Hate crime of the month: Kurd lynched

An alliance of 46 organisations in Turkey has started a campaign against hate crimes. ‘Victims hardly ever lodge a complaint, if they live to tell their story.’

Istanbul – The woman who was abused by a taxi driver, punched in the face and kicked out of the taxi, just because she was Armenian: that is not just an attack on that woman, but on the whole community she is a part of. Just as the whole Kurdish community is victimized when a man is lynched by a group of nationalists because he wants to hear a Kurdish song in a night club. Justas all trans-sexuals are victims when two of them are killed on the street. Crimes of hatred: in Turkey a campaign has started to fight them legally.

Hate crimes occur regularly in Turkey, but they don’t always make it to the news. Only if you start following certain organisations and websites will you come across one shocking incident after the other. Murder, lynching, fire-bombing: every month a few serious examples can be found. Main victims: Roma, Kurds, homo- and trans-sexuals, but also Christians and Alevi, a liberal path in Islam.

Broken index finger

Because many Turks have no knowledge of these hate crimes, the Association for Social Change, an alliance of 46 organisations, has started a long term campaign against hate crimes and is making as much noise as possible about every incident. On the internet you can even vote for the ‘hate crime of the month’. The case of the taxi driver who assaulted the Armenian woman was the winner in October. In December the race was between the Kurd who was lynched and an incident in the maternity ward of a hospital: a Kurdish woman was hit while in labour and her index finger was broken by a nurse, because she was a ‘dirty Kurd’. ‘Joke’, was the response from the hospital when the woman and her husband demanded an explanation some weeks later.

Very popular in Turkish cinemas these days: Zenne, (slang for ‘male belly dancer’). The film is about student Ahmet Yildiz, who was killed in Istanbul in 2008 by his father because of his homosexuality. The film about this hate crime has cranked up the discussion about homophobia in Turkey.

The goal of the campaign is to introduce strong laws against hate crimes. The current law doesn’t oblige judges to punish a crime more harshly when it is based on hate against a certain group in society.
An example is the murder of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007: the killer, a young nationalist, was convicted of the murder, but the hatred of Armenians that was behind it was not taken into account. Legislation is also of symbolic importance, says Levent Sensever, general secretary of the Association for Social Change: ‘The state has to give the signal that hate against certain groups in society is not tolerated’.

Ulas Karan, lecture in law at Bilgi University in Istanbul, goes one step further: ‘Making hatred an issue in the penal code can help to bring people together. You can put measures in the law that only apply in the case of a hate crime. For example, you can force perpetrators to start a dialogue with the group to which the victim belongs. In that way, a law can help to punish and to reconcile.’

Insulting Turkishness

The Turkish penal code does have legislation against spreading hatred: article 216. Ironically enough that article is being used to silence dissident voices. Especially Kurdish politicians and journalists are being convicted of it, for example when they demand more rights for Kurds or if they file reports about PKK fighters. ‘A typical example of vague legislation’, says Sensever. ‘The law can be interpreted in many ways, so you can use it to convict whoever you want.’ The article is a ‘sister’ of the infamous article 301, that makes ‘insulting Turkishness’ a punishable offense. Sensever: ‘Such laws are being used to curtail freedom of speech. What we want is that real crimes, like murder and assault, are punished more severely when they are committed out of hate.’

Almost all EU countries have legislation against hate crimes. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OCSE) tries to get legislation against hate crimes established in the whole of Europe. To that end the OCSE cooperates intensively with local groups, including in Turkey with the Association for Social Change.

A team of lawyers

How difficult the subject is becomes clear from the progress reports of the OCSE: governments hardly ever make data available, often because the data don’t exist. And in Turkey there are hardly any statistics: crimes that don’t exist officially cannot of course be registered. Levent Sensever: The judiciary too is blind to it. A Turkish judge can, outside the law and on his own initiative, give a harsher sentence when a crime is committed out of hate, but this happens very rarely. Prosecutors are not informed, nor are the police, and victims don’t report the crime, if they live to tell it.’
For many years, NGO’s haven’t been working with the Turkish government, but nowadays some dialogue is going on – for example about a new constitution, which could also contribute to decreasing discrimination. That gives the Association for Social Change some hope. As well, the discussion of the Kurdish question is heated, since Kurds are the main victims of hate crimes.

The Association doesn’t detect any political will to introduce new legislation. ‘It’s too early for that’, says Sensever. ‘At the moment, we are working hard to get statistics with which we can convince politicians of the need to legislate. We collect data from all kinds of pressure groups. They know very well what is happening to people in their communities.’ When the time is right, a draft law will be prepared, says Sensever. A team of lawyers from several organisations is working on that already. Levent Sensever, in a hopeful vein: ‘It would be wonderful if legislation is introduced in three, four years.’

Here you can read a blog post about the film Zenne – see boxed text.

Ongoing discrimination against Alevites in Turkish education

Istanbul – ‘Absolutely nothing’ is the answer from lawyer Kazim Genç to the question what the Turkish government has done to end discrimination against Alevis (a path within Islam) in the Turkish education system. Genç won a case in 2007 regarding the obligation to receive religious education at the European Court of Human Rights. The verdict: the Turkish state can’t force Alevi children to attend religious lessons in school. Genç: ‘A change in the constitution is needed, but nothing is being done. In the meantime I open new court cases. I win them, but it only helps a few people, not the whole group.’

An estimated 15 to 20 million Alevis live in Turkey, roughly one fifth of the population. Their children are obliged, like everybody else, to attend classes on ‘religious culture and ethics’. During those lessons they are educated in the Sunni ‘state Islam’. Turkey is officially a secular country where religion and state are separated, but the Directorate of Religious Affairs holds a firm grip on the religious life of Turks. The religion classes are not relevant for Alevis because they interpret the Koran differently and have a lot of their own rituals. But students who don’t attend the classes can forget about a diploma for primary or secondary school.

