Murdered by the state, and remembered till justice is done

The swallows are about to leave their nest. Father and mother swallow encourage their little ones to take the dive into the bigger world, despite all the dangers out there. Every now and then, I see the adult swallows try to scare off the cats that come too close to the nest. It’s their way to give their offspring as much chance in life as possible. I go take a look at the nest a few times a day, and wait a bit. I’d love to see the little ones take their first flight.

Palamutbükü, Datca peninsula – which is where the nest is, located in a corner of the ceiling of the hotel where I am staying for a short holiday – is paradise. I look at the birds, I swim in the sea, read a book, have a glass of wine at night. And of course I follow the news.

Another state murder

The sorrow over the loss of 301 lives in the Soma mine isn’t even over yet and then the news comes in of two other deaths inflicted by the state, this time in Istanbul: Ugur Kurt and Ayhan Yilmaz. The incident in which they were killed was connected to another state murder: Berkin Elvan, who eventually died on 11 March of this year, after having been in a coma for months after being hit by a teargas canister in June last year, is remembered in his neighbourhood every Thursday. The police could have decided to back off, but they didn’t.

‘Will you organize a ceremony for every death?’, Erdogan asked in a speech, adding: ‘They died, and that’s it.’ No, sir: they did not just ‘die’, they were killed. Killed by the state. The mine workers because of negligence, the otherss because of brutal police violence, which is getting even more out of control because of impunity.

For average citizens who die of natural causes, no mass commemorations are held. Not right after they die, not on every anniversary. Remembering them is a private matter. But for the ones the state killed, it’s different.

Until there is justice for the victims

On 13 May 2015, people will remember the 301 deaths of the Soma mine, not only in grief but in anger too. On 22 May 2015, people will publicly remember Ugur Kurt and Ayhan Yilmaz. Soon, on 3 June 2014, the first deadly victim of last year’s Gezi protests, Abdullah Cömert, will be remembered. After that Ethem Sarisülük (14 June), Medeni Yildirim (28 June), Ali Ismail Korkaz (10 July), Ahmet Atakan (9 September) and Hasan Ferit Gedik (30 September).

These commemorations will go on until the day that there is justice for the victims. And it doesn’t look like that day is getting any nearer. The court cases that have started against the policemen who are responsible for the individual deaths over the last year don’t promise serious results. And who truly believes that the bosses of Soma Holding will be held responsible for the death of their workers, or that any government official, like energy minister Taner Yildiz, will step down?

Musa Anter, Hrant Dink

History doesn’t inspire confidence either. Turkey still remembers countless murders that everybody knows were committed by the (deep) state but the truth of which has never officially come out.

On 9 January we remember Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Dogan, Leyla Söylemez, murdered on that day in 2013.

On 19 January, we remember Hrant Dink, 2007.

On 5 May, the Dersim massacres of 1937 and 1938.

On 6 May, Deniz Gezmis, 1972.

On 2 July the victims of the Sivas massacre, 1993.

On 6 and 7 September we remember the Istanbul pogrom of 1955.

On 20 September we remember Musa Anter, murdered in 1992.

On 28 September we remember little Ceylan Önkol, murdered in 2009.

On 24 October, we remember Ugur Mumcu, killed in 1993.

On 21 November, little Ugur Kaymaz, 2004.

On 28 December, we remember the 34 deaths of the Roboski massacre, 2011.

The list is close to endless. The Baran Tursun Foundation has been constantly updating a list since 2007 and the list now contains 157 names. Fraksiyon has a list of children killed by the state, starting in 1988.

Uprising, terrorism, civil coup

State murders go back to the early days of the republic, when opponents of Atatürk lost their lives. Murders have continued ever since and the state always had an excuse. In Dersim there was an ‘uprising’ (only there wasn’t: the people tried in vain to defend themselves against the mass slaughter they knew was coming), in the Southeast there was ‘terrorism’ (although it was a matter of human rights from the beginning), during the Gezi protests it was a ‘civil coup’ that needed to be put down.

It shows that, although many people call Erdogan ‘Ottoman’, the Prime Minister is in fact very much a child of the Turkish Republic. Under his authority and to keep him in power, citizens are murdered – despite all the excuses, and that is always the reason behind all the state murders of almost the last hundred years. Whoever was in power, Atatürk, Erdogan, or anybody else.

What is happening in Turkey now makes clear that all the so called democratization packages and policies are nothing but superficial. I knew that already, and it’s sad to see it confirmed again and again. I will only believe democratization has started when all these countless murders get solved, if those responsible get punished if still alive, if the state apologizes sincerely and if the history books get changed.

