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Defending Human Rights in Turkey: Can Atalay and Yiğit Aksakoğlu

31 March 2019

Can Atalay and Yiğit Aksakoğlu are civil society leaders currently being prosecuted by Turkish authorities. Both are accused of organizing the Gezi Park protests in 2013 in an attempt to overthrow the government. They, along with 14 others, are standing trial on trumped-up charges on June 24. Their freedom and their legitimate work, in fighting for and defending rights, are under threat. Since November 2018 Aksakoğlu has been in pre-trial detention.

The baseless charges lodged against them and others accused in the Gezi Park case must be dropped immediately. Sustained attention and a proactive strategy by the EU and its Member States is needed to defend them and other human rights defenders in Turkey, from further criminalization and reprisals for their work.

The portrayal of Atalay’s and Aksakoğlu’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 Can Atalay

Can Atalay

“These families will enter this courthouse! These families will enter this courthouse!” Atalay shouts at the top of his lungs, crushed between a metal fence and dozens of policemen who block the entry to the wedding salon-turned-tribunal. It’s a sunny day in April 2015, in the Aegean town of Akhisar. The families Atalay is referring to are the families of the 301 miners who were killed in the Soma mine disaster a year earlier.

Thanks to Atalay’s intervention the families are allowed to attend the trial. Together with the currently imprisoned lawyer Selçuk Kozağaclı, head of the lawyer’s union Progressive Lawyers Association, (Turkish: Çağdas Hukukçular Derneği), Atalay is the driving force behind the families’ quest for justice. The above scene aptly illustrates the tireless energy and involvement that characterize Atalay, who divides most of his time between courthouses and street protests. And if necessary, he takes the protest to the courthouse themselves, like on that April day in Akhisar.

Atalay also serves as a board member of the Social Justice Foundation (Turkish: Sosyal Haklar Derneği). In Soma, the organization helps victims’ families to pursue justice by bringing them together and providing support in the face of intimidation by the Turkish state and the responsible mining company, Soma Holding. In Aladağ, a small town near Adana, a similar process took place. After 11 children died in November 2016, when a girl’s dormitory caught fire due to negligence, the Foundation set up a branch in the town. Atalay represented the families of the victims in court and helped to bring them together by organizing social activities in the foundation’s center.

Atalay grew up in a politically active family. After finishing his law degree, in 2003 he began working as lawyer with a focus on freedom of expression and social rights. In 2007, he began working with Union of the Chamber of Architects (Turkish: Türk Mühendis ve Mimar Odaları Birliği, TMOBB), an umbrella organization which advises on urban development proposals. There he focused increasingly on cases concerning numerous urban renewal projects in Istanbul. The projects were an important cornerstone of the AKP’s economic policy. Comprised of massive demolitions and state-led gentrification, they  forced  many people out of their homes and led to the destruction of countless neighborhoods. Atalay worked on cases like the chamber’s appeal against the third bridge across the Bosporus, the recently opened Istanbul Airport and other contentious urban renewal projects in historic areas such as Sulukule, Tarlabaşı and Fener/Balat.

In 2012 Atalay, TMOBB and other unions took on the case of the transformation plans of Taksim Square. They argued that the plans were illegal due to the lack of transparency in the top-down imposed decision making process. The plans included a tunnel beneath the square and the construction of an Ottoman-style shopping center in Gezi Park, one of the last remaining green spaces in the center of the city. The Gezi Park protests started in May 2013 over the same matter, when activists tried to block the cutting of trees in the park. The protest evolved into the biggest anti-government protests in Turkey’s recent history, not least because of the violent police crackdown ordered by the government. During the protests Atalay, together with his TMMOB-colleagues, architect Mücella Yapıcı and urban planner Tayfun Kahraman, assumed the role of spokespersons for ‘Taksim Solidarity,’ a platform they had founded a year earlier. In the aftermath of the protests, TMOBB was stripped of its constitutional right of approval for urban development projects. This was widely perceived as a retaliatory act by the government in response to the role TMMOB played in the protests.

“Many people with different concerns came together [during the protests]. We tried to voice their concerns as well as we could,” Atalay says. On several occasions, due to his prominence during the Gezi Park protests, Atalay was thrown into police detention for short periods. In the recently opened ‘Gezi Park case,’ the state prosecution threatens to imprison him up for much longer. Along with 15 others, amongst them his TMOBB-colleagues Mücella Yapıcı and Tayfun Kahraman, he is accused of financing and organizing the protests in an attempt to overthrow the government. They face a possible life sentence without parole. Of the sixteen, philanthropist Osman Kavala and Yiğit Aksakoğlu, an NGO-worker for the Bernard van Leer Foundation, based in The Hague, are amongst those awaiting the case in pre-trial detention.

Despite the looming life sentences, Atalay, his TMOBB-colleagues Mucella Yapici and Tayfun Kahraman and their fellow human rights defenders remain defiant. Following the March 5 publication of the 657-page indictment, Yapıcı tweeted a picture of herself being hugged by Atalay, both laughing out loud, “While reading our indictment,” the caption read.