Lawyer Genç started a court case at the European Court in 2007 in the name of an Alevi father. The court ruled in his favour, but even though Turkey has to take the decision seriously and change the law, nothing has happened. Genç even states that Alevis are discriminated against more: ‘The Governing AKP party is a religious party and the religious teachers are getting stricter. Alevi children are being bullied in school, by fellow kids but also by teachers. They are often afraid to be open about their religious identity.’

The Turkish government has been talking with leaders from the Alevi community to solve the problems of the religious minority. This hasn’t led to concrete solutions. Genç doesn’t expect any progress, at least not before the general elections in the summer of 2011.

This short article was written for Wordt Vervolgd, monthly magazine of Amnesty International in the Netherlands. Due to a lack of space, publication has been postponed several times, so now I decided to publish it on my website.

Well covered-up

The fight between Kurdish seperatist movement PKK and the Turkish army was at its dirtiest in the nineteen-nineties. Hundreds of (alleged) PKK sympathisers were killed or disappeared without a trace. Who was responsible? It was thought “Jitem”, a secret anti-terrorism unit of the military police. The bodies were dumped in wells, fields and rivers. Now that Turkey is democratizing, the search for the bodies has begun.

Lawyer Tahir Elçi is quite excited: he just got new information about a murdered Kurd for whom he has been searching on behalf of the family for years. A former member of Jitem has revealed details about that murder in a newspaper article. Elçi: ‘With information about the possible location of the body, I can apply for a search at the public prosecutor’s office. Then maybe the family will finally get their answers.’

It was a tough fight in the nineteen-nineties in the south east of Turkey: the war between Kurdish separatist movement PKK and the Turkish army was at its peak. In that part of the country alone the PKK committed hundreds of murders. The response from the Turkish army was the foundation, at the end of the eighties, of Jitem, a (secret) anti terrorism and intelligence service.

Kurdish intellectuals

Jitem, first mentioned in the Turkish media in 1994, worked with the military but also with ex PKK members. One of them was Abdulkadir Aygan, by now also former Jitem member and living as a refugee in Sweden. Earlier this year, he talked about his past to several newspapers. He declared, just like other former Jitem members, that nobody who fell into the hands of Jitem would come out of it alive. Victims were mostly normal citizens who had alleged ties with or sympathy for the PKK, but also Kurdish intellectuals and sometimes random citizens. According to international human rights organisations and the Turkish human rights association IHD, Jitem committed thousands of murders and around 1200 people are still  missing.

The bodies were left in fields and rivers and under bridges, but also sometimes in wells on the land of Turkey’s national oil and gas company, close to a military base near the town of Silopi, near the Iraqi border. These ‘death wells’ became the symbolic name for all the dumping places of Jitem. Tahir Elçi: ‘Whenever a body was discovered by accident, authorities took it away and gave it an anonymous grave in a randomly chosen cemetery.’
Who was killed and buried or dumped where, is mostly unknown. Local authorities usually know where the anonymous Jitem graves can be found, but a large scale search hasn’t started as yet. For that, the whole matter is too sensitive: even the very existence of the organisation is still officially denied.

Bones and a scull

Families looking for the remains of their loved ones have to hire a lawyer who can file a request with the public prosecutor to search and dig at a specific place. But it’s not easy to find out where the remains are. Tahir Elçi: ‘It involves an enormous area and it’s not always clear where to dig exactly.’ Besides, witnesses are often still scared to open their mouths. What helps is reading the newspapers closely, both Turkish and foreign: more and more often ex Jitem members are telling their stories. Last spring the first death wells were opened, but besides some human bones and a scull, not much has been found yet.

The fact that the existence of the death wells is making it into the newspapers more often has everything to do with the investigation into ‘Ergenekon’, which started in 2007 with the discovery of weapons in Istanbul. Ergenekon is a shadowy, ultranationalist organisation of (former) military, politicians and journalists, and that has been known in Turkey for decades as the ‘deep state’, a state within the state. In the nineties, the ‘deep state’ was involved in the fight against the PKK, and nowadays Ergenekon allegedly wants to destabilize the AKP government.
In the meantime, dozens of court cases are pending against Ergenekon suspects. One of the most important is former general Veli Küçük, who, besides being a big shot within Ergenekon, is also mentioned as one of the founders of Jitem. Other Ergenekon suspects are also said to have top positions within Jitem. One of those has admitted his involvement in Jitem. Now Jitem has come to be seen as the military arm of Ergenekon.

Data base

To find and identify the victims of Jitem, human rights organisations and lawyers are now pleading for the foundation of a data base about the people who were killed or disappeared in the nineties: personal data, found human remains and clothes and other personal items, pictures of bodies, DNA material. In this way family members might find their loved ones’ remains and the information could be useful in court cases. Tahir Elçi is sceptical: ‘The current government has more respect for human rights than any of its predecessors, but still I don’t think such a data-base will come about any time soon. The political climate in Turkey is not ready for that yet.’

‘I don’t trust this country’

At the end of March, local elections will be held in Turkey. The political contest in Diyarbakir, the biggest Kurdish city in the southeast of the country, will be one of the most exciting. Wordt Vervolgd talked to Kurdish youth there. Will the voter let his Kurdish or Islamic identity be heard at the ballot box?