Then, the state will finally do what it is supposed to do: not protect itself, but its citizens. An important task, because it’s a dangerous world out there. No swallow hands its children over to the cats.

Defending Erdogan’s rights

Sivas massacre, Ergenekon trial, Uludere, the Van earthquake and its aftermath, press freedom, May Day celebrations, KCK trials, the Fenerbahce court case, Berkin Elvan, Medeni Yildirim, the countless ‘unsolved murders’ in the southeast, and the Constitutional Court: the head of the Bar Associations, Metin Feyzioglu, spoke out against a wide range of injustices in Turkey’s present and past. Erdogan got extremely upset and didn’t hide it. He had better think again: he may need people like Feyzioglu one day.

As a foreign journalist, in the last couple of months I have been spam mailed several times by a huge group of Fenerbahce fans. They send all foreign journalists in Turkey thousands of emails about the unjust treatment their sports club is getting, and for some reason they think annoying foreign journalists incessantly helps to get attention for their case. First time ever I heard of the Fenerbahce base. They speak out when injustice is done to them, but not when it’s done to others.

Ergekenon trials

The CHP has spoken out time and time again against the Ergenekon trials and against the violations of justice that were obviously part of the trials. Kemal Kilicdaroglu visited suspects in prison. Did he ever visit jailed KCK suspects? Or speak passionately on behalf of the families of the people who were murdered in the nineties and whose murders are still unsolved? No he did not.

Did the BDP ever defend the highest military leaders on trial in Ergenekon, or against injustices done to Fenerbahce? No. They have been vocal during the aftermath of the Van earthquake, and they speak out about the Uludere/Roboski massacre, but not about injustices done to their opponents.

In short, Turkey is full of groups who advocate mostly their own rights. The bar association, in the person of Metin Feyzioglu, showed itself differently.

In Feyzioglu’s speech, not only the government is reminded of its responsibilities, but others too had a mirror held up to them. The army, for example, must have applauded the bar head’s criticism of the several trials pending against them, but I hope they realized that by naming the Uludere massacre and other ‘unsolved murders’ Feyzioglu was addressing the army too.

Into trouble one day

This makes the speech apolitical. The bar association’s head would have been engaging in politics if he had only spoken out against one particular injustice. He did not: he mentioned so many, done to so many different groups in society, that he rose above politics – which perfectly suits a lawyer, of course.

Erdogan should applaud this. He may himself get into trouble one day. He and his party may be no longer in power and his political opponents may want to get back at him. What if a trial against Erdogan and other AKP politicians is opened because of the corruption allegations? What if those trials become a political theatre? Who, besides AKP supporters, is going to speak out on behalf of Erdogan if his rights are violated in a court case? The only one he might be able to count on is Feyzioglu, or a future bar association head. That wouldn’t be political either, but purely a matter of defending Erdogan’s rights. Will Erdogan then feel ashamed of his behaviour towards Feyzioglu and apologize for it?

Pinar Selek

If you read this website regularly, you know there are many crazy court cases going on in Turkey. The prime example of the state of justice Turkey is in, however, is the case of sociologist, writer, human rights activist and feminist Pinar Selek. She has been in a Kafkaesk battle with Turkey’s court system for fourteen years now,  over involvement in a bombing that never even happened.

Pinar Selek, 41 years old, lives in France now, where she works as an academic. She cannot go back to Turkey, as the court case against her that started in 1998 is still not over. She is very active in Europe in human rights defence work and doing pretty well, I heard from one of her friends, but she’s also tired. Tired of fighting against a system that just doesn’t let go of her. Missing her friends and family, missing her country, not being able to continue the important work she had dedicated herself to in Turkey.

What happened? It all started in 1998, with an explosion in the Spice Bazar in Istanbul, in which seven people died and more than 120 were wounded. Pinar Selek was arrested in July of that year, accused of involvement in what the prosecutor said was a bombing. She spent two and a half years in jail, and was only released after experts concluded the explosion was not caused by a bomb but by the accidental ignition of a gas cylinder.

Case closed?

No, case not closed. The case against Selek continued, and in December 2005 the prosecutor opened a new trial against her for the same non-existent bombing. Acquittal followed six months later.

Case closed?

No, case not closed. In March 2009, the Court of Appeals requested a review of the case and reversed the acquittal. Followed by a new acquittal, in May of the same year.

Case closed?

No, case not closed. The Court of Appeals objected again in February 2010. The case had to be reviewed by a lower court. The lower court refused the review, ruled that the acquittal was legitimately and fairly given and upheld Selek’s acquittal. It was February 2011 by then.

Case closed?

