New Internationalist

‘We are lucky to have a grave. Other families have nothing’

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On the International Day for the Disappeared, Tim Baster and Isabelle Merminod meet Turkish families still seeking justice for their missing loved ones.

Isabelle Merminod
Isabelle Merminod

It is a Saturday morning in the office of the Human Rights Association (IHD) in Istanbul. The ‘Saturday Mothers’ – the families of Turkey’s ‘disappeared’ – are getting ready to go to Galatasaray Square, where the riot police are waiting for them, just as they have done more than 375 times in the last 17 years.

Nowadays there are only about 16 officers wearing body armour and holding riot shields in the square, plus two other officers with automatic weapons and one more with a tear gas gun. But it has not always been so quiet in Galatasaray Square when the Saturday Mothers have demonstrated for their disappeared.

When interviewed, Maside Ocak whose brother Hasan disappeared in 1995, sits very still in her chair, hardly moving her hands; sometimes she smiles, sometimes she is very thoughtful. Hasan Karakoç, brother of another of the disappeared, Ridvan Karakoç, uses strong gestures, his face reflecting his words. He sits in front of us, showing photos of the Saturday Mothers’ different events.

Pepper spray was used for the first time in this country for the Saturday Mothers

In spite of a search for justice which has taken 17 years, Hasan and Maside consider their families ‘lucky’ – the families found their brothers and buried them. But most of the families of the disappeared have not been so fortunate: the bodies of their loved ones remain unlocated. Hasan Karakoç says: ‘There is nothing I can do for Ridvan. We are lucky that we have the grave. We have a place where we can put flowers. But with other families, they have nothing.’

A courageous and risky campaign

The Saturday Mothers was set up in 1995 by the families of Maside and Hasan in a courageous – and risky – campaign during a period of violence. State repression peaked in Turkey in the mid-1990s as Kurds fought unsuccessfully for their independence.

Maside Ocak talks about the campaign’s success in stopping disappearances. In a 1998 report, called ‘Turkey – listen to the Saturday Mothers’, Amnesty International stated: ‘There is no question that it was [the Saturday Mothers’] courageous and determined stand that turned back the wave of “disappearances” which reached a peak in 1994.’

Isabelle Merminod
Maside Ocak Isabelle Merminod

Maside recounts that in the late 1990s, ‘people who were detained and released later would come to the Saturday Mothers and tell us their stories about when the police were holding them in detention. They were torturing them and they said “you know, you should be glad that there are Saturday Mothers because if it wasn’t for them we would just kill you”.’

The number of disappeared reached almost 400 per year by 1995. By 1999, according to Amnesty International, the number had dropped to five cases over the year. More recent Amnesty reports do not record any disappearances, although serious human rights violations remain.

The Saturday Mothers were forced to close their protest action in 1998 when the Turkish state intensified attacks on them. Maside recounts: ‘Anywhere we would be seen [in the area] we would just be detained. They wouldn’t let us be seen anywhere or stand anywhere. Our Saturday Mothers would be detained. The police would just take them by the hair and drag them. Pepper spray was used for the first time in this country for the Saturday Mothers. Once, they arrested us and put us in a bus, and they just pepper-sprayed the bus.’ Despite this repression, their network remained active.

In 2002 the AKP (Justice and Development Party) won the elections and has since held power. Although the AKP’s record on human rights has itself been criticized, prosecutors did begin to pursue military and police officers for a number of crimes – but not for disappearances. However, the mere existence of trials of police and military implicated in the disappearances changed the political climate and allowed the Saturday Mothers to restart their protest.

Still waiting for justice

On 31 January 2009, the Saturday Mothers were back at Galatasaray square, determined to reoccupy the space. That was ‘week 201, and now we are at week 378,’ Maside notes. In February 2011 Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan agreed to meet the Saturday Mothers as a result of publicity for their 300th week of protest.

But little has changed for the Saturday Mothers. They are still waiting to obtain investigations into their relatives’ disappearances. The Turkish government still refuses to open military and police files. Prosecutors do not tell families if investigations are ongoing and in one case bodies of the disappeared were re-buried before DNA samples could be taken. Maside says that a commission investigating disappearances has only investigated two cases. A trial of police officers involved in one case appears to have come to a halt after a year. The Saturday Mothers have a caseload of about 1,200 disappeared. But Maside points out that many families would have been too frightened to report the disappearance of a family member to the very authorities who were suspected of involvement.

The Turkish government still refuses to open military and police files. Prosecutors do not tell families if investigations are ongoing

While some of the military and police responsible have gone to jail for other crimes, there are still no investigations and no charges against them regarding the disappearances. Hasan Karakoç speaks fiercely, his hands stabbing out in front of him. ‘We want these people to be judged. They should be punished,’ he says.

The Saturday Mothers demand that their disappeared be found and that those responsible be put on trial. They also demand that a parliamentary commission, free from any restrictions, be set up to investigate all cases and a DNA database for the disappeared be created. These demands are similar to those of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, where trials regarding the disappeared have started.

But the Turkish government remains silent and the military and police files remain closed.

And every Saturday at 12 noon the riot police wait for the Saturday Mothers in Galatsaray Square.

Tim Baster and Isabelle Merminod

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