Turks Demand Democratic Rights — and Justice

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Activist Targeted by Turkish Authorities Again

By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

COLOGNE, Germany — What is really happening in Turkey? And where is it going to lead? What began as a protest against government plans for Gezi Park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square has swelled into a mass movement throughout the country and those thousands of citizens engaging in civil disobedience are giving no signs of capitulation. Not only: solidarity actions are unfolding in other countries especially in Germany, which hosts a very large Turkish community. Here, a new judicial scandal against a leading German-Turkish intellectual, which broke out just prior to the Gezi protests, is intersecting the ferment and fuelling the wave of solidarity with those fighting for democracy and free speech in Turkey.

The victim of the new judicial scandal is Turkish-born Dogan Akhanli, a well-known writer and human rights activist based in Cologne, Germany. The author of several novels, articles and a recent play, he has dealt in depth with the issue of the Armenian Genocide and, as a civil society activist, has participated in seminars and conferences aimed at educating broader layers of the population about this and related historical issues. Not only in Germany but also in Turkey, he has engaged personally in activities of the growing civil society movement among intellectuals, presenting his literary works in public and writing in the Turkish press. His is a prominent figure, highly respected for his courage to speak out even in the face of harassment and repression.

Now, perhaps in reaction to this enhanced stature, the Turkish judicial authorities have unleashed a new witch-hunt against him. In April, an Appeals Court in Ankara published its decision to re-open a case and even to seek a life sentence against him. The facts are the following: Akhanli, who was a leftist in the 1980s, had been arrested and jailed and tortured under the military regime at the time (1985-87). In 1991, he managed to flee to Germany, where he received political asylum and later citizenship. Years later, in August 2010, he flew to Istanbul (regardless of the possible political danger), because he wanted to visit his father who was very old and ill. Arrested at the airport, he was thrown into jail, and remained there for several months. (He was not allowed to visit his father, nor to attend his funeral.)

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Serious charges were leveled against him. He was accused of having taken part in an armed robbery at a currency exchange booth back in 1989, during which one person was killed. In the court proceedings, his lawyers Haydar Erol (Istanbul) and Ilias Uyar (Cologne) rejected all accusations, arguing that the key witnesses against the defendant had provided testimony under torture. Other witnesses, sons of the murder victim, initially thought they could identify Akhanli, but then retracted their statements. The accused was nonetheless thrown into prison. Finally, in December 2010, he was released and expelled from Turkey, and told he would not be allowed to enter the country again.

Associates and friends mobilized to defend him from what was obviously a politically-motivated campaign to silence him. Press coverage of his case appeared in Germany, the US and elsewhere. (Armenian Mirror-Spectator, September 11, 2010). A delegation of renowned human rights activists traveled to Istanbul for his trial, which took place in early December 2011. Under the combined pressure of international censure and the utter lack of any credible evidence against him, Akhanli (in absentia, because he was not allowed to enter the country) was acquitted on December 10. Since the Appeals Court did not take any steps to reverse the ruling, it held.

It held — that is, until April of this year. Out of the blue, the Turkish Appeals Court announced in a rush procedure, against the vote of the State Attorney, that the case against him had to be reopened. The court stated that it would seek a life sentence in the new trial. How? Why? On what grounds? Akhanli told the German press: “My defense lawyer at the time proved my innocence, the State Attorney did not prove my guilt. How do they now want to prove that I was the criminal? There is no new evidence.”

The court argued as follows: the fact that all the witnesses back in December 2010 pleaded for his innocence, and that they accused the authorities of manipulation and torture, was irrelevant. The only material of relevance, argued the Appeals Court, were the original police protocols from 1989 to 1992 and witness testimony submitted at that time — that is, testimony submitted under torture. Furthermore, they claimed that an organization in which Akhanli allegedly belonged posed a threat to Turkey — even though the organization ceased to exist in 1993.

The news struck like a thunderbolt. In Germany, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung — the newspaper of record, comparable to the New York Times — published an article by Karen Krueger, who follows developments in Turkey, titled, “He Who Is Supposed To be a Criminal Will Be Made Into a Criminal.” She commented that “it looks as though the Turkish judicial authorities have nothing better to do than to re-open cases that have long since been closed.” She referred to the case of Pinar Selek, a Turkish human rights activist living in France, who after having been acquitted several times on trumped-up charges, was recently convicted in absentia and sentenced to life. She is now consigned to a permanent exile abroad. The same fate awaits Akhanli.

Why should the Turkish authorities indeed spend their time and efforts on such cases? Journalist Krueger suggest that the reason why the authorities want to push ahead regardless of the irrationality of their effort has to do with the growing impact of Akhanli’s work. She reports on his recent activities in Turkey, including an article in a well-known magazine, Birikim, in which he wrote about the significance of the Hardenbergstrasse in Berlin, a street in the capital that has been the site of historic events, among them the assassination of Talaat Pasha in 1921. “Perhaps,” Akhanli is quoted saying, “this report angered some people in Turkey.” The writer’s associates have also stated that the appeals judges want to suffocate the fruitful exchange between the writer and his homeland, an intellectual exchange which is vital for him as well as for Turkey.

The new trial should get underway in Istanbul on July 31. The accused will not be there, for obvious reasons. But there will be a large delegation made up of well-known personalities from Europe. In preparation, they are organizing events, for example in Cologne on July 5, to inform the public of the case and organize further support. Describing the action as “vendetta justice,” the organizers stress the fact that thousands of journalists, political figures, artists, intellectuals Kurds and others, are sitting in Turkish jails today, and that they see the solidarity movement for Akhanli as a manifestation of support also for them.

One might add, it is also a manifestation of support for the expanding civil disobedience campaign in Turkey. The Akhanli case, intersecting the Taksim ferment, indeed has the potential to inject new energy into it and to generate further solidarity from abroad for their efforts. Although the demonstrators in Istanbul have other slogans, they are in fact denouncing the same arrogance of power and arbitrary “justice” of the AKP Party-led government that has asserted itself in the witch-hunt against Akhanli and other dissidents.

Akhanli was one of numerous Turkish personalities in Germany asked by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in a Sunday feature on June 9 to comment on the events there. The feature, titled, “What does Turkey have to do with us?” sought to identify the relevance of the new social phenomenon in Turkey to Germans — whether of Turkish extraction or not.

Akhanli answered: “There have been numerous protests by organized forces in Turkish history. This time, a couple of ecologists and leftist activists started a modest action. Due to the brutality of the security forces and the arrogance of the government, it turned into a mass rebellion. My utopia,” he went on, “is that people develop a capacity for tolerance and respect. The AKP government which dared to sit down at a table with Kurds has forgotten that Turkey is a secular country … and that women in particular fear religiously-motivated laws.”

He said he hoped that Turkey would become rational and predictable. “The demonstrators are an important corrective force for a policy which has become arrogant. Those who hold power have not yet understood that democracy and a state of law are there for everyone.” He concluded by expressing his excitement about the demonstrations here in Germany, which, like those in Turkey, are multi-ethnic but at the same time, with a majority of German participants.

 

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