No, case not closed. In a hearing last month the lower court decided to drop its refusal to review the case and proceed with reopening the trial against Selek. The refusal to review was, the court claims, contrary to procedure. The first hearing of the re-opened trial is today in Istanbul. Pinar Selek and five other already acquitted suspects in the case of the non-existent bombing won’t be there. Her supporters will be. I hope Pinar gets some strength out of all the support she gets.

Why? Why does the state keep chasing after a woman who they say was involved in a bombing that never even happened? That is, so it’s assumed, because of her academic research. It focuses on groups that are excluded from society. In the year before she was arrested, she decided to focus on Kurds, after she had been doing research on, for example, transsexuals and street children. That time frame, the nineties, was ultra-violent in the southeast of Turkey, but Pinar Selek decided to take up the dangerous job of talking to different sides in the conflict to investigate what exactly was going on.

And that’s what got her into trouble. She talked to the PKK as well. After her arrest in 1998, her research was confiscated, she was tortured in prison to reveal her sources, and fake police reports were made up to incriminate her. The ‘bomb’ was just a way to get her. That there was no bomb is just a minor detail to the justice system. It was not about the bomb to begin with, it was about silencing a young, promising, brave academic and human rights activist.

It can’t be predicted what the outcome of the court case today will be. Maybe Selek will now be acquitted ‘according to procedure’. If so, of course she still cannot feel safe – she was acquitted before. Her friend in Istanbul told me that some time ago, they were walking on the street in Paris and Pinar was often looking over her shoulder, afraid of being followed. She is constantly on her guard. It must indeed be deeply traumatizing to be caught up in such a mind-blowing case for years and years, never knowing when the nightmare will end and if you will ever have your life back.

The other scenario is that the case will continue and that she will eventually be sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole.

Wait for justice two years longer

I read an interview in the “Radikal” paper this week with the head of the Constitutional Court, Hasim Kilic.The subject was a change in the constitution which makes it possible for citizens to bring a case to the Constitutional Court. I was wondering if he said anything about the capacity of the Court. Had they hired extra legal experts to be able to handle the extra cases coming their way? Nothing on that in the article. The mind-blowing reason given was: the Court already knows, says Kilic himself, that they can accept only 1 to 2% of the cases anyway. ‘Please don’t think of us as a court of appeal’.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has its hands full with Turkey. In terms of pending applications – I copy paste from this website – as of Jan. 1, 2010, the report found that Turkey has the second highest number of complaints lodged against it with 11 percent of the total 119,300 applications. (…) In 2009, Turkey had 4,474 applications in the court while the number was 3,706 for 2008 and 2,828 for 2007.

The idea was that by making the Constitutional Court accessible for citizens, the case-flow from Turkey to the ECHR would go down, because you can only apply to the ECHR when you have gone through the full legal process in your own country. By adding a step to the domestic legal path, more people would – ideally – find justice inside Turkey’s justice system and would no longer feel a need to go to Strasbourg.

Kilic says in the interview that the Constitutional Court doesn’t expect all that many applications from citizens because the lower courts are expected to deliver better outcomes. I repeat: the lower courts are expected to deliver better outcomes. Got that? He expects lower courts to deliver better outcomes. Makes sense, when you see (above) that the applications from Turkey to the ECHR are only going up. And no, the Turkish state doesn’t win most cases, so it’s not that Turks just love fighting legal battles: between 1959 and 2009 2,295 judgments were entered for Turkey and only in 46 cases did the court find no violations of the European Convention on Human Rights (info from the same website).

But several judicial reforms have been made in Turkey, right? So maybe it’s realistic that Kilic expects improvements? No, it isn’t. Because making legal reforms is one thing, implementing them is another. Let me quote Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, who evaluates judicial change in Turkey. After elaborating on several changes at the beginning of this year, he closes his evaluation by saying:

Finally, the Commissioner would like to reiterate his view that some of the most serious human rights violations in Turkey emanate from the interpretation and application of the Turkish legislation by judges and prosecutors. Thus, the actual impact of even those amendments which the Commissioner considers positive, would very much depend on the practical implementation made by the Turkish judiciary of the amended legislation.

I’m not sure what Hammarberg considers ‘the most serious human rights violations in Turkey’, but I reckon they are for example the violation of the right to life (read about an example here) and the right to a fair trial within a reasonable time-frame. The ECHR in 2011 ruled six times that Turkey had violated the right to life, thirty times the right to a fair trial and 53 times the right to a trial within reasonable time. In the whole of 2011, 174 judgements were made on Turkey (check the stats here).

