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Turkish police violently broke up a peaceful protest in Istanbul last Saturday, using tear gas on a crowd of participants in a regular vigil for those who disappeared at the hands of the government during political unrest in the 80’s and 90’s. The Saturday Mothers, as they are called, have been performing vigils since 1995, often in the name of close loved ones that they lost during the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, according to The New York Times. This past Saturday was their 700th protest, BBC reports, and women well into their 80’s attended, but police grew violent with the crowd when the sit-in was abruptly banned because some social media accounts that promoted the event were linked to the Kurdish Works’ Party (PKK), the radical Kurdish-independence group opposing Turkey. The police used water cannons and tear gas on the participants, though they were not being violent, detaining forty-seven people and not releasing them until late that evening, according to Channel News Asia.
Human rights groups condemned the police’s actions on Saturday, Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch saying it was “shameful, cruel treatment of families seeking justice for state crimes,” according to BBC. Opposition lawmaker and participant in the sit-in, Sezgin Tanrikulu, said to the New York Times, “the police detained people by beating them, though they were just sitting. They were neither resisting the police, nor disobeying the law of gatherings and rallies.” Emine Ocak, a regular member of the Saturday Mothers attended for her son who was tortured and killed while in Turkish custody in 1995 though his killers have never been found. Ocak was almost taken into custody this past Saturday before her daughter took her Tanrikulu explained that Ocak’s “daughter went behind her. They got Ocak off the bus but took her daughter into custody.” Despite the unnecessary violence by the police force and the international outrage in response, authorities have yet to comment on the incident.
The violence brought against these peaceful protestors, many of whom were mourning the loss of a close loved one, is unforgivable and must be brought to an end with better regulation of authorities and further emphasis on and defense of the human rights that were violated on Saturday. The civilians caught in the middle of the PKK-Turkish conflict have suffered major losses and emotional traumas–they deserve answers and justice for the loved ones they have lost.
In the midst of century-old tensions between the Turkish and Kurdish people, which included several violently subdued Kurdish rebellions, Abdullah Ocalan founded the PKK in 1978, striving to establish an independent Kurdish State separate from Turkey, according to Aljazeera. Soon after, the PKK waged war in the Kurdish-majority southeast of Turkey, initiating two decades of violent rebellion followed by severe and militant retaliation by the Turkish government, Aljazeera continues. It was during this time in the 80’s and 90’s that hundreds went missing while in government custody, according to the New York Times. In response, relatives of those who went missing formed the Saturday Mothers as a peaceful protest group to demand justice for their loved ones by organizing sit-ins on Saturday’s beginning on May 27, 1995, according to Channel News Asia. They modeled it after the Plaza de Mayo, an Argentine mothers’ group who began demonstrations in response to the disappearance of their children during Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 70’s, according to the New York Times. By 2000, PKK rolled back its demands for an independent state, requesting more autonomy instead which was partially due to the capture of Ocalan in 1999. Though the Turkish government made a few attempts at granting this autonomy such as the “Kurdish Initiative” in 2009 which established more rights for the minority group, violence has continued between the government and the PKK. Attempted rebellions, bombings, and ambushes continued, paused by a brief and tense ceasefire from 2013 to 2015, according to the Washington Post. Political and ethnic tensions have been running high in Turkey ever since but the Saturday Mothers has always been a peaceful and constant demonstration of human rights–holding remembrance for those who were the most hurt by the conflict.
Though all the protestors who were detained on Saturday were released that same evening, there have been no further developments or announcements by officials. Human rights organizations and members of the Saturday Mothers continue to speak out against this violation of basic human rights. And though the Turkish government wants to silence them, the Saturday Mothers persist in their goal to seek justice for lost and missing loved ones.