Figen Gunes
Dec 16 2017

Increased dangers putting people off protesting - Turkish activist

A one-armed Turkish civil servant who shot to fame protesting against losing his job in a government purge said demonstrations would be more widespread were it not for people’s fear of the police beatings and falling victim to bomb attacks by Islamic State militants.

Veli Saçılık lost his right arm when a bulldozer was used to break down a wall during a protest at a prison where he was an inmate in 2000. Upon his release, Saçılık studied sociology and became a civil servant in Ankara. He sued authorities for the loss of his arm and won compensation. But the state later demanded the money back and Saçılık appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and won the case.

Saçılık shot to fame though when he was filmed and photographed being beaten by riot police in Ankara after he and others protested the loss of their jobs in the purges that followed a failed coup last year that the government blames on followers of U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gülen.

More than 100,000 government employees have lost their jobs in the post-coup crackdown under emergency powers that allow the state to remove anyone from their post by decree without giving any reason and without any right to appeal. Human rights groups say the purges have spread far beyond the supporters of Gülen, a former government ally, and have hit many of all stripes opposed to the ruling party as well as scores of innocent people.

"People call me a one-armed protestor, but I don't feel ineffective,” Saçılık told Ahval in an interview. “I really think those staying silent after all this unfairness, they should feel ineffective."

Saçılık was one of a handful of people to gather daily in the centre of the capital Ankara to protest the loss of their jobs. The demonstrations gained media attention when sacked teachers Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça went on hunger strike.

"When our voice was heard across the world, first Nuriye and Semih were arrested. Later they were treated as if there was a case against them for being members of a terrorist organisation,” Saçılık said in an interview in Diyarbakir, the biggest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast. “It showed workers can resist despite all the pressure."

Despite vowing to continue their hunger strike to the death, Gülmen and Özakça have survived for some 280 days on a diet of tea, sugar, salt and vitamins. Both have been charged with “membership of a terrorist organisation”, namely a far-left armed group. Gülmen is being held in a prison hospital, while Özakça has been released but is being kept under house arrest.

Harsh treatment by police, Saçılık said, had reduced the numbers of protesters in central Ankara, but the media presence meant that millions had been made aware of their plight.

“The police prevented it from turning into a mass movement by beating us, but it was still watched by millions," he said.

Veli Saçılık in Diyarbakır
Veli Saçılık in Diyarbakır

Visiting Diyarbakir for the first time, Saçılık called it a "captive city" due to the heavy security presence as a result of the more than three decades of conflict with the armed separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) active in the area.

"I observed a wounded city. The walls are pierced with bullets here," he said. "The state controls this city with its police and judges, but the state itself is not liked here. There is domination through the power of bayonets but the hearts of the people have not been won over.”

Islamic State (ISIS) suicide bomb and gun attacks have killed dozens across Turkey in the last two years as the war in neighbouring Syria has spilled over the border. Saçılık accused the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of allowing ISIS to operate inside Turkey.

"The war in neighbouring Syria was also utilised by the current government by setting ISIS fighters free in their bombing activities. The AKP used the Syrian war to bring violence into the squares of Turkey.” The threat of becoming a victim of an ISIS attack also helped quell the protests, he said.

Despite the pressures, Saçılık said, the state could not quell the people’s spirit.

"Because of the disproportionate reactions of the state, demonstrations are not held, but they people are active in their minds,” he said.