Now that the domestic legal path has been lengthened, it will for some time not be possible for Turks to apply to the ECHR. For two years, to be precise, says Mr Kilic. So for at least two years, Turkey’s goal will be reached: the number of applications from Turks to the ECHR will drop dramatically.

But summing everything up, I see no reason whatsoever why after these two years, the number of applications from Turks will stay low. After September 2014 the number will rocket up again, re-starting the good old competition with Russia for the highest number of cases. The result, in short, is that people will simply have to wait for justice two years longer. And then see that Turkey doesn’t really care about the judgement of the ECHR anyway – but let me not get into that again. It’s mind blowing when you think of it: imagine the handling of your court case takes too long, you want to go to the ECHR for it but now the Turkish system makes you wait two more years!

Maybe the ECHR can do some catching up on their own falling behind in these two quieter years ahead. So that when the flow from Turkey starts coming again, they can start providing justice to Turkish citizens again as soon as possible. Somebody has to do it.

Press freedom and the dirty tricks of the judiciary

There has been some good news this week when it comes to press freedom in Turkey: a total of four jailed journalists were released from jail after a court decision. At least, that seems to be good news. When you look at it a little bit closer, it’s only good news on a personal level. It’s great these men (two in the OdaTV case, two in the KCK press case) can go home again and are being united with their families, but for the rest, these releases seem to me more of a dirty trick by the judiciary.

In both the OdaTV case and the KCK press trial, people have been in jail for months, sometimes even more than a year. Without conviction. That is a huge injustice to begin with: you can’t lock people up for so long if there is no shred of evidence against them. For me, there is by definition no shred of evidence against people who are jailed for their writing, because writing should be free.

Calling for murder

In both of these cases, it goes even further than that basic principle: there is just really no evidence of the things they are being accused of. Zero. What they did, was write. They didn’t commit any crime in their writing, like calling for murder, and the prosecutor knows it too, because if there was, he would have prosecuted them for that and have a solid case and he wouldn’t have needed to go through all the trouble of making up evidence or framing totally innocent conversations and work related trips into something illegal.

Okay, let me take a breath.

This injustice makes people who follow the cases very eager on people getting released from jail. Even more so because trials in Turkey are not handled on a number of subsequent days, but are spread out over months. For example, in the KCK press case, the first hearing was this week, the next one is on 12 November. The former OdaTV hearing, in which famous defendant Ahmet Sik was released, was in March, and the next one was only now. So if the judge doesn’t set you free during a hearing, it automatically means you’ll be in jail another couple of months without conviction.

The heart of the matter

No wonder people get ultra happy when a defendant does get free, like this week Cagdas Ulus and Cihat Ablay (KCK) and Baris Pehlivan and Baris Terkoglu (OdaTV). But these releases are not acquittals, people are only being released pending trial, and that’s an important difference. It’s the dirty trick of the judicial system. One big injustice is being undone and draws away the attention from the bigger injustice of prosecuting these journalists in the first place.

How many journalists are in jail has become an important indicator of the state of press freedom in Turkey. What if all dozens of journalists that are still in jail at the moment, would be released tomorrow, like the four this week? Would that solve the problem? Of course not. PM Erdogan would showcase it as the evidence of total press freedom in Turkey. To get to the heart of the matter and to make sure these releases can’t be misused for political reasons, it should be counted how many court cases are pending against people who have only used their pens, whether they are jailed or not. That number is not going down. Not even with one.

Mor Gabriel, Alevism and the ECHR

‘We will fight this decision all the way to the European Court for Human Rights’. It’s a sentence you hear often when injustice is done once again in a Turkish court, or when you talk to people who feel they have been treated unjustly by the state. Way more often than not, the ECHR rules in favour of the plaintiff and the Turkish state is convicted. The unfortunate thing is: both the Turkish government and Turkish judges often just don’t care about a ruling of the ECHR.

The latest case attracting a lot of attention, and which will be taken to the ECHR, is the case of Mor Gabriel, a Syrian Orthodox monastery in Midyat in Southeast Turkey. It was established in the year 397 and is the oldest surviving Syrian Orthodox monastery in the world. It has been in legal battles since 2008, when locals claimed the monastery was using lands that they needed for raising cattle. A lower Turkish court ruled in favour of the monastery, but the state took over the prosecutions and finally won: the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled the lands of Mor Gabriel belong to the state. That is against all logic, since the monastery can prove they have been paying taxes for many decades and they have all their paperwork in order.

An exception rather than a rule

The ECHR will probably take some years to rule that Turkey is wrong and should grant Mor Gabriel the property rights they have. That will be a well deserved victory for the monastery, but I doubt if it will change anything in the way Turkey handles religious minorities. In essence, that means that if you are not a Sunni Muslim, you have no rights in Turkey.

