Let me make the hardest list of my life, for those who have not followed what has happened in Turkey during and in the wake of the Gezi Protests that began in the summer of 2013. On 1 June, Ethem Sarisuluk, a twenty-six-year-old laborer and activist, was shot in the head by a policeman in Ankara during the Gezi Park protests. He died after spending two weeks in the intensive care unit. On 2 June, Ali Ismail Korkmaz, a nineteen-year-old student, was beaten brutally by a group of men in the city of Eskisehir. He slipped into coma, struggling with a brain hemorrhage for thirty-eight days before losing his life. On the same night in Istanbul, Mehmet Ayvalitas, a twenty-year-old protestor, died when an automobile drove into a group of protestors on a highway. On 3 June, Abdullah Comert, twenty-two, was hit in the head by a tear gas canister fired at close range by a police officer in the city of Hatay, near Turkey’s border with Syria. He died ten minutes after being shot due to skull fractures, brain hemorrhage, and brain tissue damage. On 28 June, eighteen-year-old Medeni Yildirim was shot to death by gendarmerie while protesting the extension of a police station in Lice, Diyarbakir. On 10 September, twenty-two-year-old Ahmet Atakan died after being hit in the head by a tear gas canister in Antakya in continuing protests in the wake of Gezi; the protest was to show solidarity with students and locals in Ankara protesting the construction of a road through the Middle Eastern Technical University (ODTÜ) campus, as well as to commemorate the death of Abdullah Cömert. On 29 September, Hasan Ferit Gedik was shot to death by six bullets hitting him in the head and body during an anti-drug protest in the Gülsuyu Neighborhood of Istanbul. Berkin Elvan, who was then fourteen years old, left his apartment in Istanbul on 16 June to buy a loaf of bread for breakfast and was hit in the head by a tear gas canister fired by a police officer. He died on 11 March 2014, after being in coma for 269 days; he weighed thirty-five pounds at the time of his death.
In this article, I want to write about the ongoing trials of those who were killed during and in the wake of the Gezi Protests. I find it extremely important to discuss these trials for two reasons. First, these trials have been overshadowed to a certain extent by the rapidly changing political agenda in Turkey. By this, however, I do not mean that they have been forgotten—this would be unfair to the thousands of people who have followed the cases and stand in solidarity with the families in their struggle for justice. What I mean, rather, is that since we have been waking up to a new political scandal or crisis in Turkey every day, these trials might not always be the first item on our political agenda. But it is also important to address these trials because they help us get a glimpse of the contradictions within the judiciary and the quality of the legal system in Turkey in general.
In addition to the eight people who lost their lives during and in the wake of the Gezi Protests, thousands of people were seriously injured due to brutal police violence. Despite the worrisome number of cases of head trauma, heart attacks, lost eyes, broken arms and legs—not to mention unlawful detentions, sexual abuse, and human rights violations, including the use of chemical irritants in water cannon supply tanks and live ammunition—no police officer or public official has been held accountable for these injuries and human rights violations. This article is thus limited to the ongoing trials in the cases of those who were killed during the protests. I will map out some common patterns that are salient in all of the trials. Although each case is particular and needs to be analyzed in its own right, I believe that drawing commonalities between these trials could shed light on the broader picture of the judiciary system in Turkey.
One of the patterns common to all of the trials is the prosecutors’ lack of attention to evidence, as well as the obscuring or elimination of evidence by the police. For example, in the case of Ethem Sarisuluk, the police did not collect any evidence from the crime scene, nor did the prosecutor ask them to submit such evidence. In other cases, too, no photographs of the crime scenes were taken. In Hasan Ferit Gedik’s case, police ignored the missing registration of Gedik’s shirt, which marked a significant piece of evidence in the investigation.
Prosecutors also often disregarded crime scene footage that circulated widely on social media, although they were required to strive to gather evidence to conduct an effective investigation and to identify the suspects. In Abdullah Comert’s case, for instance, the chief prosecutor has not yet filed a lawsuit against the suspected police officers, although the suspects are identifiable from surveillance camera records. In Ali Ismail Korkmaz’s case, eighteen minutes of the video footage of his being clubbed to death was deleted in the days following the attack. These deleted sections were later recovered by a gendarmerie criminal unit.
In addition to the disregard for or destruction of evidence, the trials are also characterized by the prosecutors’ lack of attention to civilian testimonies. The prosecutors are required to take testimonies from witnesses. However, hearings have relied solely on the defendants’ own testimonies, which the prosecutors often consider adequate. Again, in Abdullah Comert’s case, despite the presence of fifteen eyewitnesses, the chief prosecutor did not bring the case before the court. More disturbingly, the prosecutor took the testimony of the police officer who is suspected of Comert’s murder as that of an eyewitness, not a defendant or suspect. In Ethem Sarisuluk’s case, two of the three civilian eyewitnesses were detained and arrested, and the third witness has been threatened on the phone by “anonymous” callers.
It is by no means a surprise that an inadequate investigation results when evidence from a crime scene is collected by the state agents or security forces who themselves are suspected of having committed crimes, or when the testimonies of suspects are considered the only credible narrative in the courtroom. These cases show us that the state is actually the only actor who speaks in the courtroom, whereas it renders others’ voices silent or unreliable. More importantly, they show us that state and security officials have de facto impunity from the law.
