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Defending Human Rights in Turkey: Gönül Öztürkoğlu

04 February 2020

Gönül Öztürkoğlu is a human rights defender and peace activist who has dedicated much of her career to rights for all. In December 2019, she was sentenced to over six years imprisonment on charges of terrorism related offences based on her work for a human rights organisation. Sustained attention and a proactive strategy by the EU and its Member States is needed to defend Gönül Öztürkoğlu and other human rights defenders, from further criminalisation and reprisals for their work.

The portrayal of Öztürkoğlu’s experiences is a continuation of the series “Defending Human Rights in Turkey: Stories that Need to Be Heard,” told by Tan Tunali, with illustrations by Marco Lambooij.

A water-colour depiction of Gönül Öztürkoğlu

“I’m a peace activist, how can I have anything to do with violence?” human rights defender Gönül Öztürkoğlu asked, clearly agitated. President of the Malatya Branch of the Human Rights Association (İnsan Hakları Derneği – İHD), Öztürkoğlu was recently convicted of “membership of a terrorist organisation” and “making propaganda for a terrorist organisation,” after having spent almost four months behind bars in pre-trial detention. During Öztürkoğlu’s trial, her activities carried out for İHD, such as attending a panel for International Women’s Day, making press statements and attending peaceful protests, were used as evidence against her—a common tactic used to silence critical voices in Turkey.

Unlike her male co-defendant in the case, Öztürkoğlu was not allowed to appear in court for her first hearing in Malatya, a province in Eastern Anatolia, instead remaining in a women’s prison in Elazığ province. During the hearing, she was forced to speak to the judge through an online video conference-system—a system that has been used more frequently over the last years in Turkey and is deemed problematic by rights groups. Öztürkoğlu agreed: “It makes it more difficult to express yourself, because there is a lot of background noise so you can quickly lose your concentration.”

She was left to guess the reasons why she had to attend her trial via a video screen from jail and why she was kept in detention a month longer than her co-defendant. “Maybe it’s because our co-presidents [from İHD] gave such a strong defence to the judge the first time,” Öztürkoğlu said. She joked whether the strongly-worded defence speeches by Eren Keskin and Öztürk Türkdoğan, İHD’s co-presidents and prominent human right activists, might have angered the judges in the Malatya court. In December 2019, over a year after her initial arrest, she was sentenced to six years and three months imprisonment.

Öztürkoğlu’s persecution occurred in turbulent times for Turkey. The 2016 coup attempt worsened the already unstable political situation in the country. Malatya—home to the unit of the Turkish armed forces that protects Turkey’s borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria—came under suspicion of being behind the attempted coup. As a result, Öztürkoğlu explained, the entire city of Malatya, and especially those civil society organisations and neighbourhoods deemed critical of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government were declared guilty by association. She stressed that the Malatya chapter of the İHD was very quick to denounce the coup attempt, but to no avail, like thousands of others, politicians, academics or civil society members, Öztürkoğlu was accused of terrorist activities in the aftermath of the July 2016 coup attempt.

Like many human rights defenders in Turkey, Öztürkoğlu was politicised at an early age. When she was still a little girl in the early 1980s, her older brother Kazım, involved in a member of a leftist revolutionary group, was incarcerated and tortured by the military regime following the violent coup of September 12, 1980. Öztürkoğlu remembers how her mother waited by the roadside every day, hoping for the safe return of her son. She also remembers the violent raids on their house, when soldiers overturned bookcases looking for books that deemed dangerous by the junta. After Kazım’s release, he suffered from a brain tumour—likely a consequence of the severe torture in prison—that would eventually cost him his life. “His songs are still in my mind, and sometimes I sing them and get very sad,” Öztürkoğlu said.

It was also in the aftermath of the 1980 coup and its many human rights violations that İHD was founded. In 1986, a group of political prisoners along with lawyers, journalists and intellectuals set up the nationwide human rights organisation that has since launched important campaigns against torture, the death penalty (eventually abolished in 2004), and restrictions against freedom of expression. Today, İHD is the largest human rights organisation in Turkey with dozens of regional offices all over the country. Many of its members are facing trial and the organisation has been subject to attacks of public officials and media alike. In an earlier episode, the former chairperson of İHD’s Diyarbakir branch, Raci Bilici, featured in this series.

After she was released from pre-trial detention in March 2019, she continued to work in that position. “It’s an honour to work there,”

Öztürkoğlu joined the IHD board in 2013 and was elected president of the Malatya branch in 2016. After she was released from pre-trial detention in March 2019, she continued to work in that position. “It’s an honour to work there,” she commented.

Öztürkoğlu has volunteered for İHD for as long as she can remember, taking part in countless demonstrations, panel discussions and campaigns, all with the aim of making her idea of a peaceful society a reality. She was also part of the Peace Block (Barış Bloku), an initiative of several civil society organisations, founded in 2015. The initiative mobilised voices for peace when fighting resumed in the region, caused by the collapse of the most recent ceasefire between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Thousands died and half a million people were displaced from their homes as a result.

Describing an encounter she had with a police officer, she shared that he asked her “Do you really need to do all these things that you do?” to which she replied, “Yes, and if I have to defend you, I will do it as well.”

Life has gotten more difficult since her initial arrest, but she does not let herself be discouraged. Describing an encounter she had with a police officer, she shared that he asked her “Do you really need to do all these things that you do?” to which she replied, “Yes, and if I have to defend you, I will do it as well.” The anecdote typifies Öztürkoğlu’s belief in the society she wants to fight for, but is also a damning example of the polarised state of the country, as she finds herself having to explain the rule of law to police officers and judges.

She takes pride in the human rights activities in which she has participated, including regional projects about Alevi minority and children’s rights, or panels about human rights violations during the State of Emergency in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt. Last month she attended a Malatya commemoration of Hrant Dink, an Armenian journalist and then Editor-in-Chief of the Armenian-Turkish newspaper Agos, who was murdered on January 19, 2007, in front of his newspaper’s office in Istanbul. Dink, born in Malatya, was considered the country’s most important voice for Armenian-Turkish reconciliation. To this day, justice has not been ensured, and every year thousands of people take to the streets on 19 January to demand justice.

Öztürkoğlu is waiting for justice, too. She appealed her conviction and the regional court will decide whether to uphold or quash the conviction. Öztürkoğlu expects the court to uphold it, which would mean her return to prison any day now. Öztürkoğlu continues to live with Damocles’ sword hanging over her head.