Diyarbakir – Don’t mention brotherhood to Tirvan (not his real name). He knows some Kurds feel brotherhood with Turks and want to solve the Kurdish question together with their Turkish brothers, but not him. ‘The Turks never treated us as brothers. Kurds played an important role in the Turkish war of independence ninety years ago, but after that were only denied and humiliated.’
Tirvan (23) tells his story in the hall of a deserted hotel. In this neighbourhood, within walking distance of the Diyarbakir’s city centre, are the tea houses where young, aggressive Kurds know exactly who to talk to if they want to be a PKK fighter. Tirvan has been about to take up arms several times, but concern for his sick mother has so far stopped him. ‘When she dies, I see no more reason to stay in the city. And all the more reason to go to the mountains and fight for my people.’

Pro-Kurdish DTP, Democratic Society Party, now holds the mayor’s post with popular mayor Osman Baydemir, but the governing AKP party gets support because of its Islamic character and its power at national level. The question is: will the voter let his Kurdish or Islamic voice be heard at the ballot box?
Besides this conflict there is another one in the southeast demanding attention: the one between the Turkish army and the Kurdish separatist movement PKK. This is a fight closely connected to the elections. The AKP got a lot of support in the last local elections, in 2004, partly because they promised the region a big economic boost and more rights for Kurds. Those promises have not been kept. More importantly, since one and a half years ago the Turkish army was given a free hand to bomb PKK positions in northern Iraq, the number of casualties has risen dramatically among both military and PKK fighters. That’s exactly what makes young guys like Tirvan consider taking up arms. ‘Turkey betrayed the Kurds time and time again. I don’t trust this country anymore.’

A good goal

Tirvan will vote on March 29. For the DTP of course, he says without any passion. ‘We have more rights than before, but that’s no thanks to politicians but thanks to the PKK. That’s also why the PKK has to keep on fighting until the Kurdish identity is fully recognised. Prime Minister Erdogan comes to this region at election time and says he will make an effort for Kurds, but a few days later in parliament he once again says that in Turkey ‘we are all Turks’. What good is such a man? Becoming a PKK fighter would be a good goal in my life. I have nothing, no education and no work, and no city and no country where I can feel at home and be myself. In the mountains I would belong to something and make a real contribution.’

Kader (24) sees that the position of Kurds has improved over the last few years. Before, politicians would simply deny that Kurds existed and the Kurdish language was forbidden. Now it is acknowledged that the Kurdish question exists, the language is no longer forbidden (even though Kurdish may not be used at political events and in communication between government and civilians, something that some municipalities in the southeast would like to do to reach their citizens better), and the Turkish state television even started a Kurdish channel.
But, according to Kader, these are just sweeteners and far from what she says is real recognition of the Kurdish identity in the Turkish constitution and a society that no longer sees Kurds as second-grade citizens. ‘For that, the Turkish education system also has to change, because it turns young Turks into nationalists.’ Does she want an independent Kurdish state? ‘No, it’s not about borders. It’s about we Kurds, like Turks, having lived on this land for centuries and just having the right to live our own culture.’


Kader is active for the youth organisation of DTP in Diyarbakir, a big and passionate group of young Kurds. For three days now they have been holding meetings to make decisions about the elections. During the breaks they walk up and down the hallway, smoking and calling each other ‘comrade’. In their meeting room there are a few pictures on the wall of young men who lost their lives as PKK fighters, on the cupboard there are huge piles of the youth magazine Yurtsever Gençler (Fatherland-Loving Youth) and prominently a portrait of the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. His arrest on a charge of terrorism and separatism in 1999 caused a wave of shock in the, at the time, very young Kader. ‘From that moment on I wanted to do something for my people’, she says. She joined a Kurdish women’s movement that now works together with the DTP, despite fierce protest from her father and brothers: ‘I come from a traditional Kurdish family in which the father and brothers are in charge. A woman that wants to go into politics and develop herself, could diminish their power. But, well’, she laughs, ‘young Kurdish people are stubborn, so I went anyway.’

Holy deaths

Kader explains how she first had to become aware of being a woman before she could focus on liberating the Kurdish people. ‘I only attended primary school, but in the women’s movement and in the DTP I have learned so much.’ For example, she says, about how the armed struggle is connected to the fight for democracy: ‘Thirty years of armed struggle has put the Kurdish question on the agenda, but now we have to work from the inside out too.’ She explains that the Kurds should not only point their finger at the Turkish government and the Turkish army when it comes to a lack of rights, but also at themselves: ‘How much equality do we have in Kurdish society? In the families? How much are Kurdish children stimulated at home to make something of their lives, of their future? A lot of work needs to be done, and I feel so useful when I join projects in which we invest in families, in children, in the future of our people. Without this effort on a democratic level the holy deaths in the mountains are worth nothing.’

Besides being a city of emigrants from villages, a city of pverty and Kurdish resistance, Diyarbakir is also a university city of some fame. Youth from around the region come to study at Dicle University. Because studying and trying to guarantee a good future for yourself , is another way to break away from poverty and inferiority. It’s exactly the choice that Celil Can Çetin (22) made. He is in his fourth year of dentistry and not involved in politics at all. ‘Becoming a dentist is not my boyhood dream, but I will be able to make a living with it. That’s my most important goal. My family pays a lot of money to send me to university, so it’s my responsibility to finish my studies as soon as possible and start earning an income.’


Not that the Kurdish question is not close to Can Çetin’s heart. ‘I am pro Kurdish education. Children must learn their mother tongue. I learned Kurdish as a child but I forgot it again after I moved to Antalya with my family. I feel very sad about forgetting it. But if you plea for Kurdish education in Antalya or whichever Turkish city, you are immediately considered a separatist. And I’m definitely not a separatist. On the contrary: I feel Kurdish, but also Arabic because my mother is Arabic, and a bit Turkish because I grew up in Antalya and have a lot of Turkish friends. Yes, a bit Turkish. I keep some distance from that part of my identity because I don’t feel totally accepted by Turkey.’
Especially because of his mixed background – not a rare thing in southeast Turkey – Celil still has a lot of faith in the future of peoples that have been living together on Anatolian soil for so long. ‘But Turkey could show more brotherhood. Or at least have more faith in the will of people to live together. Turks are my brothers, I don’t want to be separated from them. And not from the rest of Turkey either, for that matter. Imagine if ‘Kurdistan’ were to exist, in what sort of country would I live then? Closed off, unwanted by its neighbouring countries. Now after my studies I at least have the possibility, if I want to, to get away from this city and build a better life somewhere else in Turkey.’


