Interview: President of Istanbul branch of the Human Rights Association

by Anya Briy / Mahir Kurtay    


Following the June 24, 2018 elections, Recep Tayyip Erdogan assumed new authoritarian powers --as the head of legislative and executive branches-- that provide a legal basis for his ongoing crackdown on the opposition.  Shortly after the elections, we talked to Gulseren Yoleri, lawyer and president of the Istanbul Branch of the Human Rights Association (Insan Haklari Dernegi – IHD), about the state oppression in the country. Most recently, the IHD faced state violence on August 25 in Istanbul as the police forces attacked the Saturday Mothers vigil supported by the association.


Interview was translated and edited for clarity.


Anna Rebrii is a PhD student in Anthropology at CUNY Graduate Center, NYC, researching the Kurdish movement in Turkey. She is based in NYC and Istanbul.

Murat Ozkaratas is an MA student in Urban Geography in Istanbul.


Could you introduce the Human Rights Association?


Our association was founded in 1986 by 98 intellectuals, artists and writers. It was established to deal with all human rights violations in Turkey. At the time of its establishment, the effects of the military coup of September 12, 1980, were still present, so it was a difficult period. It was a time when associations and political parties were under pressure and our association quickly found supporters. Many people became activists with us. At that time there were 61 cities in Turkey and immediately we were able to organize in 57 cities. The 90's followed just after the organization was established. Rights violations were on the rise. 13 of our administrators were killed. Usually, they were kidnapped and killed in what was known as unsolved cases. Some went missing. But we continued to work despite this pressure. Detention, arrests and prisons did not dissuade us; on the contrary, they made us even more determined. That period was very oppressive. There was no law, no human rights, there were violations of international agreements. But there was also resistance against this oppression. However, because the pressure was so intense, we experienced a 50% decrease in the number of our branches. With time, we were able to continue our work more effectively. For example, when some rights violation used to happen in Trabzon, we were not able to reach them from here. But now social media and communication make it possible for us to work there.

 We currently have members in detention. Especially after the state of emergency, the environment became even more oppressive. Many of our friends, especially from Kurdish cities, are now in detention. Some were released.


What kind of activities does the association perform?

Sometimes, we were taken into custody even when we only reiterated the government's policy, even when we did not say anything oppositional. There have been hundreds of lawsuits filed against us. Whether things that we do are considered legal or illegal, we will not give up on what we know to be the truth. We will protect it. It is our right according to international agreements whether Turkey signed them or not. In general, we respect the right to struggle and legitimate rights and freedoms and continue to take risks. From our experience we have seen that we have been successful.


What kind of pressure does the HRA and its activists face?

Our association has been under intense pressure. We can say that the pressure is much more intense in the regions where the Kurds live. All of us are all under threat of detention, arrest and unfair investigation. Police create tension in every action [that we take part in]. They are taking a lot of security precautions. For example, when we have 10 people attending an action, we see 300-400 cops coming there. Police cars and panzers are also there. We have criminal cases opened against us. Some of our branch employees and managers are under arrest. We can say that human rights workers have been recently under a heavy pressure.


It is no longer the 1990s. Turkey has a new constitution and torture is banned. How does the government legitimate current rights violations?

Most often, the state convinces the public that its actions are necessary by creating an impression that there is a crime against it. That is, the state claims that if a victim of torture had not been tortured,  the state would have been destroyed or harmed. So the state tells people that these victims of torture are terrorists. Thus it legitimizes torture and legalizes illegal activities.

We also have a phenomenon in Turkey that we call a division paranoia. In other words, the impression is created that the state will be easily divided. I do not think that the government believes in this lie. But it is manipulating the society this way. It designates people as terrorists and creates an impression that they deserve everything that the state does to them, including murder. Sometimes the state generates a demand within the society: do not send these people to prison, torture and kill them directly.


When it comes to courts, we have a state that has not followed its laws for the last 7 to 8 years. It does not matter what is written in the laws. I think that now the situation is at its worst. I think this can not go any further. At the moment there is a state that acts completely illegally. So it is not possible to explain the incidents that are happening from the legal point of view. Politics started governing the law. In the past, lawlessness had a legal cover. Now, there is no need for this. Illegal incidents are defended directly by the government. And unfortunately, there is no mechanism to fight against this.


How did the 2016 military coup attempt affect the human rights situation in Turkey?


