State repression in Turkey

Tear gas for grieving Saturday Mothers

The Saturday Mothers gather weekly in Turkey to demand information on loved ones subjected to enforced disappearance or state violence. But in the country’s repressive political environment even their vigils are coming under attack. Tom Stevenson and Murat Bayram report from Istanbul

Every Saturday for the last 699 weeks, the Saturday Mothers have held a sit-in in central Istanbul to remember the hundreds of victims of enforced disappearance in Turkey. This week they intended to hold their 700th vigil. The Turkish government had other plans.

As members of the Saturday Mothers organisation, most of them women, along with their supporters gathered on the city’s central Istiklal Street, Turkish security forces approached the group and ordered them to disperse. The Mothers held their ground. "You killed our sons," someone in the crowd shouted back. Police then fired tear gas cannisters to forcibly clear the area as demonstrators ran or collapsed on the ground unable to breathe. Twenty people were arrested.

In Istanbul and Diyarbakir, the de facto capital of Turkey’s Kurdish majority south-east, the Saturday Mothers' vigils, held since May 1995, are sombre affairs. Black posters are laid on the floor bearing the names of dozens of men forcibly disappeared by the security forces. Women sit quietly holding photographs of "the lost". Sometimes the stories of victims are told by their family members. The women demand information about their lost loved ones, insisting that they be remembered.

Protest and the ritual of remembrance

Selvi Gulmez has participated in the weekly sit-ins for the last 23 years. Her daughter Nergiz died while staging a 135-day hunger strike in protest against her detention as a political prisoner in 2001. She has attended the Istanbul demonstration for longer than anyone else.

Saturday Mother Selvi Gulmez (photo: Murat Bayram)
Saturday Mother Selvi Gulmez, twice bereft: having lost her daughter Nergiz to hunger strike in 2001 and with a son held in ongoing detention – 17 years and counting – Gulmez has nothing but stinging condemnation for the authorities: "Look at the lack of dignity and honour in attacking people remembering those who would die for a cause"

"Why did they attack us? I lost my daughter because of the state and our friends lost their relatives," said Gulmez, who moves with the aid of a walking stick, shortly after taking refuge from the tear gas in a passage off Istiklal street. Before her daughter’s death, Gulmez’s son Ali was also detained in a series of high security prisons. He has been imprisoned now for 17 years, often in solitary confinement.

She contrasts her daughter’s strength in dying for her principles with the behaviour of the authorities. "The perseverance, the belief, the commitment to go 130 days without eating anything for a cause – such unbelievable humanity and dignity has the ability to move mountains, " Gulmez said. "Look at the lack of dignity and honour in attacking people remembering those who would die for a cause."

Opposing state violence in all its forms

Most of the victims of enforced disappearance and police violence in Turkey were lost in the 1990s, when the war between Turkish security forces in south-eastern Turkey (against the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK) was at its height and repression in the majority Kurdish south-east peaked. But the Saturday Mothers movement has broadened to oppose many forms of state violence.

Emine Kucukbumin also attempted to join the 700th vigil before it was broken up. Her son Deniz was arrested from the family home six years ago after he tried to publish a political magazine as a university student.

Protesters demonstrate peacefully during the 700th vigil of the Saturday Mothers in Istanbul on 25.08.2018 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/abaca/DHA/A.Mase)
A thorn in Erdoganʹs side: the Saturday Mothers have gathered at the same place every week since 1995 to demand justice for those political activists who disappeared, allegedly after being detained by the hands of the state. On 25 August 2018 – during the 700th vigil – police used water cannon and fired tear gas canisters to disperse the peaceful protest. Twenty people were arrested

"I’m new to the sit-ins, I have only been joining in for six years," Kucukbumin said. "People are searching for the bodies of their relatives. This is our protest and it is respectful. I’ve never seen anything like this attack on our demonstration today."

Kucukbumin’s son has since managed to leave Turkey and has been granted political asylum in France. She keeps protesting in support of the families whose sons remain imprisoned, or whose fates are unknown. When Kucukbumin first joined a sit-in she says the group believed there to be 600 students imprisoned in Turkey. "I said I would keep demonstrating in the squares until there were zero, but now there are tens of thousands," she said. "So it looks like I will be spending the rest of my life here demonstrating."

The Saturday Mothers' vigils in Diyarbakir have come under heavier pressure. Last year, the Mothers were banned from holding their vigil in its usual location beneath a human rights monument in the city’s Kosgulu park. They have since been compelled to hold the meetings in private offices.

700th vigil – an expression of wider solidarity

The 700th vigil in Istanbul was set to attract large crowds in solidarity, which provoked a harsh response from the authorities, said Eren Keskin, a lawyer and vice-president of the Turkish Human Rights Association (IHD), who attended the gathering.

Eren Keskin, lawyer and vice-president of the Turkish Human Rights Association IHD (photo: Murat Bayram)
Broad opposition against state violence: what began as a ritual of remembrance by the mothers of political activists who disappeared during the 1990s is being adopted by those protesting against Erdoganʹs post-coup clampdown on civil society. "This is why the police acted as they did," says Keskin, vice-president of the Turkish Human Rights Association. "The attack on the protest today shows exactly what this government thinks of those who stand against it"

"People were joining not only from Kurdish groups and socialist groups, but from outside of the usual circles and this is why the police acted as they did," Keskin said. Keskin says the history of enforced disappearance in Turkey is long, going back to the Armenian genocide in 1915, before the Republic of Turkey was founded.

In 2013, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) pledged that the time of security forces abducting citizens who would remain lost forever was over. But Keskin says the attack on the Saturday Mothers' vigil shows the kind of politics the Turkish government is pursuing.

"This attack on the protest today shows exactly what this government thinks of the use of violence by the police and those who stand against it," she said.


Tom Stevenson & Murat Bayram

© 2018

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