Police detain human rights defenders on Saturday Mothers’ 900th vigil

Co-chairs of the Human Rights Association (IHD) are among the many people detained by the police on the 900th vigil of the Saturday Mothers demanding justice for their relatives disappeared in state custody.

Since 1995, the Istanbul Saturday Mothers, like the Argentinian "Madres de la Plaza de Mayo", have held weekly sit-ins in Istanbul with pictures of their relatives to protest against their "disappearance" in state custody and to demand information about their whereabouts. Between 1999 and 2009, the Saturday Mothers had to suspend their weekly sit-ins as police regularly broke up the gatherings. On 25 August 2018, the initiative gathered for the 700th time at their ancestral place in front of the Galatasaray High School on Istanbul's Istiklal Avenue to remember their missing relatives with a peaceful vigil. However, on the orders of Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, police deployed water cannons and attacked the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets. The violent action was justified because the Saturday Mothers were being instrumentalised by terrorist organisations, Soylu had said. Since then, Galatasaray Square has been a no-go area for the Saturday Mothers, who first moved to the building of the Human Rights Association (IHD) and, in the wake of the Corona pandemic, finally presented their demands online.

On the occasion of the 900th rally, the Saturday Mothers wanted to move today again to the square in front of Galatasaray High School. The square had already been besieged by the police hours before. When the Saturday Mothers and human rights activists, accompanied by HDP MPs Züleyha Gülüm, Oya Ersoy and Zeynel Özen, TIP MP Ahmet Şık, CHP MP Ali Şeker, IHD chairpersons Eren Keskin and Öztürk Türkdoğan and the son of murdered Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, Arat Dink, walked towards the square, they were surrounded and attacked by police. Öztürk Türkdoğan, Eren Keskin, Gülseren Yoleri, Maside Ocak, Besna Tosun, Jiyan Tosun, Hasan Karakoç, İkbal Eren, Hanife Yıldız, Mikail Kırbayır, Ali Ocak and Arat Dink were taken into custody.

Only the MPs managed to make a statement at Galatasaray Square. The HDP MP said that neither the square nor the struggle for justice will be abandoned: "We are looking for our loved ones who have disappeared in state custody. We are the mothers, children, siblings and grandchildren of the disappeared. We stand up for human rights. We are those who grew old or grew up in this square. For us it is a place of truth and memory, Galatasaray Square belongs to us!".

17,000 disappeared in Turkey

In Turkey, since the 1980s, about 17,000 people, mostly Kurds, politically active and committed people, journalists and legal practitioners and ordinary people have been considered "disappeared". The country became acquainted with this practice after the military coup of September 1980. In the mid-1990s, when the Turkish state's dirty war against the PKK was particularly bloody, this method reached its peak.

The bodies of the abducted were buried in mass graves, caves or in disused industrial plants, thrown onto rubbish dumps, sunk into well pits and acid pits or, as in Argentina, disposed of by being dropped from military helicopters. Often the victims were picked up at home by the police or the army, or were ordered to the local police station for a "statement", or detained at a military road check. This is often the last their relatives know of the whereabouts of those disappeared. Most of the "murders by unknown perpetrators" are the work of the religious extremist terrorist organisation Hezbullah as well as JITEM. This is the name of the informal secret service of the Turkish military police, which is responsible for at least four fifths of the unsolved murders in Northern Kurdistan and whose existence was denied by the state for years.

Amnesty International: A latest shameful example of the state authorities’ intolerance

Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe, Julia Hall said: “For the past 27 years, the Saturday Mothers have tirelessly sought truth and justice for their loved ones who were forcibly disappeared in the 1980s and 1990s. Riot police arbitrarily detained people who were peacefully participating today’s landmark Saturday Mothers/People vigil. This is only the latest shameful example of the state authorities’ intolerance of lawful, peaceful dissent.

“Time and again, the Saturday Mothers/People have been met with brutal crackdowns and even prosecutions for taking part in peaceful vigils. Turkish authorities have never provided a valid justification for their spiteful, arbitrary and unlawful denial of the right to exercise freedom of expression and assembly.

“Turkish authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all those arbitrarily detained solely for exercising their right to peaceful expression and assembly. The four year-long unlawful, arbitrary ban on assemblies in Galatasaray Square must be lifted, Saturday Mothers/People and others who wish to exercise their right to peaceful protest in this iconic square must be allowed to do so.”