten my client, but the police withdrew protection after only three days.” Ms Opuz’s lawyer, Mesut Bestas, said.
In its statement, the court registered its “grave concern” that the authorities “continue to display inaction”.
A women’s rights activist in Ankara, Hidayet Tuksal, said Ms Opuz’s plight shed light on a key problem facing Turkish victims of domestic violence: the lack of women’s shelters.
Regulations require towns with populations of more than 50,000 to open shelters, but, Ms Tuksal said, “there are no sanctions for those which do not, [and] municipalities see this as discretionary. Everywhere I hear the same thing: ‘our men would be very upset by this.'” Two years ago, the conservative mayor of Ankara brushed off calls for more shelters by arguing that they encouraged prostitution.
Andrea Coombers, the legal practice director at the International Centre for the Legal Protection of Human Rights in London, said the court’s decision had relevance beyond Turkey. In deciding only now that gender-based violence was a form of discrimination, the court was lagging a decade behind other parts of the developed world, said Ms Coombers, who intervened as a third party in the Opuz case. “This is a significant step in the right direction by the European Court,” she said.