From a Basement in Cizre to Istiklal Street: Impunity, State Indifference and the “Machine of Persecution”

Our latest in the series on human rights and freedom of speech in Turkey discusses the Saturday Mothers decades-long search for justice and the humanitarian crisis in Cizre.

Source: Mustafa Kirazlı, Zaman

“Children of those who were disappeared under detention in Cizre in the 1990s are now struggling for life under curfew. Whoever remains silence to this atrocity of the Turkish state will be responsible of the civil deaths and other human rights violations.”

This is what the Saturday Mothers stated on January 30, 2016, when they came together for the 566th time. This time, they gathered not only for the forced disappearances but also to stand up against the ongoing curfew in Cizre, which has been in effect since December 14, 2015. They came together not only to demand justice for past events and truth about what happened, but also for the ongoing injustices, human rights violations as well as civilian deaths in Turkey which are increasing day by day.

Their demands for justice are now combined with demands for peace and with protest against the war-like situation unfolding across Kurdish cities in Turkey since July 2015. Today in Cizre more than 20 people with injuries (seven of them reported dead as of January 30) are stuck in a basement, hiding from artillery fire. The government denies them access to ambulances and to other emergency needs such as food and water. After all is finished, after the war going on right now ends, one thing that we will all be forced to bitterly and hopelessly admit is the impunity; the fact that the perpetrators will not be prosecuted.

From the very beginning, this is what the Saturday Mothers have been reminding us: none of the human rights violations, none of the injustices going on in Turkey are independent from one another. As long as impunity over the forced disappearances remains intact, injustice will continue without prosecution. As the atrocities increase, their demand for truth and justice and for facing the past becomes all the more important for all of us. Ali Ocak, brother of Hasan Ocak reminds us, “Essential here is the absence of facing the past. As impunity remains, the state will turn into a machine of persecution.”

Today, if the Turkish state is operating as a war machine that has killed 198 civilians (39 of which are children) and is proud of these actions under the name of counter-terrorism, it is partly -if not at primarily- because we have not faced up to past atrocities. Today, understanding the struggle to challenge the monopoly over truth, the struggle and demands to face the past, remains all the more valuable. Exactly for this reason, looking more closely into the demands and activities of the Saturday Mothers is invaluable. It, I believe, will open up a new space for us to discuss what is going on in contemporary Turkey.

The Saturday Mothers: A Twenty Year Quest for Truth

When the Saturday Mothers first started their weekly sit-ins on May 27, 1995, their main aim was to draw attention to forced disappearances; the estimated number of which reached 1,353 in the period between 1980 and 2000. Two cases in particular triggered their action. On March 21, 1995, Hasan Ocak was taken by the police and he disappeared under custody. The Human Rights Association (IHD), his family and other human rights organizations were mobilized to find him. 55 days after his detention, his dead body was found in a destitution cemetery, tortured and ill-treated. The second incident was that of Rıdvan Karakoç, whose body was found just like that of Ocak’s. Following these events, close relatives of the disappeared who had been silent thus far took action against continuing forced disappearances. They chose Istiklal Street, the most crowded street of Istanbul and of Turkey, as their site of protest. Since 1995, they have been gathering for peaceful sit-ins and press releases every Saturday.

When they first started, they were no more than 30 people, with the support of some human rights organizations, IHD, in particular. Over the course of time however they gained greater visibility and support. Hüsniye Ocak, the mother of Hasan Ocak, recalls that people started to come and sit with these women, listen to them and share their demands. The movement drew international attention as well. In the 169th week, on May 30, 1998, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo of Argentina came to Istanbul and held vigil with the Saturday Mothers. However, the more they gained visibility and support, the more they were subjected to police violence. From the 170th week till the 200th week, 1,093 people were detained and many more were ill-treated by the police. Women were dragged through the streets and extensive amounts of tear gas was used against the group. In 1999, after the 200th week, they decided to take a break from their actions due to the brutality they encountered.

Starting from 2007, Turkey witnessed a series of lawsuits called Ergenekon and Balyoz, purportedly initiated in order to “face the clandestine past of Turkey”. A number of people- a considerable number of whom were retired and/or active military officers- associated with coup d’etat attempts and extra-legal activities against the constitutional order, have been prosecuted. Among them were the alleged offenders of human rights violations including forced disappearances, summary executions, political assassinations and other extra-legal activities carried out in the Kurdish region. Once these people were sued, the Saturday Mothers and many other human rights organizations asked for a widening of the scope of the investigation to “East of Euphrates”, the geographical boundary defining the Kurdish region in Turkey. Central to this demand was to emphasize that without prosecution of past atrocities against the Kurds, any attempt for democratization or facing Turkey’s clandestine past would remain incomplete. Nevertheless, their applications were rejected. In response to this, the Saturday Mothers decided to resume their protests which continue on today.