We are against any type of coup under any circumstances. We support democratic and civil approaches. However, we can admit that the day when the oppression in regards to human rights was institutionalized was not July 15, the day of the coup attempt, but July 20, when the state of emergency began. True, there have been serious violations of rights during these 5 days after July 15. There were violations of the right to life and torture. But starting with July 20, people have been fired from public offices and the right to organize was seized. Businesses have been closed. In the first stage, such [oppression] was legitimized against the Gülen religious movement. We predicted that these measures would become more pervasive. And it happened that way. Some education trade unions were closed. In the media realm, leftist, democratic or Kurdish outlets came under attack. Nearly 130,000 people were sacked from their jobs with emergency decrees. In addition, 30,000 people were suspended. Approximately 30,000 people became unemployed as private businesses were closed down. And since these people are connected to the Gulen movement, they can not find any other jobs. Passports of those who were dismissed were cancelled. Their tangible assets were confiscated.


If there is a crime, the final decision must be made through the judicial process. This is not how it works in Turkey now. Denunciations serve as a sufficient reason for people to be sacked from their jobs. The fact that the state of emergency was lifted has not changed this situation. If there were a state of law in Turkey, with the lifting of the state of emergency, the decisions taken during this period would have to be revoked. But permanent changes have been made from the first day of the state of emergency. 5,000 laws were changed. 4,000 associations were closed and their property was permanently transferred to the treasury. KHKs [state of emergency decrees] are illegal but they will continue to govern us.


In your opinion, what will the country experience under the new presidential system that came into force with the June, 24 elections?


The unofficial beginning of the presidential system can be traced to 2010 when a constitutional referendum took place. Tayyip Erdogan was the prime minister at the time and he said that he did not care about the constitution. It seemed that he meant that he did not care for the junta’s constitution. Ultimately, it is dangerous that a prime minister does not care about the constitution. If Erdogan did not like the constitution, he should have changed it at that time. He had the power to do it. However, he did not change the entire constitution, just the things that could potentially stand in his way.


There were also other signs. Erdogan did not accept the results of the June 7 2015 elections and later that year, in November, early elections were held. The November results were not very cheering either [for Erdogan]. So what I mean is that there have been several stages of this process, of the state acting more and more illegally. And today we are at the stage of the new presidential system and state of emergency. For a more concrete example, we have to take a look at the presidential referendum in April 2017. We already passed to a presidential system at that point. It was just made official with the last election. Opposition parties did not challenge this. They ignored these developments. As an election promise, they said that they would change the presidential election and return to the parliamentary system. We think that the opposition parties are two-faced. In fact, the constitution had to be changed before the elections took place. Now the elections took place and the system has come into effect. The government has been acting outside the law for 7-8 years by now. It seems that the presidential system is something new but this is not true. In terms of violations of rights, it is not an event that happened in one day. Starting with 2010, we have seen a development of serious attacks on rights. There is no access to justice in Turkey. This is also the reason why the CHP's justice march last year found a response in the society -- because we are experiencing the lack of justice. Yes, the process may get worse, but it is certainly nothing surprising.


Our association was observing the last elections. We saw party [HDP] buildings and candidates being attacked very often. On the election day, there were some tensions and aggression in some neighbourhoods. If we compare the last three elections we can say that this election was calmer in [western] Turkey. However,  in the Kurdish region, very intense pressures were observed. Already in 2015-2016, there were serious problems in the region when curfews were established. This time there was no [military] operation but a large number of observers were taken into custody the night before the election. The mechanisms for monitoring and ensuring [our] security during the election were eliminated. At the end of the election day, AKP supporters went out to the streets in some places. Armed and extremely menacing people were in the streets when the votes were taken to local counting offices.

There were intense violations in Urfa, for example. Hundreds of observers were taken into custody. There were those killed in Suruç before the election. On the election evening, at the time when it was not yet clear who won, there were attacks on the HDP party buildings after the announcement that the HDP had passed the threshold. There were also attacks on HDP celebrations that night in many places.


Pro-government paramilitary groups have been emerging in Turkey. Do you see a potential for a civil war?


In the recent years, Turkey pursued politics of polarization. We’ve been witnessing the politics that separate people and make them enemies. An impression is created as if we can not live together. At one time, fundamentalists, at other time the Kemalists have tried to create a conflict. The Kurds are always being perceived as permanent enemies of the state. The same for the Armenians and the Alevis. Apart from these, other groups can be treated like enemies according to circumstances of a given period. For example, when Kemalists are in power, fundamentalists are made enemies. Society is beginning to accept this as a norm. It is as if one group will always be our enemy. Enemization also keeps your supporters together. After a while, your supporters start acting as if they were soldiers.


Creating an impression that there is an internal and external enemy threat has always been used as a tool of manipulation politics in Turkey. All the people who have been in power have done this. This is the reason why the masses can be easily convinced of an internal and external enemy threat. For a while, there was the perception of Greece as our enemy. Then we abandoned this. We had an argument with Israel instead. It is the same inside the country. Kurds are the enemy, communists and Alevis are the enemies. The government is made up of those who are not considered the enemy. What is happening is grouping together [of those in power]. It is not easy to answer whether this will evolve into a civil war.