International law has precedence over national law, but the carrying out of rulings of the ECHR can’t be ensured. Parties to the treaty, of which Turkey is one, should just have the decency to implement the rulings under their national laws. Turkey doesn’t have that decency – not that other European countries always have, by the way, as you can read here. But Turkey makes carrying out ECHR rulings an exception rather than a rule.

The whole humilitation again

There is a very recent example of that, concerning another group in Turkish society that is not Sunni Muslim: the Alevi’s. A court ruled that two Alevi children must attend the obligatory religious classes in secondary school, even though the ECHR already ruled years ago that Alevi children cannot be forced to. The religious classes teach the Turkish state version of Sunni Islam, which differs from Alevi beliefs. The two children concerned were, after a legal battle, exempted from religious classes in primary school, but now have to go through the whole humiliation again. The local court just rules that the religious classes are ‘constitutional’ and that’s it.

How the state considers religions other than Sunni Islam was also confirmed by Deputy PM Bekir Bozdag, who said Alevism is not a separate religion, that the Alevi are Muslims and that all Muslims can go to the mosque for prayers. That’s why the AKP has been building mosques in villages where mostly Alevi live – nobody attends those mosques, because the Alevi use cemevi as houses of worship. Not permissible, ruled a Turkish court earlier this week. You can go to a cemevi, but you are not allowed to call the place a ‘house of worship’, only a ‘cultural centre’. Compare that also to how the Mevlevi Order has been reduced to being a cultural activity instead of the spiritual belief it really is.

Current and ancient

On the first of August, the constitutional commission of parliament will convene again. I’m not very optimistic about any progress there. The mindset that everybody in Turkey is not only a Turk but also a Muslim, and more precisely a Sunni Muslim as the rules of the Turkish secular state is rooted too deeply for all members of the commission to accept that all religious groups in Turkey need the freedom to express their faith however they wish, treated with respect from the state for not only their current houses of worship, but also their ancient ones.

The root of the problem: the Special Authorized Courts

While I write this, late on Sunday night, there is chaos in the Turkish parliament. Before the summer recess starts next week, the ruling AKP party wants to change the law on Special Authorized Courts. Emotions are running high, even leading to a fist fight, and the outcome is unclear – and it will probably take a few more hours. But still, some reflections about what’s going on can be put to paper already.

Special Authorized Courts (SAC’s) were established in 2005 to fight serious crimes like staging coups, terrorism and drugs-related crimes. They replaced the State Security Courts, set up in 1983 by the military rulers who led the 1980 coup, and which were only abolished in 2004. The problems of both special courts are more or less the same: defendants have far less rights than in normal criminal courts, the remand periods can be excessive and people can be held on remand with little or no evidence against them.

The most famous cases now being handled by SAC’s are the KCK-trials and the Ergekenon trials. Both are controversial, to say the least. An amazing number of people are being tried, it all takes ages and there is no evidence against them or there is a strong suspicion the evidence is forged. Or they are being tried for things that should never be punishable in a democracy, like expressing your opinion, either in speeches or writing them down in a newspaper.

Better of without the SAC’s

The AKP installed the SAC’s in 2004 and has not done anything to stop the unjust treatment of suspects in the case up until very recently. Suddenly, the SAC’s had to be abolished. Prime Minister Erdogan admits things got out of hand. The CHP also wants to have them abolished, and the BDP as well. They fight like hell over how that should be done, but at least a huge majority in parliament agrees the country is better off without the SAC’s.

You may wonder why the AKP is suddenly so eager to abolish the SAC’s. They have been supporting both the Ergenekon and KCK trial. The argumentation is that especially the Ergenekon case will bring democracy closer, since that case helps breaks the tradition of the army staging coups against democratically elected governments. Which is true, but there is just too much ‘collateral damage’. You can perfectly well prosecute coup plotters without also throwing in jail journalists and academicis who sympathize with those who (allegedly, since nobody is convicted yet) planned a coup.

Now, doesn’t the AKP find the fight for more democracy important anymore? Now don’t laugh cynically, I know democratization hasn’t been high on the priority list of the government for some time now, but in this matter the question needs to be asked. Well, they say they do, and they say that both the ongoing cases won’t be affected by the new law. They say that to reassure the judiciary, which has warned against abolishing SAC’s: the cases might fall apart and suspects might have to be set free. The AKP promises to ‘repair’ that with another law.

