On July 25th, Turkey’s Saturday Mothers will gather for the 700th time to demand justice for victims of enforced disappearances.
The group originated on May 27th, 1995. That day, about 30 people met in Galatasaray Square in Istanbul for half an hour, holding placards with the names and photographs of relatives abducted during some of the bleakest years for human rights in Turkey. They continued to do so every week until 1999 when significant state violence led participants to pause the demonstrations for several years.
Hanim Tosun, whose husband was abducted by state forces in 1995, described the attacks on demonstrators to Amnesty International in 1998. “I believe it was the 176th week of our action as Saturday Mothers when we were detained. This was the third time that I was detained. All of us were taken into a police bus while being beaten with truncheons, hit with fists and kicked.”
She told the Amnesty delegate that she and other participants remained steadfast in their pursuit of justice and closure. “We do not go to Galatasaray for fun or because we love the place so much, but we want the State to say something officially, because hundreds of people were ‘lost’ in detention...Galatasaray is some kind of common cemetery for us, and we shall continue to go there until we get an official answer.”
The resolve and commitment shown by thousands of demonstrators like Tosun were shaped by a dire reality. Turkey’s Human Rights Association documented at least 792 enforced disappearances from 1992 to 1996 alone. Real numbers were likely significantly higher. The disappearances coincided with a concentrated campaign of village demolition in Kurdish provinces, attacks on critical media, arrests of opposition members of parliament, torture, and other serious human rights violations— all under the guise of “fighting terrorism.” Despite the efforts of the Saturday Mothers, as well as other peace and human rights activists, no official process of accountability has taken place, and no apology has been given.
The Saturday Mothers resumed their weekly demonstrations in 2009. In recent years, their mission has taken on a new urgency, as the state of emergency, the AKP government’s consolidation of power, and the breakdown of peace negotiations with the PKK led to a resurgence in human rights abuses conducted in the name of national security. A 2016 paper by the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances cautioned that “the current situation in [the Kurdish southeast] is in fact dramatically similar to that described in the 1998 report of the Working Group...The Working Group fully acknowledges the serious security challenges that Turkey is currently facing. It recalls at the same time that there can be no justification for human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, in the name of counter-terrorism measures.”
As human rights organizations warn that history may begin to repeat itself, the question of accountability for past disappearances remains important. Human Rights Watch warns that the statute of limitations for murder under Turkish law is just 20 years— meaning that the prosecution of abductions and killings from the early 1990s may become more difficult as time passes. That same report, however, argues that enforced disappearances could– and should— be prosecuted as crimes against humanity, or other international violations with no such statute of limitations. Since the years in which the first disappearances occurred, other states have reckoned with similar human rights challenges. In Chile, individuals were prosecuted for enforced disappearances under Pinochet’s regime despite an amnesty law that similarly restricted the time frame, as the country’s supreme court ruled that disappearance was an ongoing crime that continued until the location and fate of the victim were identified.
Though new legal precedents for accountability exist, political realities in Turkey are still hostile. As years continue to pass without real steps towards justice, the impact on the families and communities of victims grows. HDP co-chair Pervin Buldan, who joined Saturday Mothers sit-ins after her husband was abducted in 1994 and co-founded Yakay-Der, the Association of Solidarity and Assistance for the Families of Missing Persons, in 2001, described this challenge. "Yesterday, it was the children looking for their fathers,” she explained at a conference on mass graves in 2013. “Today, [it] is the nephews looking for their grandfathers. We are now into the second and third generation of people asking justice for their relatives".
Buldan, like countless other Turkish citizens who have lost family to state violence, continues to speak out. This week, she urged “everyone who feels they belong to [their] country” to participate in the 700th Saturday of demonstrations. “The disappearances and murders have been labelled as unsolved to make them the individual problems of their close relatives. But they are not,” she emphasized. “They are not just the problem of the Saturday Mothers. They are everyone’s problem.”