Given the intense polarization Turkey has experienced so far, a civil war could have happened 10 times by now. Yet, there has not been a civil war yet, and even if minorities cannot say openly their own identities, different groups are living side by side. The intolerance has not affected the entire society, only racists and fundamentalists. But we cannot say that there will be no civil war. I think that the government uses this as a threat. The government controls opposition parties and people by threatening to start a civil war. It could be started with provocative actions. The entire world discusses the topic of individual armament, more specifically the need to prevent it. In Turkey, however, the opposite happens: it is encouraged. The number of bullets that an individual could have during the state of emergency was legally increased from 200 to 1000. Why does a person need 1000 bullets? Or why does one keep a gun in their house?


There is also the issue of missing weapons. Heavy machine guns disappeared on July 15, 2016 [the night of the coup attempt]. These were not found. I think the intelligence knows where they are. But we have to ask whom they were given to or whether the weapons are kept somewhere waiting to be used. In the event of a riot, the state can use both individual armaments as well as these hidden military weapons. If the government wants a civil war - it will happen, if it does not - it will not. A civil war, however, is not something that will come out of the inner dynamics of the society.


On the election’s day, as Erdogan’s victory became certain, armed groups came out in celebration. Was it a planned show of force by paramilitary formations?


During the period of curfews in Kurdish cities [in 2015-6], we went to the places where the conflicts took place. There were groups there whom we could not identify. They were wearing a military uniform and seemed to be part of the police, but actually, they were not. They were speaking Arabic. From then on, they began to become visible. A legal association called the People's Special Operation [Halk Özel Harekat, HOH, created by AKP supporters after the coup] was established. An investigation was launched due to much pressure from the public as the leaders of this association took photographs with heavy weapons in their hands.


The more the state acts outside the law, the more illegal formations we see emerging. For example, the leader of the MHP, Devlet Bahceli, wants to help Alaattin Cakici, a mafia leader who is currently in prison, and says that he must be protected. Bahceli said that the crimes that Alaattin Cakici committed were committed for the state. They did not feel uncomfortable saying this in public. During the last year, some people who came to our association have talked about semi-mafia forces. In their complaints, they say that some people came to their neighbourhoods and tried to extort money. One step after that: the government’s partner party [MHP] leader poses with mafia bosses.


Before that, several years ago, Sadat Peker, another mafia leader, made a statement [against academics who signed the Peace Petition] saying that he will take shower in their blood. These incidents were considered as freedom of thought. The state’s dealing with the mafia has become visible. The state has been acting so much against the law that it no longer puts up a facade, a mask, as it used to do. It is acting much more comfortably today. Alaattin Cakici was used by the state. This is a system that supports the mafia financially and protects it in a judicial dimension. The state is out of law to such a degree that it has no other option. In a sense, it has to move arm in arm with the mafia.


The law holds both the society and the state at a certain line. It protects them against each other. Even though we know that today’s constitution and laws are reactionary, we say that there still should be state of law. For example, while talking about the September 12 period [1980 military coup], lawyers would say the following: even though there was nothing, at least there was law. The law was created by the military, it was a reactionary structure that had to be fought against. But at least you knew what you were facing. Now we do not even know it.


From the point of view of human rights, what happened during the conflict period in the Kurdish cities in 2015-6?


The 80s were a period when the state began to put more pressure on the Kurdish region and when military measures were experienced more intensely. The lawlessness we are talking about today was also present then. Kurdistan has always been a few steps ahead of the West of Turkey when it comes to lawlessness. The law of the September 12 military coup was not effective in Kurdistan. Politics of denial and annihilation were applied. Kurds’ existence was not admitted. There was no nation called Kurdish. There was rhetoric as if there were no Kurdish language. Then, the state not being able to handle [assimilate] the Kurds, implemented policies of destroying them, making them disappear. The 90s especially were the peak point, although today we have overtaken the 90s. They were killing and murdering then. When we compare murders against the Kurds in Kurdistan with the oppression in [western] Turkey, we see that we experience much more in the Kurdish regions. According to the state’s own number, there are 17,500 unsolved cases [murders and disappearances]. The exact number is unknown. The state said they [Kurds] were slandering the state. At the time of the Susurluk accident [a car crash in Susurluk in 1996, with a tribal leader, a mafia boss and a police chief in the same vehicle], the investigation revealed that these people were actually linked to the unknown killings. In the report of the Susurluk Investigation Commission in the parliament, as our organization also concluded, it was understood that some groups connected to the state perpetrated these killings. The state confessed it.


