On August 25, the Saturday Mothers’ protest in Istanbul, Turkey was broken up by police officers with water cannons and tear gas. The Saturday Mothers have been holding weekly vigils since 1995 for those who “disappeared” in police custody according to Amnesty International. Images of previous events show relatives of the disappeared holding photos of their disappeared loved ones. Reuters reported that the Saturday Mothers were ready to stage their 700th event in a public square when the police told them that the protest was banned and began detaining members. Associated Press reported that the event was banned because it was publicized on social media with alleged connections to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization in Turkey. According to the BBC, approximately 50 people were detained, including the group’s co-founder, veteran Emine Ocak.
The lack of governmental and legal accountability in response to these disappearances demonstrates the importance of the Saturday Mothers’ cause. Human Rights Watch argued that these disappearances were human rights violations committed following the military coup in 1980 and conflict between the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and the state in the 1990’s. They argue that those who were responsible have not yet been held accountable. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report titled Time for Justice argued that there was “no attempt to probe higher level involvement of state officials or to examine whether the violations were a matter of state policy” and that there were only a few prosecutions carried out nominally against low level officers and security forces. The report identifies a key exception: in 2009, a retired colonel, three former PKK informers, and three paramilitary forces members were accused of being involved in the disappearance and death of twenty people between 1993 and 1994. The report made several recommendations to the Turkish government and the international community based on this case study. It emphasized that the trial failed to examine the chain of command responsible for the colonel’s orders, protect witnesses from intimidation, and implement witness protection programs. The report suggests that the international community needs to pressure Turkey to implement concrete measures to improve legal processes, as well as set up an independent Truth Commission to investigate the disappearances. Time for Justice also argued that Turkey should not apply the statute of limitations due to the number of suspicious disappearances and deaths that could constitute as serious human rights violations.
While these crackdowns ought to be condemned for their attempts to suppress and hide human rights violations, it is important to consider Turkey’s current fearful political climate. According to Reuters, Turkey purged 150,000 civil servants and charged 77,000 people with suspected links to 2016’s failed coup. These measures were taken during the two year-long state of emergency that ended in July. Turkey also suffers extensive terrorism, both external and homegrown. Reuters quoted the Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu, saying that the authorities stopped the event because the Saturday Mothers were “trying to create victims through motherhood and mask terrorism through that victimization.” The Economist suggested that the country’s most prominent threat has been the PKK, which seems to have begun targeting civilians.
Although condemnation is necessary, it seems that the international community has an important role in establishing accountability and supporting reforms that ensure accountability and decrease corruption. The Associated Press reported that that Turkey is planning on accelerating required legal and political reforms in attempts to join the European Union. It seems that such reforms could contribute to a reconciliation process for those who suffered under the previous penal system, such as the Saturday Mothers.
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