Laurie Ahern is president of Disability Rights International, a Washington-based group that provided technical assistance to the British broadcaster ITV in the making of its 2008 documentary.
The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, seems to be in hot water again. A Turkish court has accused her of “acquiring footage and violating the privacy” of children in a Turkish state-run orphanage. Her trial began two weeks ago in Ankara in absentia, following Britain’s refusal to extradite the former royal. The charges, which carry a maximum sentence of up to 22 1 / 2 years in prison , are a result of her participation in an undercover documentary that aired on Britain’s ITV in 2008 , exposing abuses in the facility.
The hypocrisy of the Turkish government in prosecuting the duchess, who courageously exposed torture and neglect of Turkish children, is appalling. Turkish officials seem concerned with the privacy of children, most of whom have intellectual and physical disabilities, even as they violate those children’s most basic human rights.
In 2005, after an almost two-year investigation, the organization I lead, Disability Rights International (DRI), released a report titled “Behind Closed Doors: Human Rights Abuses in Psychiatric Facilities, Orphanages and Rehabilitation Centers in Turkey.” It documented the abusive treatment of children and adults locked away and forgotten in state facilities.
In the course of our investigation, I saw starving and emaciated children who, because of their disabilities, were unable to feed themselves and were frequently left unfed. I was told by staff that when many of these children became ill, they were no longer bathed or taken out of their cribs, denied medical care and left to die. Children were permanently tied into beds, and those who were immobile, such as children with cerebral palsy or spina bifida, spent their entire lives lying in cribs. There were rooms where children were splayed across the floors, devoid of a single toy or activity. Naked children and teenagers were hosed down like animals in groups — all ages and both sexes simultaneously. Babies and toddlers who scratched, hit and bit themselves — a result of mind-numbing boredom and lack of stimulation — had their hands “covered” by plastic liter bottles that had been cut in half and duct-taped around the children’s wrists. Medical procedures such as skin sutures, electro-shock treatments and teeth extractions were done without anesthesia. Children with disabilities “don’t feel pain,” I was told by staff, including one doctor.
As a result of our findings, Turkey did stop the use of electro-shock treatment without anesthesia. However, many of these same abuses were documented by Ferguson and ITV three years later.
While these abuses are truly egregious, Turkey is not the only place where children with disabilities receive cruel treatment. Our group has documented similar human rights violations of institutionalized children in both developed and developing countries — members of the European Union and some nations seeking accession; in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and even the United States.
It has been our experience that institutional or governmental authorities who deny permission to take photographs and/or video on the grounds that they are protecting a person’s “privacy” are actually acting to protect themselves from public exposure. The same authorities often deny residents of institutions much more fundamental choices about their lives. Detentions are often illegal, and a broad array of human rights are often violated in institutions, as was the case in Turkey.
When visiting many of these institutions around the world, including in Turkey, members of our group are often besieged by residents begging us to tell their story, asking us to take their photos or video, and surreptitiously passing us notes pleading for help.
Children with disabilities hidden away in closed institutions have no voice, no choice and no control. They are the population most vulnerable to abuse at the hands of state actors. Accordingly, DRI has launched a worldwide campaign to end the institutionalization of children and seeks to challenge underlying policies that lead to abuses against children on a global scale.
International human rights law promises children with disabilities that they will be protected from torture and abuse. The United States, European Union members and those seeking accession, such as Turkey, need to attend to the real issue at hand, which is not protecting the privacy of dying children in their care but protecting their lives.