Kurds: no Kurdistan
It’s a persistent misunderstanding that a big majority of the Turkish Kurds want an independent Kurdistan. Bekir Agirdir, researcher at Konda Research in Istanbul, published a big survey of Turkish Kurds’ feeling of identity at the end of 2008, and he concludes from the results that only about a fifth of the approximately 15 million Kurds in Turkey want an independent Kurdistan: ‘For example, we used sample statements to find what Kurds think is the cause of the problems faced by Kurds in Turkey. More then 90 percent believe the state treats Kurds differently, and even more Kurds believe it’s because Kurds want to express their own identity. Only thirty percent believe the problems are caused by Kurds wanting their own state.’
The research also showed that about half of the Kurds identify themselves as Kurds, but almost the same amount of Kurds think of themselves first and foremost as Muslims. For about a third of them, apart from their Kurdish or Islamic identity, their Turkish identity is also very important.’
At the end of 2007 another bureau investigated whether Turkish Kurds would want to live in an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Only one percent answered that they would move immediately, while an overwhelming majority of 95 percent claimed to prefer to stay in Turkey.

DTP banned?
For more than a year now, there has been a court case going on against the pro-Kurdish DTP: the prosecutor claims the party should be banned because of ties with the PKK and for campaigning for separatism. If the party is closed down before the elections, DTP candidates could stand as independent candidates. Even though that wouldn’t help Diyarbakir’s DTP mayor Osman Baydemir: the prosecutor is also demanding a ban on political activity by several prominent DTP politicians, including Baydemir. Political analyst Ahan Özkan however doesn’t think that the case will conclude before the elections: ‘I believe there is a silent deal between the AKP, the DTP and the prosecutor to keep the DTP going at least till the elections. It would be a very bad signal to ban a party that is important in the local elections at this moment. The Kurdish independent candidates would of course do much better after such a ban and the AKP would lose votes. A ban now doesn’t do anybody any good.’

The anger of the juvenile judge

For nineteen years, Umran Tan worked as a judge in a Turkish children’s court. She expressed her frustrations about the failures of Turkish juvenile law in a much discussed short film. ‘The Turkish system directs children straight into adult law.’

Umran Tan

Istanbul – A Monday morning in October. A prison bus moves up the driveway in front of the courthouse. A group of gendarmes jumps out. Uniforms with green beret, machine guns ready. Then the suspects step out. Two by two, handcuffed and firmly held by the upper arm by a gendarme. Some of the suspects look angry or try to break loose in protest, others seem embarrassed. The last one smiles when he sees his family standing next to the entrance of the building. His aunt and grandfather immediately burst into tears, his father looks away. His son is only fifteen and has now spent a year behind bars. “Without a conviction”, says his aunt. “Maybe he will be set free today, because he did nothing wrong.”

‘Children’s Court Istanbul’, it says with big letters on the facade of the court house. A misleading name, according to juvenile judge Umran Tan. “It suggests that what is done here is in the children’s interest”, she says, “but it isn’t. Turkey established juvenile courts but that really only means children’s cases are heard in a separate building.”
Tan (50) recently retired but her mission is not yet accomplished. Right after she put aside her judge’s gown, she picked up a camera to make a short film about what she sees as the failures in the juvenile law system. “There are no facilities to get children back on track after they commit an offense. They get a suspended sentence, are released and immediately return to their old, usually poor, environment. Juvenile criminals are destined to become adult criminals.”

A place in Gülhane

Tan’s movie, Gülhane’de bir yer (‘A place in Gülhane’, the neighbourhood where the juvenile court is located) runs for no more than fifteen minutes and is sober, with little dialogue. It shows the daily routine in the courthouse. Suspects being taken to a room behind the courtrooms after they arrive from prison. Lawyers and family waiting in the central hall. Every twenty, thirty minutes an usher announces the next case with a loud voice. The courtroom itself is a restricted area for journalists – as it was too for Umran Tan and her camera. “But of course they could not forbid me to film in the building where I worked for so long.”

Umran Sölez Tan started her career as a judge in 1977, when juvenile courts didn’t yet exist. In those days she mostly had to pass sentence on children caught stealing candy. “I had no option but to follow the law, so the children had to do time”, she says. Eleven years later the first juvenile court was established, and two years later she was installed as juvenile judge. (By comparison, juvenile courts and corresponding laws were introduced in the Netherlands in 1912.)
Tan: ‘I was enthusiastic. There were even psychologists working there, I really thought in these courts they would do what would be best for the children.” Soon afterwards the judge wondered what the psychologists were actually doing in the court room. “They should be working in special facilities for delinquent children, but, well, those didn’t exist.”

Her eyes were really opened when, in the early nineties, she lived in Switzerland for two years. That country had special laws for children and she visited the juvenile court regularly. “In Turkey, we looked up to the system in Europe. That’s why on the way to the EU we introduced juvenile courts too, but without really knowing what to do and without special laws. As a juvenile judge, you should be able to make a decision that compensates somehow for what the child has done wrong, but that also takes its background into account. The punishment should be aimed at preventing recidivism. The Turkish system lacks the option of giving a verdict that benefits the child in any way.”
Over the years Tan got more and more frustrated about what she could do for ‘her’ children. ‘You can punish them, but you have to deal with the roots of their criminal behaviour too. Poverty, lack of education, no attention at home, or even homelessness. But this is not taken into account, and the children are treated as if they are themselves responsible.”

