News of the week

I went to the Netherlands for a week, and even though I always intend to keep reading the Turkish papers online, I never really manage to do it: when you’re out of the country, somehow the news doesn’t get through your skull very well. Now that I am back, I’m catching up on the news and again I realize why I always have these good intentions: there is really never a dull moment in Turkey, and not being on top of the news makes you miss interesting developments. In the meantime, i was also waiting for some personal news – but more about that later.

Last Sunday, for example, there was a big protest by the Alevi minority for equal religious rights. One of the main issues was the compulsory religious lessons that every child has to take in school. The European Court for Human Rights ruled that Alevi children cannot be forced to join in these lessons which teach the state Sunni version of Islam, but Turkey has not yet abided by the ruling. The AKP government has been talking a lot about giving Alevis equal religious rights and recently President Gül visited the province of Tunceli where the majority of the population is Alevi, but so far it’s all just symbolic and nothing has changed.

On Monday, the Sudanese President al-Bashir cancelled a trip to Turkey. He was not invited by Ankara but by the Organisations of the Islamic Conference, and there was of course a lot of fuss about a head of state wanted for crimes against humanity being able to visit Turkey unhindered. The most stunning quote though came from Prime Minister Erdogan, commenting on the mass killings in Darfur, which he doesn’t consider genocide because ‘no Muslim could perpetrate a genocide’. Smart remark.

Tuesday, there were physical fights in parliament because the governing party AKP wanted to debate their Kurdish initiative. Members of the AKP and the nationalist MHP couldn’t restrain themselves after tensions rose about the date the AKP planned to have the debate: November 10th is the date on which Atatürk died in 1938, and on that day every year commemorations are held all over the country. The opposition found it unthinkable to discuss the Kurdish issue on the day the man who unified modern Turkey died, since they consider the Kurdish initiative a betrayal of Atatürk which will divide the nation.

On Wednesday colonel Dursun Çiçek was arrested. He was interrogated and brought to court because he is allegedly involved in a secret plan to destroy the AKP and the religious Gülen movement. Çiçek’s signature was found on a document in which the plans were laid out. After months of discussion about whether it was really his signature or a forgery, the criminal investigation bureau concluded it was indeed Çiçek’s signature. A few days later his arrest, Çiçek was released again.

The big news on Thursday was about wire tapping: 56 judges and prosecutors were wiretapped as part of the investigation into Ergenekon. The government says it was all done by the book and with the official approval of judges. The opposition says judges are not willing to refuse a request for wire tapping, since the government can influence and thus ruin their careers.

On Friday, the government revealed part of the Kurdish initiative in parliament. To me, one of the most important steps is that there will be an independent body that will investigate torture claims against security forces. It is not possible to go forward without dealing with the past, so it is essential to have such a commission. I wonder if in the end the existence of Jitem will be admitted too, and the crimes committed punished – read more about that in my article on the subject. I didn’t see any plan to investigate crimes on both sides though: shouldn’t the crimes of the PKK be thoroughly investigated too? A partial investigation has already taken place, but the whole history of violence over the last 25 years should be investigated in detail: who killed who when, who was responsible and who should be punished?

On Saturday, I finally got the personal news I was waiting for: my sister delivered her third child. On Friday, at almost the same time as my plane took off from Amsterdam for Istanbul, she gave birth after a pregnancy of 41 weeks. I planned to see the new niece the week I was in Holland, but I learned that babies couldn’t care less about the plans of adults! News, it’s always unexpected, even when planned.

The judiciary and the Kurdish initiative

The surrender of a group of 34 men, women and children – some of them PKK members, some of them ordinary inhabitants of a refugee camp for Turkish Kurds in northern Iraq – was the first visible result of the government’s Kurdish initiative, launched this summer. By sending the ‘peace group’ (as the PKK calls it) to Turkey, the PKK wants to show it supports the initiative. It has been making big headlines all week, and still is. There is, for example, a lot of criticism of the thousands of people who came to the Iraqi-Turkish border to welcome the group and the thousands more who welcomed them to the biggest city in the southeast, Diyarbakir. Prime Minister Erdogan called it a provocation, and many Turks feel the same way – not so suprisingly, since portraits of state enemy number one, Öcalan, were held up and PKK flags waved.

It was an important development that this group came to Turkey, but at the same time there was news that once again illustrates how much change is needed before the Kurdish problem is really solved, for example in the areas of freedom of speech, of fair justice for everybody, of freedom of the press. The European Court for Human Rights ruled this week in favour of several publications that were banned for one month, all of them Kurdish newspapers. They were banned because of the way they reported on the Kurdish initiative, and the European Court has now decided that these bans violated the freedom of expression.

I also want to mention the fate of Hacer Aar, a member of Mothers for Peace who has been detained for half a year now. Mothers for Peace is an association of relatives of victims of human rights violations and disappearances in Turkey, mostly in the Kurdish southeast. She was imprisoned in Istanbul without being charged or brought to court, and her lawyer doesn’t have access to her judicial files.