Suspects run free

Which is ridiculous, in my humble opinion. If you see that the SAC’s don’t work and flagrantly violate basic rights of suspects in criminal cases, it’s against any logic to exclude the very cases it all started with from the benefit of a change to the law. If changing the law means that the cases fall apart and suspects run free, then so be it. I’m sure there is a way to keep in jail the people against whom strong evidence is available, c at least until their trial can continue. The others shouldn’t have been in jail in the first place.

Anyway, what might make the AKP eager to abolish the courts now is that, so I heard, they might be the next victims of the SAC’s. To be more precise: the municipalities in AKP hands. Some municipalities governed by the CHP are in trouble already with the SAC’s in corruption trials, and there are rumours the AKP might be next, based on real or bogus or weak allegations. The government, in other words, has lost its grip on the judiciary.

Lost to whom? The AKP is closely related to the religious Gülen movement, lead by preacher Fethullah Gülen, residing in the United States. The Gülen movement has many followers in Turkey – they made the AKP big. The ‘Fethullahci’s’ supposedly have a strong hold on the judiciary now. The relations between the AKP and Gülen’s movement have been cooling down though for some time now. A sign of that was, or might have been, the warrant issued last February for the arrest of the highest-ranked boss of the national intelligence service MIT, Hakan Fidan. That was seen by some as an attack by the judiciary on the AKP, since Fidan was appointed by Erdogan personally and he held talks in the Norwegian capital of Oslo with representatives of Kurdish separatist movement, the PKK. The AKP very quickly changed the law to get Fidan off the hook. But what if there is another ‘judiciary coup’ in the making against the AKP? You can’t keep fixing the law with by-laws, at some point, you have to erase the root of the problem.

Contribute to true democracy

I’m not sure if this is true, but it would make some sense of why the AKP is so eager to get rid of the SAC’s before summer recess, after not taking any action against this judicial piracy for years. A huge, very fierce power struggle between the government and the institutions ruled by the people they put in place themselves: how utterly intriguing is that?

While the parliamentarians keep on fighting (or start their summer recess), I am spending my Monday in a court room. In Silivri, west of Istanbul, where an important part of the KCK trials has started. It is the case against, among others, academic Büsra Ersanli and publisher Ragip Zarakolu, who are being accused of respectively ‘leading a terrorist organisation’ and ‘aiding a terrorist organisation’. Read here how ridiculous the allegations are. The sooner the SAC’s are abolished, the better. So people who really want to contribute to true democracy, of which Ersanli and Zarakolu couldn’t be better examples, are set free as soon as possible.

The KCK case theatre

The thing I remember most is the atmosphere in the court room. Not angry, not frustrated, but, amazingly enough, relaxed. Even though we are talking about one of the big show trials in Turkish history.

At the beginning of this month a series of hearings started in the case against dozens of prominent Kurdish politicians, mayors, local government employees and activists, one of them being BDP MP Selma Irmak. The case has been dragging on for years and an end doesn’t seem to be in sight, despite the fact that there are now several hearings a week, which is rather uncommon in the Turkish judicial system. It’s about the so called KCK trials, named after the Kurdish umbrella organisation with which the suspects allegedly have ties. The PKK is also tied to the KCK, just as many Kurdish groups and organisations are. So if you are politically active as a Kurd, you can’t escape having ‘ties with terrorism’. Result: a few thousand non-violent Kurds are locked up. Some for about three years so far, sometimes without charges being brought against them. For many of the accused it’s not the first time they have been jailed because of their activities.

Low steel fence

The cases are not being handled individually, as should be in a criminal case. Some fifteen women and sixty men are being tried simultaniously. They are seated right across from the judges, the men separate from the women. The prosecutor and the lawyers sit on either side.  The accused are surrounded by young gendarmes, most probably conscript soldiers. Then there is a low steel fence, behind it the public gallery, with press and family members and friends of the suspects.

Before the hearing starts, there is busy communication going on between the suspects and their family and friends. The families can visit their relatives in prison, but others cannot. The accused gather behind the gendarmes to wave to their family and friends and they try to make themselves heard to exchange news and words of support.

Boring voice

When the hearing started, the suspects talked among themselves. They  were sitting turned around on their chairs, the men were talking to the women as if there were no gendarmes between them, some men slept with their head on the shoulders of men sitting next to them.

What the judge said didn’t seem to interest them the tiniest little bit, which is not very surprising when you know what he had to say. He was reading the evidence aloud, which was plainly hilarious and sometimes people were actually laughing – but in the end, it was of course sad and ridiculous. It concerned (sometimes illegally purchased) transcripts of phone calls about in general absolutely nothing. So imagine a judge reading aloud with his most boring voice things like: ‘Hallo how are you, fine thank you how are you, are you coming tonight, yes I’ll be there but I might be late, are the others coming too, do we need anything else apart from the forms, no I don’t think so, well I’ll see you tonight then, take care of yourself, you  too.’ For hours and hours.