Twelve years imprisonment

The Turkish system of juvenile law divides children into two age groups: under 15 and  15 to18. Both groups can get a prison sentence for serious crimes like armed robbery, rape or murder. The punishments are less severe than for adults, but can go as high as seven years imprisonment for children under 15, and up to twelve years for the older age group, without any provision for rehabilitation. “So if you make a mistake as a child, there is no possibility of making a fresh start. You return to society as an adult, too old to finish your education and without having learned anything useful in prison. How are these young people supposed to pick up their lives again? More than likely they will return to crime.” For lesser offenses, the situation is not much better, in Tan’s opinion. Usually a suspended sentence is handed down, “which in practice means that they go back to the environment they came from and become more criminal.”
Since 2005 there have been some improvements: children can now be ordered to be re-educated at boarding school. “But this possibility offered by the law is hollow, since there are hardly any of these boarding schools in existence. The government is good at making paper laws, but their enforcement is completely forgotten.”

Mehmet (not his real name), aged fifteen, could easily go from bad to worse. It’s his family waiting in front of the court house for him to arrive from prison. Mehmet and a friend of the same age are being tried for sexual harassment. The family doesn’t want to give any details, only that there was a third boy involved who was older and took the lead, but he managed to escape from the police. Mehmet’s father, a widower, says: “My son is so young, a naive boy, he can not be held responsible for what happened.” Mehmet’s aunt: ‘He has already been in jail for a year now. The verdict will only come today. There was some delay in the system, I don’t know why exactly. We visited him every weekend. Once a month his father could sit with him, the other days we could only talk by phone from behind a glass screen.”

Proper food, a fine bed

“Hopefully,” (‘Insjallah’, says his father) “Mehmet will be acquitted today, or will get a suspended sentence.” And then what? “I guess he will have to start working, I hardly earn enough to take care of my five children. At the moment, the electricity is cut off because I couldn’t pay the bill.” Mehmet’s aunt: “Sometimes I think: let the boy stay in prison for a while. He gets proper food there, he has a good dayly routine, a fine bed. Of course I hope he will be acquitted, but what kind of life will he have when he is released?”

Umran Tan doesn’t want to say which cases in her career affected her the most. “I don’t want to base my criticism on pitiful stories. There are big faults in the system, and they have an affect on every child that does something against the law, whether it’s a petty thief or a murderer.”
She has been expressing her critical opinions for years, even before she retired, but she got no response from her colleagues. “People just don’t really care”, she says. ”Children’s judges are not especially interested in children and justice. The fact that I got a job there was also a coincidence. You are placed somewhere by the authorities, and that’s it, they don’t look at your interests or competences.”
Besides that, criticising is not very common in the Turkish judicial system. That’s also clear from the reactions of lawyers who are waiting in the hall for their cases to be heard. One lawyer saw part of the movie on TV but has no comment, others don’t really share Tan’s views. “The system works fine”, says one of them. “Children below fifteen never go to jail, older children do. For younger children, there is boarding school too, the law provides for it, so what’s the problem?”

A second film

Despite her frustrations, Umran Tan never considered giving up her job. “I still had the feeling I could make a bit of a difference. By listening to the children, by using the possibility of sending them to boarding school if available, by asking questions within the system.”
At least now she is heard. Her short film got a lot of attention, both on prime time TV and in national newspapers. From her peer group or from the authorities she got no response, only from some friends in the same profession. As well, the film has not had a very large audience: up until now it has only been shown to groups of invitees. But as soon as the English subtitles are ready, she wants to put the film on the internet. “I’m not finished with this subject yet. There will be a second film, I know it, because of the anger I still feel inside.”
(photo made by me)

pro-Kurdish party DTP: in the shadow of the PKK

The Turkish pro-Kurdish Party for a Democratic Society (DTP) loses voters to the governing AK Party. No reason for DTP-leader Ahmet Türk to soften his opinions: “Amnesty for PKK fighters must be discussed and the murderers of Kurdish politicians, journalists and human rights activists must be brought to justice.”

The end is near for DTP, the “Party for a Democratic Society”. If it is not banned by court order, it will probably be beaten in the next (local) elections. Once again a pro-Kurdish party that fails to survive the Turkish political arena.
And it all started so hopefully, in the spring of 2007. The general elections were approaching, and the DTP decided to get around the ten percent threshold by fielding independent candidates. This turned out to be a good move, as twenty DTP-members were elected. Never before was the Kurdish representation in parliament – with a total of 550 seats – so big. Nor did they ever seem to be so accepted: DTP-parliamentarians even shook hands with their colleagues from the ultra-nationalist MHP. That a few DTP-members, when asked to list their knowledge of foreign languages on official papers, answered ‘Kurdish’ besides their mother tongue Kurdish, caused rage but was eventually forgiven.

Democratic solutions

But a lot has happened since the parliamentary elections in July last year. Most important is the intensifying fight against the PKK, which has fueled the already strong nationalistic feelings in Turkey. The DTP doesn’t distance itself from PKK violence, and that is strongly held against them. Indeed so strongly that the public prosecutor last November decided to start proceedings to close the DTP down, accusing the party of having connections with the PKK and making separatist propaganda.
Ahmet Türk, leader of the DTP parliamentary group, says his party has always preached democratic solutions. But, as he explains in his office in the parliament in Ankara, calling on the PKK to lay down their arms is useless. ‘The government takes no measures at all to give Kurds more freedoms and end their poverty. Only when that is done can we call on people to accept the solutions, to no longer support violence and lay down their weapons.’ Which doesn’t mean, he adds, that there are connections between the DTP and the PKK, or that the DTP can effectively ask them to end the violence. ‘We don’t have such power. Only the dynamics of democratic solutions can stop violence.’

