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increases for Turkey's transsexuals

increases for Turkey's transsexuals

Belgin still vividly remembers the night, more than a quarter of a century ago, when police herded her and dozens of other transsexuals and transvestites onto a train as part of a campaign to clean up Istanbul. "We did not know where the train was taking us. The police beat us and locked us up in the wagons. They gave us no water or food," she said, evoking scenes reminiscent of World War II.

The roundup took place just before the 1980 military coup in Turkey, which led to the suspension of democracy and the jailing of hundreds of thousands of people for their political views. Some were executed. Many people fled abroad.

Since then, Turkey has taken big strides forward in human rights, scrapping the death penalty and clamping down on torture, with an eye on future membership into the European Union. But Belgin says it still fails to protect people like her.

"I first wore this dress in 1970. Not much has changed since then," said Belgin, a retired prostitute who now works for Lambda Istanbul, a group that campaigns for the rights of transsexuals, transvestites, gay men, and lesbians.

Rights groups say transsexuals face increasing violence, and this reflects a wider trend in Turkish society--the growing influence of Islam in daily life since the center-right AK Party, which has Islamist roots, came to power in 2002.

"Now the police raid their bars and take these people into detention more frequently," said Huseyin Ayyildiz, branch secretary of the Human Rights Association of Turkey, in Istanbul.

He said this reflected the AK Party's promotion of more Islamist-minded police officers keen to defend conservative family values.

The intolerance is not restricted to transsexuals or homosexuals, the rights groups say.

"Businesses are having difficulty getting licenses to sell alcohol," Ayyildiz said. Islam prohibits alcoholic beverages.

In Ankara, the capital, a transvestite known as Deniz who works as a prostitute complained that many clients were ignoring her calls. "Most of my clients are pious Muslim men, and they are very afraid that the police will publicize their names," said Deniz, who also declined to give her full name.

Belgin said Turkish men are guilty of hypocrisy. "Men who secretly come to us at night for sex jeer at us on the streets," said Belgin, 53. She said she has to work as a prostitute because prejudice prevents her finding another job.

She said many of her friends had been murdered over the years and that violence against transsexuals, most of whom work in the sex industry, shows no sign of abating.

"Some people talk about human rights. I have never seen them," she said. "Here you can kill a dog or a transsexual. There is no difference. The murders of my friends have never been resolved. The police turn a blind eye in such cases."

Gender-reassignment surgery is legal in Turkey, but there are no laws to protect transgender people from discrimination as there are in some Western countries. A tradition of tolerance for cross-dressing and same-sex liaisons that existed in the old Ottoman Empire has long faded.

In August, efforts by transsexuals to set up an association in the conservative-minded town of Bursa were blocked by the authorities on grounds of protecting "public morality."

Over the years, many transsexuals have moved from the provinces to Istanbul, a sprawling metropolis that at least provides anonymity and a network of support. Belgin sees little change in police attitudes.

"There was a police chief [in the past] who was known as 'Bone-breaker Cetin' because he did not leave transsexuals before breaking their bones," she said. Another liked burning the arms of transsexuals with a cigarette lighter. "He would then ask how they would endure the fires of hell in the afterlife if they cannot stand this," Belgin said.

And now? "They come with hate and feelings of revenge and do not hide their aim of cleansing Beyoglu [the hub of Istanbul's nightlife] of its transsexuals."

Turkish police spokesman Ismail Caliskan rejected the accusations that the police breach human rights. "The police have always been a target of such accusations.... [Human rights groups and transsexuals] always say 'The police beat us.' These claims are not true," he said. (Reuters)

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