Throughout time, they have gained even more visibility and support from other movements. In October 2014, on the 500th week of their sit-ins, thousands of people joined them. A year later, former Uruguay President Jose Mujica, who has been very active in the struggle against similar forced disappearances in Argentina and Uruguay, visited the Saturday Mothers to show solidarity with their struggle. For more than 20 years, their struggle for the revelation of truth has been going on now, with growing support from different sectors of society.

The overt aim of the Saturday Mothers is to force the state to inform them about the fate of their loved ones, and to accept responsibility for crimes committed. Their demands are for “state officials to disclose the fate of the forcibly disappeared to their families; recovery of the bodies of the forcibly disappeared and their release to the relatives; state to recognize its responsibility and culpability specifically for the enforced disappearances; prosecution of state officials who have been directly involved in the enforced disappearances and administration of the necessary punishments; implementation of reparation and redressal processes for the ones left behind”. Although there have been some investigations regarding disappearances under custody, the demands of the Saturday Mothers largely remain largely unheard.

However, their demands for truth and justice have not been limited only to forced disappearances. Asking for truth in the face of official denial means a challenge to the discursive and material ground upon which the Turkish state, as well as its politics of citizenship, have been constituted. This is because what is being denied is not only the state’s past atrocities but the broader legal and political conditions that allowed these atrocities to occur in the first place. One such condition is the emphasis on the ethnic Turkishness of the citizens of the Turkish Republic. Whoever demands substantive democratic rights for the Kurds has been stigmatized as the “enemy of the state”, and deserving of punishment for challenging the integrity of the ‘Turkish’ state.

In this respect, what is being denied is not only the recovery of bodies and delivery of the remains of those who were disappeared under custody, but also the historical conditions that enabled the mass atrocities that marked the 1990s. This applies to the evacuation and burning of the Kurdish villages and other settlements, “unresolved murders”, summary execution of civilians, torture, ill-treatment, displacement, forced migration, arbitrary detention and arrest, as much as it applies to forced disappearances under custody. Hence, a comprehensive justice requires a deeper investigation into other mass atrocities as well as into the legal and political conditions that allow these atrocities first to happen and second, to go unexplored and unpunished, if not welcomed and acclaimed.

In Lieu of Conclusion: Continuity in State, Continuity in Persecution

In July 2015, the three-year long peace process between the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK )and the Turkish state ended. Since then, Turkey has witnessed the most severe human rights violations seen since the height of the conflict in the 1990s. Social media outlets were banned, many journalists including foreign ones, were arrested and newspaper offices were raided. Academics who demand an end to escalating state violence have been targeted and sued as members of a terrorist organization, namely the PKK. Cities have been under draconian curfews for overextended periods of time; people are denied access to basic needs such as health care, food and water. Civilians, among them, children- are being killed in the streets and large sections of the population are internally displaced, becoming refugees in their own country. Peace activists are being detained and arrested, with some such as Tahir Elçi killed in the cross-fire. The deceased body of a Kurdish guerrilla was dragged behind an armored vehicle, and the deceased body of a civilian woman was left on the streets for a week, her relatives denied access. Most recently, more than 20 civilians have been trapped in the basement of a building for 10 days; without access to ambulances or any other help. This “low-intensity conflict” -as the state names it- between the PKK and the state is escalating into a full-blown civil war in which civilians are severely affected.

All the recent bitter developments in mind, looking into the demands of the Saturday Mothers in a broader perspective confronts us more urgently than ever. It is important to rethink the political significance of their movement in the light of growing human rights violations in Turkey. Understanding the context within which their demands are generated and also grasping the fact that forced disappearances are not a single, isolated event peculiar to a single period of Turkish history, constitutes an important part of the struggle for peace and democracy. This requires, among other things, facing the past, reconstructing the collective memory and asking for reparations and redress on the part of the state.

The Saturday Mothers, even though they have never deviated from their own cause, that is, asking for the truth and justice for the forced disappearances, have always been in solidarity with other democratic groups in Turkey. They have stood in solidarity with the “unresolved killings” of journalists and political activists, with the Gezi movement and with those who have been the victims of state violence, in general. They have never isolated themselves from the general political environment of Turkey, knowing that their cause is not independent from other political movements. They also know that unless the truth about the fate of the forcible disappeared is discovered, the holy continuity of the glorious Turkish state will be maintained, and it may continue its unholy war against everyone who stands against them. That is why, in their 500th week, they stated once again and reminded the rest of the country that “We are here not for ourselves but for you.”

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