A rose and an axe

It is not true that the government is doing nothing to solve the problems of Kurds in Turkey. Around the beginning of this year, the Erdogan government presented proposals for a new constitution giving minorities more rights and which can also have a positive outcome for Kurdish politicians. The ten percent threshold will not be abolished, but some of the seats in parliament will be reserved for delegates from parties that got at least one percent of the votes. Moreover it will become much harder to ban political parties. In recent years, Turkey has lifted the ban on Kurdish media and more space was created for the Kurdish language.
According to the DTP, it is not enough. Ahmet Türk explains: ‘In the new constitution the rights of Kurds have to be specified. Just like the Spanish constitution gives Catalans the right to express themselves freely. Look at how violence in Northern Ireland was eventually brought to an end: democratic formulas were found.’ DTP wants an all-embracing solution for the Kurdish question, Türk says: ‘We have to discuss an amnesty for PKK fighters, and the government-protected murderers of Kurdish politicians, journalists and human rights activists have to be brought to justice. Also the burning of Kurdish villages in the nineties has to be accounted for. But the only thing that is spoken about in this country is PKK violence, which is not fought with democratic means, but with more violence. Prime Minister Erdogan holds a rose in one hand and an axe in the other.’

Lots of Kurds think differently. The DTP might have reached a historic number of 20 seats in parliament, but the election results were no reason for celebration. The governing AK Party got 41 percent of the votes in the Kurdish southeast. The AKP is a people’s party that wants more religious freedom in strictly secular Turkey, and that achieved economic growth and got inflation down to less than ten percent. That appeals to the population in the southeast, who are not only Kurdish but also Muslims, and who are mainly poor. The AKP decision to attack PKK camps in northern Iraq could lessen the popularity of the party among Kurds. It remains to be seen how many Kurdish voters once again turn their backs on the AKP in the local elections, next year March. Maybe not too many: PKK violence also hits Kurds.

Legal system

The DTP has something to fear from the AKP, but also from the PKK. Instead of giving the democratic representation of Kurds a chance, PKK violence helps to undermine the party. It is as if they cannot tolerate any power in the southeast other than themselves – not the AKP, but also not the DTP. The more PKK violence there is, the more Kurdish politicians are cornered, the less opportunity they get to spread their points of view and the more they are associated with PKK violence, until inevitably a prosecutor will decide to try to close the party down. That’s how it has always gone, Ahmet Türk says: ‘One of our predecessors strongly rejected PKK violence but that party was also banned. It doesn’t matter what we say, we get into trouble anyway.’
He continues: ‘There is no ground for banning the DTP. In the official complaint, there are no concrete accusations, it only says what we don’t do, like condemning PKK violence. Do I have faith in Turkey’s legal system? In my experience the system is under pressure from politics and public opinion, but I hope this time the judges will resist that pressure.’

Apart from the popularity of the governing AKP, maybe rising nationalism and Turkish reluctance to openly speak about the Kurdish question will do more to bring the DTP down. PKK violence will give the party the last blow. But that’s not something you will hear from Ahmet Türk. You will not hear him speak as strongly about the PKK as about the Turkish state. During the interview, several times he talks about the time when Kurds were not even recognised as a people by the Turkish state. Those times are long past, and both friend and foe have to admit that the PKK helped to put the Kurdish question in the spotlight. But you will not hear Türk recognize that fact. When the idea is suggested, he turns to the interpreter with a smile on his face: ‘What does she want? To have me in prison?’

“Our message is our protection”

There are hardly any independent newspapers in Turkey. The exceptions are satirical weekly magazines, which seem to have more freedoms and say they have a journalistic aim. “ Leman isn’t meant to make people laugh or to cheer them up. Leman is pure journalism.”


Istanbul – No, Zafer Aknar, editor in chief of Turkish weekly Leman, does’t have a special strategy for the coming elections in his country (July 22). It’s business as usual: criticise anybody who deserves it, whoever it is. Aknar – former war correspondent for several Turkish newspapers, with grey stubble, motorcycle jacket, helmet on the floor next to his chair – has only one goal with Leman: “Contribute to democracy and to more respect for human rights.”

That mission he tries to accomplish with a magazine that is bought weekly by around 60,000 (mainly young) Turks and is being read by many more. It’s not a magazine with deep investigative journalism, but a magazine full of cartoons, satirising just about everything that’s going on in Turkish society, from religion, gossip and politics to the roles of the sexes and the power of the army. Leman is not one of a kind: sister magazine Penguen also critisizes everything and many young people read it.

Enormous freedom

Cartoon magazines play an important role in Turkish journalism, says Ugur Gündüz, journalism teacher at Istanbul University. “These satirical magazines are always very topical, they comment very quickly on developments and events in Turkey and the rest of the world. Often they comment in a way you would not see in normal newspapers. They work independently, and that gives them an enormous freedom to target anyone and anything.”
Like, in recent months, the mass demonstrations against the Erdogan administration and in favour of the secular state. Erdogan was one target, but so were his political rivals, who were present at every demonstration only to, according to some people, get some political gain out of it – none of the long-established partiesare known for their ability to connect with the average Turk any more. And when at the beginning of this year the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was killed, Leman made a beautiful cover with an illustration of Dink surrounded by pigeons. On the inside pages the murder was spotlighted from different perspectives.

Leman (previously called Limon, meaning Lemon) and Penguen (Penguin) both have a print run of around 60,000 copies each week. Put in perspective: mass newspapers like Posta, Hürriyet and Zaman are ten times as big, but the satirical weeklies are on a par with smaller but not unimportant daily newspapers like Radikal (40,000) and Cumhuriyet (70,000).