In the Ergenekon case, it was written in the indictment that there was a terrorist organization called Ergenekon and that it was fueling the chaos with its provocative acts, committing political murders. These did not become a matter of trial, however. These crimes were predominantly crimes against the Kurds. Then, remember, during the Tansu Çiller [Prime Minister in 1993-6] period, the assassination lists for Kurdish businessmen were leaked. In all processes, the state has tried to oppress [Kurds] with policies of denial and annihilation. 3,500 villages were burned [in the 1990s]. Millions of people became internal and external refugees. Today the Kurds still suffer these sorrows.


There was a change with the peace process [that started in 2013]. At that time, people in Kurdistan believed that something would change. Despite all of the concerns, the hope of peace grew stronger. When the process was ended by the government for no reason, the military operation and curfews followed [in 2015]. Annihilation was applied again against Kurds but this time it was much different. In the past, the villagers were being burned. However, in the recent process, violence was directed against both cultural and historical wealth. 70% of Cizre was destroyed. The case of Sur is obvious. The city was destroyed. Historical buildings collapsed. At the same time, urban development was implemented with immediate expropriation [of land]. Destroyed places are being rebuilt, but in most places, they are not sold to former owners.


The goal is to settle [rebuilt neighbourhoods] with people of other identities to replace the Kurds. This is being done little by little. Kurdistan is being de-Kurdisized. The goal of these policies is to change both the demographic structure, social field and political preferences. In this election period, we could have seen a different map [people voting for pro-government parties] but it did not happen. However, if these policies are continued, the social structure will change. Syrians are being settled there. People are being brought from some Turkic republics. Up until now, the people from the conflict areas have been resisting. Migrants [forced out by the conflicts] first set up tents near the city. They have not moved far from their homes. Later, as the state destroyed the tents, they started migrating to other places. Some went to the West of Turkey and some went abroad.


We interviewed individuals face to face and prepared reports. We were not able to get into some areas, however, and had to get reports through other channels. Sometimes, in the places that we entered bypassing the police, we saw very serious rights violations. A war, an occupation happened. In other words, we saw that the state was not solving the problem that the country’s citizens were experiencing contrary to how it presented the situation to the media. We saw that it was pursuing a policy directed at the annihilation of its own people and destruction of their existence, their hope. When we entered a city, we had to go through 5-6 checkpoints. There were huge Turkish flags on concrete blocks. We had an impression that we were entering a foreign country. When we went to Åžirnak, Turkish flags greeted us. I got an impression that I was coming from elsewhere to Turkey. There was an occupation mentality.


Actually, all of this shows the mentality of the state. It shows that the [Turkish] state can not dominate, cannot rule, despite its omnipresence. With the recent election results, we saw that the state has still not succeeded. So there is something that the state cannot manage. Because the state was not able to rule the land -- despite its use of perception politics and manipulation -- these flags were the symbol of destruction, annihilation, and occupation. That is, the state acts this way because it thinks it does not exist. Today, this policy continues. Maybe not as in the period of military operations [in 2015-6] -- with tanks and heavy artillery -- but crime and massacre continue as others are being settled in the region. In the period when the operations were approaching the end, we saw people in Åžirnak questioning, “Why are they killing us,” and “Why did the solution process end?” People believed in the peace process. There are no expectations, in fact, there are just demands to be born, to go to school, to die normally. With all the hopes broken off,  it is very painful to hear the question that breaks out from the people’s hearts: why was the solution process over? Even those who did not leave [the conflict areas] despite all of the destruction, expressed astonishment and disappointment. This trauma continues. We only heard what happened there. They died -- we only watched. Yet, even our mental state is not good when we think of them. If a peace process starts again, the public will be cautious this time.


Civilian deaths were revealed when people were burned in basements in Cizre. Small children, pregnant women and old people living in the [conflict] areas were killed and these people could not have been killed [as participants] in the armed conflict. They were murdered while they were at home, eating or sitting around. Take, for example, mother Taybet  [a 57-years old woman killed in Silopi]. Snipers shot her and did not allow her family to get the body. She was shot in front of her family in a narrow street. And then they injured a relative who came to get her body. The woman's body remained in the street for 7 days. According to the state, only militias were killed, but in reality, there were civilians. HDP and DBP administrators were also killed.


After the publication of our reports in regards to health-related issues during the conflicts, investigations were opened against our association. The investigation continues because of our Cizre report. We took precautions this time. In the past, we used to write the names of every person who co-wrote the report, now we publish it with the signature of a delegation. So that no individual becomes a target.


I think that the most important result of this last conflict process is the despair that it led to in regards to the solution. People’s hope for a life together was broken.