And maybe not everybody realises it, but there is also still a closure case pending against the pro-Kurdish Party for a Democratic Society, DTP. The trial has been going on for almost two years now, and this week the prosecutor decided to launch a new probe into the DTP because of things that were said in speeches and during demonstrations while the group of 34 people  was on its way to Turkey.

The judiciary is one of the institutions not really involved in the Kurdish initiative, as the army is. Of course you could argue that the judiciary should be independent and follow the laws that politicians make, and that’s true, but the problem is, the judiciary in Turkey is not independent. Anybody questioning the state truths is easily prosecuted for example under the banner of ‘inciting hatred among the people’ or ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organisation’, whereas fierce nationalism hardly ever is, to mention just one example. You could argue the same for the army of course: they should also not be a political power, as they are in Turkey. But at least the army is one of the institutions that is talking on a regular basis with the government, and there is talk now that opposition parties will be attending these meetings too. But what about the judiciary? How and when are they going to adjust to a society in which the Kurdish issue is – hopefully – slowly slowly being resolved?

Münevver

You can see helicopters over Istanbul daily for all sorts of reasons, but yesterday, there was a “Cem Garipoğlu alarm”. Cem Garipoğlu is a young guy suspected of killing his 18 year old girlfriend Münevver Karabulut earlier this year, in March, and ever since he has been on the run. Somebody phoned the Istanbul police yesterday because he said he saw Cem in a black jeep, so the police immediately put a helicopter in the air to help find the car. In the end, it turned out to be a false alarm.

So once again, the Garipoğlu and Karabulut case was in the news. Since March, the newspapers have found a reason to write about it on a daily basis. And there are indeed some interesting aspects to the case. The murder was horrible: she was stabbed to death, her head was cut off and she was left in a garbage container, her head packed separately in an empty guitar cover. Münevver is from an average Istanbul family, but Cem is not: the Garipoğlus are filthy rich. They have passports from different countries, part of the family lives in Russia and Cem has a French passport too. It is believed by ‘the public’ that Cem Garipoğlu was protected by people in high places at the request of his family, He could be in any country now, but it could just as well be that he is still in Istanbul or somewhere else in Turkey.

Münevver’s father has been on practically every TV show in the country, from the serious ones to the cheap tear-jerkers. The family is of course devastated and want nothing more than Cem brought to court. But because of the special characteristics of the case – the brutality of the murder and Cem’s rich family – things have got out of balance. Last week the parliamentary human rights commission promised to dig into the case, and now an Istanbul CHP mayor has promised the Karabuluts legal help, since their lawyers retired from the case two months ago.

It’s good for the family that everybody takes so much interest in their daughter, but I can’t stop thinking about families who lost a loved one in a more ‘ordinary’ way. ‘Just’ stabbed to death by a crazy guy, strangled by a burglar, killed by a boyfriend with an unknown last name from a poor family. Victims with families that know less about how to deal with the media. Parliamentary commissions and politicians should not get involved in an individual case with a high media profile: they are there to make policies and laws that make sure the police do their work properly and that the justice system functions equitably for everybody. There are still many uncertainties about the way the Garipoğlu case has been handled, but it could be that if the system worked properly, he would have been behind bars already.

Immunity

Again the judiciary has shown itself in its most fiercely secularist mode: an Ankara court has ruled that President Abdullah Gül can be tried for a fraud case that dates from his past involvement in a political party that no longer exists. According to the Constitution, the president can only be prosecuted for treason, but the court ruled that everybody suspected of a crime should stand trial. Last week, a similar thing happened with MP’s from the pro-Kurdish DTP, who are involved in cases going back to before they became members of parliament. Usually MP’s are immune to prosecution, but a court ruled that in this case, the DTP members are not. The MP’s refuse to attend any hearings: they feel discriminated against, since there are many MP’s from all political parties who have some old case pending against them, and whose immunity has not been nullified. But the court is persistent and now there is actually a chance that the police will come and arrest them in the parliament.
Some people suggest that these weird decisions by the judiciary have something to do with the commitment that president Gül seems to have to reach some sort of solution to the Kurdish question. He, along with Prime Minister Erdogan, speculate on a solution all the time, but don’t get very specific about what sort of solution they would propose. Now by weakening the position of both President Gül and the DTP (whose position is already weak, since there is still a closure case pending against them), staunch secularists allegedly try to frustrate a solution to the Kurdish question. Why? Because they fear (in my opinion, unjustly) a real solution to the Kurdish question would threaten the unity of the Turkish state, something that will always be unacceptable to them. In general, I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories, but in this case, I wonder if it could be true that the judiciary is just trying to frustrate a political process. But even if that is not the case, I wonder how it is possible that judicial institutions show so little respect for the rule of law that they always claim to defend. And, more importantly, how can the judiciary once and for all be stopped from interfering in politics?