After Turkey's Gezi Park protests: passion, distrust and fear in court

“We must be careful today. Last time, the police used tear gas and we had to run.”  

This was my interpreter’s warning as we walked to the court in Ankara to observe the third hearing of a trial for Amnesty in December 2013. The defendant was a police officer accused of shooting dead Ethem Sarısülük, a demonstrator in Gezi Park in Istanbul in June.  

A Turkish friend had had a similar experience: “I was there Ethem's trial (second). We had in peaceful and non-violent meeting in front of trial building. The cruel police bite us and we run the street and got lot of tear gas very closely. I tried to help one old lady who had panic and could not move and I took her hands and jumped cross park and the barriers and get in the bus. It was horrible for her and I did not remember how I managed to get rid of from the place but all day I felt my stomach in pain, I changed all clothes due to tear gas.” 

Barriers surrounded the court building. The usual entrance was blocked, except for lawyers, and the area filled with police and water cannons. We had some time before meeting Ethem Sarısülük’s lawyer and stood on the court steps drinking tea to see riot police arrive to form two rows in front of the barriers facing out towards the empty public square. It would be a packed hearing so we made our way through security to the waiting area inside.  

We were soon in a crammed and noisy crowd. Ethem Sarısülük’s mother was there with his two brothers, four MPs from the main opposition Republican People’s Party and the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, and the brother of another man killed in the demonstrations. Thirty or so lawyers in green-lined black robes with tall red collars gathered, the so-called progressive lawyers, mainly young, men and women, there to support the case for Ethem Sarısülük.  

Over 100 students had travelled by coach from Istanbul. One told me that it was good Amnesty was there, Amnesty should be there, the world should know - but that it would make no difference. There would be no justice and it would be a long time before things got better in Turkey. My interpreter’s view was that these students, too young to have experienced the police violence of the 1990s in western Turkey, had not expected the heavy-handed response of the authorities to the Gezi Park demonstrations. They had not been afraid to demonstrate and now they were shocked at what they were up against. 

The notice on the courtroom door said “Switch off your mobiles. No guns in court.”  The door opened. Military gendarmes in powder-blue uniforms and armed filed out of the courtroom, taking up position around the walls to encircle the spectators.

Eventually some 300 people filled the court, the doors left open for others to listen outside. Armed prison officers stood in front of the three red-robed judges and the defence lawyer and up the sides of the court, monitoring the public seats. Ethem Sarısülük’s lawyer was hardly visible, surrounded by his lawyer supporters; he passed the Amnesty mission letter to the judges for the court file. His colleague then made a forceful request for the removal of armed officers, noting that “even in the (1980s) military coup d’etat, there were no police with guns in court” and that it was a “legal scandal”. The judges refused. An elderly man shouted “it’s military occupation.” 

Court proceedings in Turkey are inquisitorial, relying more on written statements than verbal evidence. The court clerk began the long task of reading aloud all current statements; it was hot and he frequently mopped his brow. At the front, Ethem Sarısülük’s mother swayed, listening to the accounts of his death. The case rests on whether the shooting was deliberate (the prosecution) or accidental whilst demonstrators were throwing stones at police (the defence); ballistic expert opinion will be sought. 

The defendant police officer was a solitary figure on a video-link from another town. He had previously appeared in person, wearing a wig, and was now clearly still concerned for his safety, reluctant to give a home address to the court. He seemed in disguise this time with a hairline receding rather far his years, thick glasses and a full moustache. The prosecution questioned his appearance, noting that there was no photo on file to confirm his identity. The judges did not respond.  

Ethem Sarısülük’s lawyer went on to cross-examine the defendant despite defence objections. Spectators loudly berated the defence lawyer and the prison officers had to move in closer to him. The defendant’s replies brought groans and laughter from the public. Ethem Sarısülük’s mother called out, “You have no heart. You’re not brave. You’re a liar.” and later, “What does your mother think of you now. Does she call you My Boy, or does she say Murderer?” Others applauded what they felt were points scored by the prosecution; supporting lawyers waved at them to be quiet. 

In summing up, Ethem Sarısülük’s lawyer stated, “We represent not just Ethem Sarısülük but all the people killed in the Gezi Park demonstrations. 8,000 people were injured – but how many police are before the courts?” He addressed the judges, “We don’t expect a judgement in our favour. We know the court too well. But we want the opportunity to set history straight.” He listed the “progressive causes” of all the lawyers in court, including women’s, workers’ and Kurdish rights. He added that the police oppressed all areas of society - teachers, students, trade unionists, journalists - and declared that it was human to resist oppression. 

It was a very late lunch-break and people left quietly. Outside the public square was a colourful mass of flags from mainly left-wing organisations; a giant image of Ethem Sarısülük lay on the ground. His family was ringed by press and TV.  We had a peaceful walk away. 

The trial has been transferred temporarily to another Ankara court which will rule on whether the current court is sufficiently objective to continue with the case. We'll continue to monitor the trial, although a final decision is likely to be some time away.

Barbara Lodge is our Turkey Country Coordinator.

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