Posters, mugs and calenders

The most remarkable thing about the satirical magazines is their independance. In Turkey most of the media are owned by a few big corporations which benefit from maintaining good relationships with government and politicians, and therefore never get too critical. Cartoon magazines are published without corporate patronage, and at Penguen the cartoonists themselves own the magazine.. “We don’t have to suck up to anybody” says Selçuk Erdem, cartoonist and editor of Penguen. “Not even to advertisers, because we don’t sell space for ads.”
The magazines survive on sales of the magazine,and retailing all sorts of Leman and Penguen products (like posters, comics, mugs and calendars), and Leman runs a cafe and a restaurant in Istanbul and Ankara.

Also Selçuk Erdem says ‘his’ Penguen plays a journalistic role. “It’s not our first aim, because that is just to make people laugh and to make them think a bit. You could say we are less engaged then Leman. But we do know that lots of young people read our magazine and that usually they don’t read other magazines. Also about the upcoming elections their opinions are partly based on what they see every week in Penguen.”
In the lead-up to the elections Penguen reserves some extra pages for political satire. “Turkish society got polarised very quickly”, says Erdem, “and we don’t join the polarisation. We look at it from a distance and give our comments. I think there is a need for this lighter perspective. It becomes more and more rare.”
When the newspaper Cumhuriyet was prosecuted in 2005 for publishing a cartoon of prime minister Tayyip Erdogan as a cat entangled in a ball of wool (as a symbol for a political issue he couldn’t solve), Penguen decided to reserve its whole cover for a Tayyip-animalfamily. The complaint that Erdogan also filed about this cartoon was not brought to court by the prosecutor , most likely because a judge in a case about a re-print of the cat-cartoon decided that public figures need to just deal with applause and critisism.


At the beginning of last year, Erdogan aimed his arrows at Leman, which depicted him as a tick. The person bitten by the tick (which can be seen as a symbol for Turkey) is wondering what would be more dangerous: pull it straight out or wait till it is gorged and drops off by itself. Editor in chief Aknar: ‘The prosecutor has decided not to take the case to court because this is a clear case of freedom of opinion. I don’t seek to provoke court cases but such a decision of course helps to broaden the freedom of speech.”
There are no cartoons or subjects that Aknar doesn’t allow in his magazine. But sometimes he uses ‘tricks’ to avoid court cases. By the tick cartoon, for example, the name ‘Erdogan’ is not mentioned, and if names are used, they are sometimes spelled a little different; Tayyib instead of Tayyip, for example. Aknar: “Then you can always say the person who complains wasn’t referred to. No, that’s no self censorship, it is on the contrary a way to publish more ‘extreme’ cartoons than we could otherwise. We want to be able to say everything we want, and if for that we sometimes need a trick, then so be it.”

Penguen doesn’t need those kinds of tricks, says Selçuk Erdem. “Because of our independence, we have a lot of freedom in the cartoons we publish, but that doesn’t mean we do just anything. The aim of a cartoon is not to be as cruel or harsh as possible, it’s about the message you have. The message is our protection. The Tayyip animal-family was a way to support the cartoonist who depicted Erdogan as a cat. Something like that has to be possible, so that’s why we decided to exagerate it a little.”

Tayyip animal family

It seems weird that Aknar and Erdem talk so lightly about the freedom their magazines have. As if not one after another complaint is filed against journalists, writers and politicians that violate article 301 in the Turkish penal code, which makes belittling “Turkishness” punishable by law. And as if just a few years ago Cumhuriyet was not prosecuted because of a cartoon. Nevertheless, the fact remains that lots of complaints (often filed by nationalist lawyers) are in the end never brought to trial because the prosecutor sees no ground for it, and that many cases that do make it to court do not lead to convictions. These cases also don’t make it to the news.

Selçuk Erdem: “I cannot think of any cartoon we wouldn’t make. It doesn’t exist. And if a politician feels offended, he can go to court. But the last few cases turned out positively for cartoonists. By now, politicians must see that complaining about a cartoon only draws more attention to it?”

Lawyer and writer Fethiye Çetin: ‘My identity has never been purely Turkish’

Turkish lawyer Fethiye Çetin wrote a book about the experiences of her grandmother, who witnessed the mass killings of Armenians during a death march of women and children in 1915 as a little girl. ‘My grandmother’ is now in its 7th re-print in Turkey.

On the 24th of April, Fethiye Çetin will again visit the grave of her grandmother. It is the day on which Armenians commemorate the fact that in 1915, during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed or died during a forced march to what is now Syria. Fethiye’s grandmother Heranush survived the death march and afterwards lived her life as Turkish Seher. She never talked about her past until she felt the end of her life was near and she confided in her granddaughter. This granddaughter, lawyer Fethiye Çetin, wrote a book about what her grandmother told her: “My Grandmother”. Fethiye: “It is not a condemnatory, not a political book. I want to take the whole discussion about what happened then away from politics and back to human proportions.”
She succeeded. The book is a success: the seventh print is about to be distributed, and Fethiye knows that a lot of copies are being read by more people. Not only by Turks of Armenian descent, but also by ethnic Turks, even the most chauvinist among them. Fethiye: “For my grandmother it was a great relief to talk about the past, and so it is for Turks. Silence must be broken because it damages everybody.”

Break the silence

Fethiye’s book ‘My Grandmother’ – ‘Anneannem’ in Turkish – starts with grandmother’s funeral. It is at the time of the goodbye ritual, in which grandmother’s names must be mentioned. After the leader of the ritual asks the names of grandmother’s parents, there is silence among the women of the family. Then an aunt says: “Her father’s name was Hüseyin, her mother’s name was Esma.” Fethiye then feels compelled to break the silence that follows, and shouts out that these names are wrong. “Her mother’s name was not Esma, but Isquhi, and her father was not Hüseyin but Hovannes!” Now Fethiye says: “My grandmother gave me a strong sence of justice and fairness. How could I maintain the lies about her family, especially at that moment?”

