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Democrasy on trial in Turkey

06.02.2015, in Istanbul’s massive Çagalayan courthouse, five leaders of four different Turkish labour and professional groups faced charges for their call to assemble in Istanbul’s Taksim Square on 1 May 2014.

Lami Özgen, co-president of the Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions (KESK), Kani Beko, president of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DİSK), Arzu Çerkezoğlu, general secretary of DİSK, Mehmet Soğancı, president of the Turkish Chamber of Architectures and Engineers (TMMOB) Executive Committee, and Ahmet Özdemir Aktan, president of the Turkish Medical Association Central Council, are facing two to four years for “inciting the public to illegally assemble and demonstrate”.

Taksim Square had traditionally been the focal point of May Day celebrations in Istanbul until on 1 May 1977 gunmen opened fire on the 500,000 people gathered in the square.

Thirty six people were killed in the shooting and ensuing stampede, and as a result, May Day celebrations were banned in the square for more than 30 years.

And they have once again been banned since 2013.

The heavy police response to demonstrators trying to enter Taksim Square on 1 May 2013 was a prelude to the Gezi protests which began later that month.

“Why do Australians come to [Turkey’s Çanakkale] peninsula to commemorate the Gallipoli campaign? Why do Jews go to Auschwitz to commemorate the Holocaust? Because deaths are commemorated in the place that they happen. Why should we not be able to commemorate those of our own who were killed on Taksim Square in 1977?” Selçuk Ezer, president of the Istanbul Chamber of Medicine, told Equal Times.
“This is the fourth time I’ve been in Turkey to observe a court case. And each time the accusations get more and more ridiculous. This time there doesn’t even seem to be a legal issue [involved],” Niels Lynnerup, a board member of the Danish Union of Teachers, told Equal Times.

“We are talking about a government ruling on the basis of fear,” Jaap Wienen, deputy secretary general of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), told Equal Times. “We thought we only had one dictatorship left in Europe – that’s Belarus. Do we really want another?”

Representatives from CGT (France), TCO (Sweden) and ADEDY (Greece), also attended the hearing, while more than 40 lawyers joined the defence team in the courtroom as a show of solidarity.

The trial is now adjourned until 24 March, when a verdict is expected.

But it is not just labour leaders who are in court for assembling and protesting.

For the last year and a half, over 5000 people have been prosecuted in over a hundred cases linked to the popular uprising of spring 2013.

What initially began as a protest against the bulldozing of a popular park, the Gezi movement quickly turned into a much wider expression of discontent about police brutality and the leadership of the neo-liberal governing party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) .

Despite the threat of arbitrary detention, almost three million people across the country took part in months of sit-ins and demonstrations, marking a turning point for a new generation of political activism in Turkey.

But while the political outcomes of this movement are difficult to assess, the response of the judiciary has raised significant concerns.

Students, football supporters, architects, engineers and artists have all been accused of forming “terrorist groups” or “criminal organisations” by the authorities.

And Erdogan’s victory in the presidential elections last August did not improve the defendants’ chances in front of a judiciary that is regularly criticised for its pro-AKP bias.

The Çarşı ultras, a hardcore group of supporters of the Beşiktaş football club, are famous for their role in galvanising the Gezi protestors, particularly around police brutality.

The first hearing for 35 supporters charged with attempting to overthrow the government was held on 16 December 2014.

Some are facing the possibility of life in prison if found guilty of belonging to a “terrorist organisation” but critics say national security is not the primary concern.

“The authorities are sending out a message; they want to make an example of us,” says Inan Kaya, a lawyer for two of the Çarşı supporters on trial.

Beşiktaş is considered Istanbul’s “people’s team”, and has strong working-class support, even amongst AKP voters, secularists and nationalists.

Cem Yakışkan is being prosecuted as the leader of the Çarşı ultras. He faces a maximum of life in prison.

“We were there to protect people. We have always been on the side of the people, and this is our neighbourhood,” he told Equal Times ahead of his next hearing in April.

Other observers have derided the trials as theatre.

“This is a vindictive, politically-motivated show trial without a shred of evidence of actual crimes,” said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s researcher on Turkey as he came out of the first hearing of the trial of Taksim Solidarity (Taksim Dayanışması), last June.

Made up of a hundred organisations representing architects, engineers, doctors and artists, Taksim Solidarity was formed to channel the aspirations of the Gezi movement and to demand more transparency, democracy and social dialogue from the government.

Today five activists from the platform are being prosecuted for “forming a criminal organisation” and another 21 for “refusing to disperse”. Some are risking up to 15 years in prison.

The case file is based on tweets posted from the Taksim Solidarity account during the Gezi protests and from the individual accounts of the detainees.

The most recent hearing of 26 defendants on 20 January 2015 lasted less than fifty minutes.

“We are concerned that the judges are deliberately dragging it out until the next legislative elections [in June 2015],” said one of the defendants, 26-year-old Cansu Yapici, a member of the Architects Chamber of Istanbul.

“If that happens, it is possible they could sue us on the basis of new laws, [which will be even] more restrictive on the freedom of expression.”

Bedri Baykam, a Turkish artist and secular activist, who fought in vain against the closing of Taksim Square’s Atatürk cultural centre in 2008, describes the Gezi movement as “the culmination of our struggles. It was an amazing surprise”.

Activists began to mobilise years ago, in response to the rapid pace of urban redevelopment in Istanbul.

But the struggle continues in 2015, with demonstrations taking place almost every week in memory of those who lost their lives during the 2013 protests.

Citizens are also protesting against the growing restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly in Turkey.
The Taksim Solidarity movement has not been confined to Istanbul and Taksim Square, however.

It’s also spread to Antalya, in southern Turkey, where a number of activists are now the subject of legal proceedings.

“There are a 100 young people on trial in Antalya at the moment,” explains 22-year-old Murat Sezgin, who has been held in remand for four months for his participation in the 2013 protests. He is facing more than 20 years in prison.

“I went before the judges not knowing what I was accused of. A lot of things in the trial just don’t stand up to scrutiny. But in this country, if you are in the least bit revolutionary, you risk problems with the law,” he says.

Murat, an economics student, is an activist in the far-left ESP (Socialist Party of the Oppressed).

He is one of the many politicised young Turks who have grown up angry with what they perceive to be the the authoritarian and partisan nature of AKP rule.

Empowered by Gezi, Murat and his generation are committed to this new era of activism in Turkey, however turbulent.

“I try to continue living a normal life, but the risk of going to prison does worry me. The international treaties signed by Turkey are not being respected, particularly the right to demonstrate.”

Meanwhile, the plan to destroy Gezi Park is back on the table, raising fears the confrontation between citizens and the state is set to continue, not only in the courtroom, but also back on the streets.


Caleb Lauer, EqualTimes