Unknown language

The reading of the non-evidence was interrupted when a question was asked to the suspect. Then it became a little bit quieter in the court room. The suspect answered in Kurdish, as is common in this case. The judge doesn’t allow that and turns off the accused’s microphone. The court stenographer notes something like ‘suspects uses unknown language’, the suspect continues talking in Kurdish without mike, after which the lawyer takes over in Turkish.

Something interesting can be said about the fact that the suspects can’t defend themselves in Kurdish. According to Turkish law, a suspect has permission to defend himself in his mother tongue, and for many suspects in this case that’s Kurdish. Some people think it’s justified that the judge in this case doesn’t allow the suspects to use Kurdish, because they are supposedly misusing the law on language, because they all speak fluent Turkish. Might not sound illogical, but it is anyway. The KCK trials are being held for the sole reason of silencing the Kurdish political movement. And then the suspects have to be flexible and talk in Turkish? No, of course they also behave politically and try to insist on their right to defend themselves in Kurdish.  

No influence

Of course there were a few breaks, but this theatre went on all day, and will continue for weeks to come, if not months or years. Also during the breaks there was busy communication and also laughter going on between the accused and the visitors. Via one of the family members I got in touch with Selma Irmak, who from a distance thanked me for being there. I asked with gestures and by nearly shouting how she was doing, and she gestured ‘all right’. I hope she understood my ‘kendine iyi bak’, ‘take care of yourself’.

“Relaxed” is, when I think of it, not the word for the atmosphere in the court room. Okay, there was laughing, there was talking and waving, some people were sleeping, but it seems to me that was mainly caused by a deep sense of powerlessness. The defendants, their families and friends and the lawyers have no influence whatsoever on the court case they find themselves in. In such a situation you can get angry, you can be flabbergasted or play a grim game with guards, judges or prosecutors, but in the end that’s not going to help you in any way. It’s indeed better to use your energy wisely to get through through this judicial suppression.

Three anonymous Christians

Have you ever heard of Necati Aydin, Ugur Yüksel and Christian Tilmann Geske? Small chance you have, bigger chance you haven’t. They are three Christians (two Turkish, one German) who were brutally tortured and murdered in the East-Turkish city of Malatya in April 2007. This Monday, the court case against the killers and accomplices will resume. The murder is in many ways similar to the murder of Hrant Dink, a few months earlier in 2007. For Hrant, thousands took to the streets with good reason to scream out for justice. No such thing will happen on Monday for Necati, Ugur and Christian. Nobody knew their names before their deaths, nobody came to know them afterwards. I wonder: will their anonymity influence the court case?

I don’t necessarily say it’s a bad thing that no crowds will take to the streets on Monday. In the end, of course, it’s not about how many people cry out for justice, it’s about whether or not justice is done.

Like I said, the Malatya murders and the murder of Hrant Dink are in many ways similar. Both Dink and the three Malatya victims belonged to groups that are deeply mistrusted throughout Turkish society: Armenians – the group to which Dink belonged – have always been considered ‘traitors’, Christians have always been considered part of a foreign conspiracy aiming to weaken Turkey. The murders were carried out by young nationalists, but it was clear from the very beginning they were not acting alone, but were pushed by others to kill and that they were protected by the state after they committed the crime.

Dig deeper 

Also, the court cases can be easily compared: they are mainly aiming at the ones who carried out the murders, not at the accomplices or the ones protecting them. For some time, it seemed the Malatya murder case was going in the right direction because the prosecutor was willing to dig deeper, but he was suddenly taken off the case – one may wonder why, of course. This Monday, most probably anew indictment will be ready, and then it will be clear if the new prosecutor is willing to connect the case to (part of the) Ergenekon case. Both the Dink case and the Malatya case are believed to have been carried out by Ergenekon, part of the ‘deep state’ that will do anything to protect the state.

The Dink murder, the Malatya murders and the Santoro murder (he was a Roman Catholic priest who was murdered in the North-Turkish city of Trabzon in 2006, which is also the home town of the killer of Hrant Dink) are believed to be the last murders carried out by the deep state – the Ergenekon investigations started soon after the Malatya murders, and then the killings stopped.

Overwhelming demand 

So you can say that the way the murders are handled in court says something about how much the deep state is still keeping a firm grip on state institutions, like the judiciary. In the Santoro case, the 16 year old murderer was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment soon after the assassination in 2006, for the rest no probe was carried out, even though there were leads that he didn’t act on his own. In the Dink case, nobody dared or wanted to make the case much bigger than the actual murderer and the man inciting him to kill. Despite the overwhelming demand for justice from thousands and thousands of people. Or because of the public outcry? I do wonder if the judiciary is even more afraid to ‘give in’ to demands for justice when they are so loudly heard, and while the whole nation is watching the system closely.