Back to 1915. The First World War continues, the Ottoman Empire is about to collapse and loses more and more ground to Russia. The government feels threatened by the Christian Armenian minority in the country, which is protected by Russia. Armenian men are killed, women and children are sent on foot to Syria. A journey of hundreds of kilometres in the summer that gets hotter very day.

Death march

Fethiye Çetin writes about the events through the eyes of the women of the village where her grandmother, born in 1905, spent her youth among other Armenians. One day, the military police occupies the village, kills the chief of the village and takes all the men away. Nobody ever hears from them again. Heranush’s father is not there: he left to work in the United States five years before. After the deportation of the men, some of the women take their children and find refuge in a nearby village, among them Heranush’s mother with her son and two daughters. But that village is also attacked by the military police. Everybody is taken to a place nearby, where the throats of the men are slit. The women and children are banished and forced into a real death march towards Syria.
Heranush survives. She is forced out of the caravan and her mother’s arms by Hüseyin, a corporal of the military police. He takes Heranush into his house, gives her a new name, Seher, and gives her an Islamic upbringing. He treats Heranush well, considers her his daughter, but his wife Esma treats her as a house slave, even more after Hüseyin dies young. Heranush is not the only child that is taken away from the caravan: the same happens to thousands of boys and girls. Horen, Heranush’s little brother, also survives in that way.

Heranush’s mother Isquhi survives the death march and arrives in Aleppo, Syria. After the war, her husband returns from the United States to see if his family is still alive. He finds his wife, and together they try to find their kidnapped children. They work through intermediaries, find both Heranush and Horen and want to reunite the family. They succeed in getting Horen back, but not Heranush. She has got married in the meantime, and even though at first her husband agrees to visit the family in Syria, he changes his mind after he fears losing his wife and children. Heranush remains as Seher.

What was it like to write down the story of your grandmother?
“I didn’t sleep well in those days and cried a lot. I felt so sorry for my grandmother, a nine year old girl. Especially one memory kept haunting me: two of my grandmother’s nieces, whose father was killed and whose pregnant mother died during the journey, were thrown into a fast-flowing river by her grandmother because she saw no future for the girls. One of the girls sank immediately, the other one cameto the surface thrashing about and gasping for breath. Her grandmother pushed the girl underwater and after that jumped into the wild water herself. Heranush saw them drift off. Not much later, she was snatched from her mothers arms by a mounted policeman. I got desperate when I thought of these things.”

Your grandmother only confided in you about her past when she was over ninety years old. Why only then?
“I asked her the same question, just like I asked her why she never tried to get in touch with her parents and brother in the US. She always replied: ‘Ne bileyim?’, which means ‘How am I supposed to know?’ Her family even sent her money once to come and visit them, but then she had eye problems and her son went in her place. He got into a fight there and when he returned, he said he had lost the family’s address. She let it be that way.
Maybe it has to do with the big taboo that still surrounds this whole matter. Just after the war, about 1920, everybody knew what had happened and who the girls and boys were with Turkish names and Armenian roots, but after that, the silence began. And that silence had to do with the creation of modern Turkey. The Ottoman Emire was not a nation state with one people, whereas Atatürk wanted to transform Turkey into a nation state. But there was no such thing as a Turkish identity. It needed to be shaped, and therefore being Turkish was proclaimed to be the highest honour . As a result, not being Turkish became a taboo. Being Armenian turned into something to be ashamed of.”

You grew up in this nation state Turkey, with a Turkish identity. What does it do to your identity when you discover there is Armenian blood in the family?
“Not that much. Orrather, since I have known what my family history is really like, many things from my youth finally make sense and the gaps in my identity have been filled in. For example, my grandmother used to say that my musicality came from her side of the family. I never really understood what she meant, but I did know that Turks are not really known for their great musicality. Now I know this feeling for music is in my Armenian blood. I also remember that my grandmother on a certain day of the year would bake a special kind of cake, and that some women she knew did the same, and that they visited each other on that day. Now I know these were all women like my grandmother; they secretly celebrated Easter as they had done in their youth. So, my identity has never been purely Turkish. In Turkey, I feel connected to the faith of the Armenians and other minorities. My Turkish identity I feel strongly when I visit Germany, for example, and see the living conditions of many German Turks.”

Long talks

Seher kept her real identity hidden, but couldn’t keep that up to the end of her life. With one question she started many long talks with her granddaughter: about a year before she died, she asked Fethiye to go find her family in the United States. It was a short talk, after which Fethiye’s head was spinning with questions. Again and again she looked for opportunities to talk to her grandmother about her past, and again and again her grandmother seized the opportunity.

You didn’t manage to get her in touch with her family.
“No, I didn’t. I found them through a classified ad in an Armenian newspaper, and Horen turned out to be still alive. But he recently had a heart attack and died. I could tell my grandmother that he called his daughter Heranush. Of course, that made her feel good, she was now sure that she was never forgotten. Grandmother was too weak to travel to the United States and she died without ever seeing her Armenian family again.
I did meet them. I went there to celebrate the eightieth birthday of my grandmother’s sister, who was born in the United States. With a few family members we visited the grave of my grandmother’s parents. I put roses on it. And I apologized. For all the pain they suffered because of the way society, my society, handled the things that happened. The pain caused by the silence, and by the history books in schools that depict Armenians as enemies. The ‘enemy’ can be in your family and can therefore never be the enemy; we are all human beings, that is the message of my book.
I hope my apologies are accepted.”