A Turkish prosecutor has brought criminal charges against Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, for making an undercover TV documentary that claimed to expose the conditions of the country’s orphanages.
The office of Turkey’s chief prosecutor alleged Thursday that the film, which aired on Britain’s ITV1 in November 2008, broke the law by “acquiring footage and violating the privacy of five children.” The Duchess had used a hidden camera to film shocking conditions in the two orphanages, the Saray Rehabilitation Center for severely disabled children near the Turkish capital, Ankara, and at another state-run facility in Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district.
The charge was brought “in absentia,” and carries a maximum prison term of 22 1/2 years if the duchess is convicted. She was married to Prince Andrew, Queen Elizabeth II’s second son, from 1986 to 1996. “Turkish law protects the rights of children under the State’s care … which appear to have been violated in this case,” a spokesperson for Turkey’s state prosecutor told The Daily Beast. “It is the duty of everyone, Turk and foreigner, to respect the law.” No trial date has been set.
A British Home Office spokesman said this afternoon: “It is not our usual policy to comment on individual cases. However, the Home Office can confirm it has received a formal request for mutual legal assistance concerning Sarah, Duchess of York.”
The Duchess of York’s spokesman told The Daily Beast that they were “completely baffled” by the announcement by the Turkish authorities, and that it was “news to all.” He said that the Duchess had not been approached directly and that her first step would be “to seek legal clarification.”
He went on: “The Duchess of York has fully co-operated with both the Turkish and British authorities at all times on this issue and we had been told by British ministers and the Home Office that the case is closed.
“She has had no direct contact from any Turkish authorities regarding the charges reported in the media today. Her legal team will be in consultation with the Home Office and Foreign office with regards to the next step.”
He added, “The Duchess firmly believes in human rights for children and is saddened that the good work she has tried to do has resulted in this situation.”
During the making of the film entitled Duchess and Daughters: Their Secret Mission, Sarah was accompanied by her daughters Beatrice and Eugenie, who are grandchildren of the Queen. Sarah disguised herself for filming, wearing a black wig and green hijab. The footage showed apparently horrific conditions where disabled children were tied to their beds or imprisoned on cots. It also showed children being fed in their beds. Sarah and her children are visibly moved by the plight of the inmates and in one shot Eugenie is filmed in tears. In another sequence Sarah hugs an orphaned child.
At the time, the Turkish government accused her of attempting to mount a smear campaign ahead of the country’s bid to join the European Union. Nimet Cubukcu, then minister for the protection of children, called the film “a smear campaign against Turkey” and said that “it was known that this Sarah was against Turkey’s EU bid.”
A spokeswoman for Turkey’s Social Services and Child Protection Agency, which runs the facilities, told The Daily Beast that both institutions were regularly subjected to spot checks by the government inspector and the independent European Committee on the Prevention of Torture—including an unannounced check just before the Duchess of York’s 2008 visit—and the monitors had lodged no serious complaints. An investigation launched into the facilities in the wake of the ITV film also revealed serious inaccuracies in the report, according to Social Services and Child Protection Agency director Ismail Baris. Journalist Chris Rogers, who accompanied the Duchess, had claimed that patients were forced to lie in their own feces due to a lack of incontinence underwear. But a subsequent audit showed that on the day of the filming, 280,000 such protective undergarments were in the center's on-premises storage facility, Baris told Turkey’s Anatolia News Agency. Baris also alleged that an examination of the footage of patients tied to chairs and benches “raised suspicions that the image might have been set up by the filming team.”
Sources close to the Duchess reacted angrily to today’s news, telling the Daily Mail: “Anywhere else it would be the authorities running these homes who were in the dock. It was a humanitarian mission, there was no political aspect to it whatsoever. The Turkish Government has no jurisdiction here and the British Government has made clear that she cannot be extradited.”
The source went on: “Sarah is saddened that the Turkish Government’s actions are being allowed to overshadow a legitimate journalistic investigation into the appalling conditions in state-run orphanages in Turkey.”
Questions were privately raised over the motive for the Turkish government’s unexpected move.
The Turkish government initially contacted the Duchess and also two journalists involved in the making of the film three years ago in an attempt to ban the broadcast. At that time officers from Scotland Yard presented letters on behalf of the Turkish authorities to the Duchess’s legal team and to two ITV filmmakers. The letters demanded they cooperate with Turkish enquiries, though no criminal charges have been brought until now.
A source at ITV Studios, the production arm of ITV, which owns the footage of the Tonight documentary, said that, like the Duchess, they had not heard from the Turkish authorities.
A spokesman for ITV said: “ITV was made aware by the media yesterday that the issue over charges relating to our programme has arisen again. The threat of charges were brought three years ago and we said at the time that we strongly stand by our programme and our position remains unchanged.”
Britain has an extradition treaty with Turkey; however, it stands only if the offense is punishable in both countries by at least a one-year jail term. A Home Office source said: “As it stands she will not be extradited. The Turkish authorities have no power to do so.”
A spokeswoman from the British Foreign Office said that she expected “high legal and judicial standards to be observed. It would be premature and inappropriate to speculate on possible outcomes at this stage.”