Adding insult to the injury
Turkey has experienced a steady erosion of fundamental rights and civil liberties in the past decade. The situation deteriorated markedly with the imposition of the State of Emergency following the failed coup attempt of July 2016.
The Turkish government managed to lower the bar on human rights still further with its actions on August 25, 2018.
On that day, after a decision to ban a weekly vigil held each Saturday for years by a group of Turkish women known as the Saturday Mothers ― demanding accountability for their disappeared children in the Kurdish conflict ― Turkish police intervened using tear gas, riot guns and batons. More than 20 demonstrators were taken into custody. Many more were injured.
A photograph taken by Hayri Tunç during the incident is significant and symbolic. It shows an 82-year-old woman named Emine Ocak being arrested. Ocak lost her son Hasan, a school teacher, in 1995. She later learned that he died whilst being tortured and was buried in a cemetery for anonymous victims.
Emine Ocak is only one of the mothers struggling to discover their child's fate, and those who were responsible.
The similarity of Hayri Tunç's photo to another photo, again showing Ocak being arrested in the very same place in 1997, makes it symbolic. Looking at the two photos one cannot but wonder how much progress Turkey has made in terms transparency or accountability.
The violent images from August 25 spread rapidly around the world, and the significance of the photos transcends the event itself.
Saturday Mothers demonstrations have always been a quiet sitting and reading protest. The ban on this peaceful protest and the police intervention demonstrate the Turkish government's disregard for freedom of assembly and dissent, in whatever form. Images of the police intervention serve merely to reinforce perceptions of Turkey as a 'police state'.
The image of Ocak not only reveals how polarised Turkey has become over time, but also demonstrates the inadequacy of the opposition.
Wikipedia, which is banned in Turkey, says the following about the Saturday Mothers:
"The Saturday Mothers (Cumartesi Anneleri) are a group who gather at 12pm every Saturday for half an hour in Istanbul’s Galatasaray district holding photographs of their "lost" loved ones. Mainly composed of mothers of victims, and renowned as a model of civil disobedience, they combine silent sit-in with communal vigil as their method of protest against the forced disappearances and political murders in Turkey during the military coup-era of the 1980s and the state of emergency era of the 1990s.
"After facing violent police attacks almost every week, on March 13, 1999, they were forced to halt their protest following a particularly harsh series of attacks by police. They resumed their protests on January 31, 2009.
"Their main aims and demands include:
- to raise awareness of state-sponsored violence, militarization, and militarism in Turkey
- that state document archives be opened up for public review of state-sponsored political murders
- that changes to the Turkish penal code be made that remove the statute of limitation on political murders and forced disappearances
- that Turkey signs the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance."
What the “Saturday Mothers” tried to keep alive for over 23 years and 700 silent protests has been both their demand for closure and their desire for government accountability.
Unsolved murders and extrajudicial executions have always been a problem in Turkish politics. Consecutive AKP governments in the last decade-and-a-half have not only failed to resolve this problem but, since the official ending of the Kurdish Peace Process in July 2015, have added hundreds to the more than 2 thousand unsolved murders between 1991 and 2011. In other words, the dark and dirty war tactics of the 1990's have made a come-back.
The images of Ocak suggest the issue will remain an open wound in Turkey.
The Saturday Mothers demanded the prosecution of those responsible for the disappearance of their children when they protested for 700 weeks. However, apart from the trials of a few low-ranking officers in local courts, no unsolved murder case has been successfully tried for almost a quarter of a century now. Virtually all trials of unsolved murders during AKP governance resulted in the acquittal of the defendants. Other investigations ended without trials.
Another reason for the Saturday Mothers' protests was to speed up investigations before the statute of limitations on the cases. Human Rights Watch requested the repeal of the statute of limitations for these cases in a comprehensive report in 2012, but the self-censoring Turkish mainstream media and the opposition parties failed to follow up.
The situation today is worrisome. Maybe the persistence of Saturday Mothers' calls for national and global action against this unlawful situation disturbed the current administration. Of course, the looming economic and financial crises may also play a part in the decision to ban the protest.
Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that the ban on Saturday Mothers' most recent demonstration will be permanent. We don't know how the mothers and their relatives will respond if this ban is made permanent.
But this much is clear; the Turkish government’s rigid, restrictive, and insolent mentality repeats the mistakes that exacerbated Turkey's democracy problem in the past.