Let me be clear: in Turkey, cases in which defendants are soldiers, police officers, or paramilitary forces have often resulted in impunity, and impunity has always been a state policy to shield state crimes. Indeed, we have long known of this flirtatious relation between the judiciary and state crimes from thousands of “disappearances” and extra-judicial killings during 1990s, the Sivas Massacre, "Return to Life" operations, and the assassination of Hrant Dink. The most recent example is the Roboski Massacre, where thirty-four Kurdish civilians were bombed in 2011. The General Staff Military Prosecutor’s Office decided not to pursue charges against military personnel, declaring that no investigation was necessary for suspected military staff: “It was understood the actions of the members of the Turkish Armed Forces involved in the incident did not necessitate opening a civil law suit, as they fell into an inevitable error while performing their duty in line with the Parliament’s and Cabinet’s decrees,” military prosecutors said in the ruling.
Another common pattern that characterizes the trials since the Gezi Protests is the arbitrary and unpredictable changes in the organization of hearings. It is important to note that all of these changes have been carried under the discourse of “security.” For instance, the trial of those accused of the murder of Ali Ismail Korkmaz was divided into four parts, to be held in four different cities for “security reasons.” On the trial day, roads were blocked to prevent protestors from entering the city and all demonstrations in the city were banned. In all of these cases, thousands of police were deployed both in the courtrooms and in front of the court buildings. The police have constantly attacked the victims’ families and lawyers, both verbally and physically, during the hearings.
The last point to emphasize is perhaps more depressing than the others. Anyone who has followed the cases knows that all of the trials have been held in a surreal, nightmarish environment with numerous Kafkaesque episodes. The trials have been postponed over and over due to “chaos” in the courtrooms (what has caused the “chaos,” if not the deployment of hundreds of undercover police in the courtrooms, is yet another question). Defendants do not attend the hearings. For instance, in Mehmet Ayvalitas’ case, two suspects did not show up, although there was a court order obliging them to attend the hearings. During the hearing, the courtroom’s doors were locked in order to prevent the audience, among whom there were lawyers and journalists, from attending the trial. In the first hearing into the killing of Ethem Sarisuluk, the police officer who was the defendant attended the trial with a fake mustache, eyeglasses, and a wig. In the second hearing, he testified via videoconference. One of the prosecutors fell asleep during the hearing.
[Protester`s mask and sign outside the trial in the Ethem Sarisuluk case. Photo by Emrah Ozesen / KODA Collective.]
These are just little snapshots from the courtrooms. However, it is important to mention them, because these theater-like performances within the courtroom show how the state, the bureaucracy, the police, and the judiciary work together. It is also important to note that these state parodies are by no means unique to the Gezi trials. On the contrary, they have deep historical roots. In cases where defendants are members of military, police, state, or gladio forces, the average trial time is unreasonably long, so that the suspects remain unpunished due to the expiration of the statue of limitation. The most recent example of this use of the statue of limitation is the case of the Sivas Massacre, where thirty-seven people were burnt to death. After nineteen years of trial time, five suspects were simply released in 2012 based on the expiration of the statue of limitation.
By way of contrast, another lengthy case is the so-called KCK trials, which began on October 2010, with over seven thousand people accused of belonging to the urban wing of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Here the use of the statue of limitation works differently in favor of state officials: in the KCK trials, time still works in favor of the state, since the judiciary has kept these high-profile Kurdish politicians in prison in order to weaken the Kurdish political movement. Among the numerous unlawful practices that have shaped the KCK trials, such as the gathering of evidence from unlawful wiretapping or anonymous testimonies, I want to mention two instances that show a similarity to the state parodies in the Gezi trials. In one hearing, the judge turned off the defendant’s microphone and rejected his defense, which was being offered in Kurdish, since he spoke in “an unknown language.” In the next hearing, this unknown language was declared to be a “language that I [the judge] do not know but that is supposed to be Kurdish.” Most recently, in March 2014, although the five-year detention period is over, the court rejected requests for the release of those accused in the KCK main trial, arguing that “they might join the PKK’s mountain cadres.”
Zeynep Gambetti has recently pointed out that the law is suspended in Turkey, and the suspension of law is being carried out through other laws. In her article, she draws attention to the executive control over the judiciary. It, therefore, becomes nonsensical to talk of a “fair” and “independent” trial in a context where the judiciary works in tandem with the executive organs of the state, as opposed to the expectations that the law and the courts operate to constrain the executive power. I would like to note that “the suspension of law through other laws” also draws our attention to the ad hoc quality of the law in Turkey, which gives maximum strategic flexibility to the state to protect its own prerogatives.
In this article, I have tried to map out some common patterns that characterize the ongoing trials of those who have been killed during the Gezi Protests, in order to show the unlawful practices, contradictions, ironies, absurdities, and legal loopholes within the judiciary. As I have emphasized, these practices have long shaped the judiciary in Turkey. By drawing similarities between Gezi trials and other trials where “the suspect” is the state, I aimed to illuminate: 1) the complicity of the judiciary in the state security apparatus’s crimes, and more generally 2) the deployment of the law to protect the interests of the state, something which is not exceptional but in fact foundational to the legal system in Turkey since the establishment of its politico-legal order.
My use of the terms “parody” and “theater” to define the trials is, therefore, twofold. On the one hand, the law is scripted in such a way as to give the state maximum flexibility and protection. On the other hand, I also read these trials as performances of the state. Put differently, the courtroom is yet another site where the state performs and reiterates its state-ness. This is exactly what happened in KCK trials. The judge turned off the defendant’s microphone not only because the Kurdish language has been denied and banned by the Turkish state for so long, but also because the defense in Kurdish was a counter-performance, which challenges the legitimacy of these trials and of the state itself.
These trials-as-parodies have long ago lost their legitimacy in the eyes of many people. Let me conclude with the case of Hrant Dink. Six years after his assassination, his murder remains unresolved. At the last hearing, his family boycotted the trial, not only because they have lost their faith in the judiciary, but also because they felt humiliated and demoralized by the approach taken by prosecutors and police officers. Dink’s family declared: “We will no longer be a tool in this dirty game.”