Arrested Turkish activist Yiğit Aksakoğlu worked to heal society’s wounds, friends say

Turkish authorities last week officially arrested Yiğit Aksakoğlu, a well-known figure in civil society groups and non-governmental organisations, as part of a new wave of detentions over the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the biggest anti-government demonstrations since the Islamist ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

Prosecutors accuse Aksakoğlu of attempting to overthrow the government by acting as a facilitator in a meeting on non-violent protest and civil disobedience organised after Gezi Park protests.

Aksakoğlu started working in civil society groups in the 1990s in the European Students’ Forum, focusing on youth participation in politics. 

Aksakoğlu gained a graduate degree from the London School of Economics on management of non-governmental organisations and helped establish Istanbul Bilgi University’s Civil Society Research and Training Centre, working there as an instructor between 2003 and 2008.

Recently, he has been working on early child development and is a consultant of the Netherlands-based Bernard van Leer Foundation.

His latest project, “Istanbul95”, is being implemented with the participation of four district municipalities in Istanbul, two run by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and two by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). The project aims to see cities from the eyes of the children and make urban life more secure for them.

“He is one of the rare persons who has specialised in civil society, because openness, transparency, and accountability are very important in civil society. Yiğit specialised in those things. He gave training to all civil society organisations, whether large or small. I learned so much from him,” Hacer Foggo, a leading activist working on the rights of Turkey’s Roma minority, said after his arrest. 

“He should immediately return to his work, as this country belongs to all of us and I think Yiğit makes important contributions to problems we usually fail to detect,” she said. 

In 2011, Aksakoğlu and a Turkish academic Tolga İslam established the “Platform for the Rights of Conscripts” to track the incidences of torture and mistreatment of men doing their obligatory military service. The platform at the time also organised meetings in parliament to explain the problems faced by conscripts.

“It was an issue in Turkey that was known by everyone but touched by nobody, that was affecting everybody directly or indirectly. Mine and Yiğit’s paths crossed in 2011, and this issue became central in our lives for a couple of years following 2011. It was totally a voluntary work,” İslam said. 

“We produced two reports on the subject. Yiğit took part in both. We could not understand why he was arrested. We are talking about a person who wants to work for this society, who sacrifices his own time to work for this society. In fact he is a person that should be awarded, but we are facing an unbelievable situation,” he said. 

Aksakoğlu is a democratic person, who could collaborate with anyone, said Batuhan Aydagül, the director of Education Reform Initiative, an independent and not-for-profit think tank that aims to contribute to transformation in education.

“He is someone who cuts polarisations, who goes beyond polarisations, who enters into dialogue with others not over who they are but over what they think. More importantly, he is someone who rejects violence and has been an example as someone from civil society for all of us in understanding that dissent is a right but should be displayed in peaceful ways,” Aydagül said. 

“He does not deserve such an injustice. It is important to know and be aware of the fact that people affected by injustices in Turkey are very valuable and do many important things to serve this society,” he said.

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