The Malatya murders are less high profile. Monday, most probably a new indictment will be read. It will make clear to what extent the prosecutor will widen the case beyond the five main suspects. The lawyers of the victims’ families are hopeful, I heard. Will the prosecutors dare to be brave, now that they are watched less closely, now that not tens of thousands are protesting, now that they are handling the case of three anonymous Christians instead of a (posthumous) famous Armenian?

If you have any thoughts about the influence of publicity attracted by a case on the prosecutors’ braveness: the reaction field is open!

Why I’m unhappy about the release of Şık and Şener

So much for the world wide attention for press freedom in Turkey. The two most famous Turkish journalists in jail, Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener, were set free on Monday night, pending trial. Joy all over the place and I’m happy for them too; but in a way it also makes me hopeless. Before these two men with well known, influential colleagues and friends were jailed, there was no attention whatsoever paid to the dozens of other jailed journalists. I see no reason why Turkey won’t be going back to that situation.

Şık and Şener were arrested 375 days ago, as part of the ongoing Ergenekon investigation. They were accused of being the ‘media wing’ of the Ergenekon network, which supposedly wanted to overthrow the AKP government. Everybody in their right mind knew instantly that this accusation was crap. Both investigative journalists were actually revealing plots and networks within the state, and doing so bravely. Even if Şık and Şener were supporting coups with their pens, which they were not, they should not be in jail for that. Coups are staged with tanks and weapons, not with pens – the pen should be free.


Something similar is going on with the majority of the journalists who are in jail in Turkey. Kurds. They are jailed for things like ‘having ties with a terrorist organization’ or ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organization’. You can find them in this list, working for papers Özgür Gündem and Azadiya Welat and news agency DIHA. If as a journalist writing about the Kurdish question for a Kurdish (or Turkish) paper you have no ties with a ‘terrorist organisation’, you are not doing your job very properly, I’d say. You can never be jailed for the contacts you have as a journalist, or for making heard the voices of people who have no chance of having their voices heard any other way. In fact, on the contrary: that’s the kind of journalism that should win awards.

But this general understanding of what press freedom really means doesn’t exist in Turkey. Not within the government, but also not among many journalists. At least, they don’t act like it. Before Şık and Şener were arrested, hardly anybody bothered about the Kurdish journalists rotting away in jail for years, often without being convicted. Şık and Şener have made it to the front pages and op-eds time and time again, but their Kurdish colleagues? They have no well-known friends in the media, they are not writing about topics that excited the average Turkish journalist, they are, in short, not part of any inner circle that matters in Turkey.


And still nobody really cares. The Kurdish journalists in jail are mentioned between in a by-line, but they are anonymous. Every court hearing of Şık and Şener got a whole lot of attention, with journalists tweeting from court like crazy and all papers reporting it, but who went to Diyarbakir courthouse to tweet, to video, to write? And who will be going to Diyarbakir court to report? Which journalists will bring attention to the fate of these dozens of practically anonymous men and women? Which foreign media will write about them tirelessly, as they did about Şık and Şener? Which foreign politician will use any of their names when calling upon the Turkish government to respect human rights? With Şık and Şener being set free, the general attention for press freedom will wain, leaving less perspective for their less famous colleagues.

I want to especially draw attention to Turabi Kişin. He works as an editor for Özgür Gündem in Diyarbakir. I met him last year in November, during a PKK funeral that I attended. Read a blog post, in which he is mentioned, about that here. He was afraid that on that very day he would be arrested. The next day we met again, we talked for some time and I remember him whispering and looking over his shoulder all the time. Then several weeks later, some journalists of his paper in Diyarbakir were arrested. I sent him a message, asking if he was okay. He texted back that, yes, his friends were in custody, that he was not but he soon expected it to be his turn.
When I visited Diyarbakir in January and wanted to meet again, I couldn’t get in touch. After days of trying to call, I paid a visit to his paper. They told me he was arrested some days earlier, in the morning when he was catching a plane in Ankara. He’s number 95 on the list I mentioned before. Now he’s locked up in Kandira, close to Istanbul. He has been in jail before, in the nineties. Try to imagine for a second what happened to Kurdish journalists in jail in the nineties.

Please, everybody, maintain the media attention on all these innocent jailed journalists as intensely as over the last few months, even now that Şık and Şener are finally back home. Please, surprise me.