Crime Policy/Legislation

Turkish Probe Reignites the 'Saturday Mothers'

Thursday, April 22, 2010

For about four years women in Turkey protested the disappearance of Kurdish detainees. Then for 10 years they disbanded. Now they're back, encouraged by a new mood in the country tied to a major intelligence investigation that is gripping Turkey.

Saturday Mothers in IstanbulISTANBUL, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)--Same time. Same spot. Same unanswered questions.

With bright red carnations and laminated posters, the Saturday Mothers of Turkey sit in silence, demanding information about people who disappeared in the 1990s. Most of the missing were from Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast.

They asked the same questions every Saturday at noon from 1995 to 1999.

The vigils started in May 1995 with the disappearance of Hasan Ocak, who was detained by police in Istanbul on March 21. Fifty-five days later, his tortured body was uncovered in a graveyard for unidentified people. Ocak's family and friends led the first sit-down protest. Many families came forward with similar stories of young Kurdish men disappearing in police custody. Families and mostly veiled women, who came to be known as the Saturday mothers, led the silent vigils.

Now they're back.

"We are telling the stories of our lost children," said Ayse Yilmaz, a member of Turkey's Human Rights Association, based in Istanbul. The guilty must be punished she said. "Till then we will continue to remind them of the mothers' screams."

Istiklal street is the busiest street in Istanbul, so it was chosen as the site for the protests, she said. "We search the faces hoping maybe our dear ones will emerge from the crowd."

In January 2009 they returned to sit wordlessly together for half an hour or so, followed by a break in silence to tell the story of one of the hundreds of sons and daughters who disappeared when fighting intensified between the Turkish military and the armed guerillas of PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party).

The new protests have been sparked by a top-level investigation that began in 2007 of an organization that may be connected to the earlier disappearances: Ergenekon, an ultranationalist underground network of secular powerbrokers and supporters of the Turkish military's power. Ergenekon (pronounced as ahr-gen-eh-kahn) is named after a mythic Turkish valley in the Altay Mountains.

Probe Accuses 200

Since the probe began government prosecutors, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have accused some 200 people of plotting to overthrow the democratically-elected government of the Islamist-rooted AKP (Justice and Development Party). The Saturday Mothers want the Ergenekon investigations to include the disappearances of their loved ones.

About 300 people, including writers, professors, editors and high-ranking military officials, have been detained. Prosecutors say the group plotted civil unrest, terrorism and assassinations (including the failed attempt on the life of Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk) to generate chaos and lay the groundwork for a military coup.

In the past five decades, the military has overthrown four democratically-elected governments.

This sensational investigation of Ergenekon continues to grip Turkey and highlight the clash between the Islamist-rooted AKP party and secular establishments, deeply polarizing the nation. It is also seen as a blow to the "deep state," the term for renegade security forces used since the Cold War.

One high profile trial has led to confessions of links between the ultranationalist group and JITEM, Turkey's clandestine gendarmerie intelligence unit, seen as responsible for the same extrajudicial killings and disappearances that the Saturday Mothers are trying to have identified and punished.

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