On June 24 and 25 Atalay and the others will stand trial in Istanbul. This time the human rights lawyer, who has dedicated his career to defending the rights of others, will have to defend himself. “It’s my honourable responsibility to defend myself against these infamous accusations,” Atalay told the German/Turkish web portal taz.gazete on February 27 this year.

A water-colour depiction of Yiğit Aksakoğlu

Yiğit Aksakoğlu

“It happened on a Friday morning, these ‘operations,’ as they call them, always happen on Fridays apparently,” recalls Ünzile Aksakoğlu. Ünzile describes when the police came to her house to take her husband, Yiğit Aksakoğlu, to the police station for a ‘secret investigation’ last year (2018) on November 16. Since that day, Ünzile and her two daughters Deniz (7) and Leyla (3) have been separated from Yiğit. Since then, they have been wondering why they have to miss him at home.

Yiğit Aksakoğlu is amongst 13 civil society workers, rights defenders and academics who were called in for questioning in relation to the case of Osman Kavala, a prominent business man and leading civil society figure in Turkey. Since November 2018, Kavala has been held in pre-trial detention on charges of “attempting to overthrow the government” in Silivri prison. Of the 13 taken in for questioning in relation to Kavala’s case, 12 were released after giving their testimony; Aksakoğlu was arrested and has remained separated from his family ever since. Ünzile received the news while waiting outside the courthouse in Istanbul. “We were trying to understand what was going on, but by now I know that I won’t understand,” she says.

Aksakoğlu’s interest in civil society work began in the 1990’s when he was active in the European Students’ Forum AEGEE. After studying abroad for a period, he returned to Turkey and helped set up the Istanbul Bilgi University’s Civil Society Research and Training Centre, where he worked as an instructor between 2003 and 2008. “Because it was the only place for such an education, Yiğit taught many people who are now working in civil society,” Ünzile said during a phone interview. After working as a freelance consultant and completing his military service, Aksakoğlu started working for the Bernard van Leer Foundation in 2011. The NGO focuses on early childhood development. His latest project for the foundation, ‘Istanbul95,’ seeks to see the city through the eyes of children, and make urban life safer and more enjoyable for them. Thus far four district municipalities in Istanbul have  implemented the project.

Each week Ünzile goes to see her husband in the Silivri prison just outside Istanbul. On Wednesdays, she has exactly one hour, between 9am and 10am, to visit him there. Once a month Deniz and Leyla join her to see their father. There are often long lines leading to long waiting times for visitors of the prison; in order to get there on time the family must leave around 6 o’clock in the morning or even earlier, in order to spend one hour with Aksakoğlu.

It has been difficult for the family to adjust to this situation. Ünzile recalls that she was unable to even leave the house in the two weeks following her husband’s arrest. Yiğit, too, struggled, she says, “At first Yiğit told me that he did not want to know how the girls are feeling. It upset him too much.” But soon afterwards, they began to talk about everything openly.  The family has the right for a 10-minute phone conversation. This precious window of time is now exclusively reserved for Deniz and Leyla. The two are rushed out of school every Thursday, so they do not to miss the brief opportunity to speak with their father.

For more than four months, Yiğit has been in isolation, staying in a 13 m2 prison cell. He spends most of his time reading novels, poetry, and non-fiction— much of it work-related. Since he is only allowed 15 publications at a time, including newspapers and magazines, and since many people send him books in addition to the ones his wife brings him, he must read fast. “He has a morning book and an evening book and he prefers to read the books while walking. In between he works, takes notes on his case,” Ünzile describes.

Her husband tells her to be positive and not to worry, to look after herself and their girls. But that is not always easy. It helps Ünzile to focus on daily activities such as work at family business and her children. “We speak about everything openly, so we cry together and we laugh together. Recently Deniz asked: ‘Why can’t daddy come home? He is not that far away.’ Then I tell her that he is indeed not that far but that they want to keep him there,” she says.

Early March, an Istanbul judge accepted the indictment in the ‘Gezi Park case.’ In the 657-page document Aksakoğlu and Kavala, along with 14 others, are accused of organizing the Gezi Park protests in 2013 in an attempt to overthrow the government. Various human rights organisations  have called on Turkish authorities to drop the ‘baseless’ charges and release both men. The first hearing of the case will take place June 24-25. Ünzile describes Yiğit’s reaction when he saw the indictment, reacting with the same incredulity as many fellow human rights defenders in Turkey. Ünzile him asking, “Is this what they are keeping me for?”

The support Ünzile and her daughters are receiving from friends and colleagues of Yiğit— often people she had never met before— is massive and heartwarming. They have set up a website, www.yigitaksakoglu.com, containing information about Yiğit and the case and  campaigning for his release. They also help with researching evidence against the charges and spend time with Deniz and Leyla. “I’m probably going to miss this when Yiğit is free,” she laughs.

Aksakoğlu, Kavala and the others will stand trial on June 24. Ünzile is convinced that the judge will not keep her husband in prison. “We know that this time will pass, but we hope that it will not last much longer because it damages us and it is a grave injustice.” Yet there is also a creeping doubt in her head, “I’m anxiously asking myself: how can you prove something so absurd?”

Find the whole series here: Defending Human Rights in Turkey: Stories that Need to Be Heard