Turkey's banned vigil: Saturday mothers on trial
After being banned from holding their weekly vigils, demanding answers to their loved ones’ disappearances, the Saturday Mothers have persisted. Recently, in a state suit filed against some members of the group, the prosecutor has asked for up to three years in prison. The Saturday Mothers symbolize every crime, injustice, and anti-democratic act the Erdoğan regime wants so desperately to hide.
The last time the Saturday Mothers were covered by international news was 2.5 years ago. For 699 weeks, the Saturday Mothers have held a vigil each Saturday, at the same time and place: 12 PM, Galatasaray Square, Tünel, Istanbul.
On Aug. 25, 2018, right before their 700th gathering, the Interior Ministry banned the vigil. Riot police forcefully dispersed activists, oppositional MPs, and families. After heavy teargassing and beating, 47 people were taken into custody and later released.
When asked why, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said that the Saturday Mothers were wrongly accusing the Turkish state by blaming them for the deaths of left wing militants. He said that they did not disappear, but rather, that this is a victimization story produced by “terror organizations.”
Of course, this was not the truth.
According to CHP MP Sezgin Tanrıkulu, the total number of people taken into custody and never returned is 1,388 between 1980-2000. The forced disappearances peaked during 1993-1997, when the conflict between the PKK and state reached its height. (A good read by Caleb Lauer, The National)
The Human Rights Association (İHD) believes that the total number of forced disappearances and unidentified political murders has reached over 17,500 in Turkey.
Families go to police stations and file law suits to no avail. Some of them even went to the Human Rights Association and joined weekly sit-ins starting in 1995. The Saturday Mothers’ name was inspired by the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. Both groups are often in touch and support each other.
As the vigil group grew, celebrities began to support them and in 1999, they were forcibly dispersed. Following a 10-year break, the group started to gather once again in Galatasaray Square, demanding justice for their missing loved ones.
In fact, now-President Erdoğan, who was the Prime Minister in 2011, met with the group and Saturday mother Berfo Kırbayır (who died in 2013, aged 106). Erdoğan made the headlines with this gesture, as he promised to find her son and put forth his best efforts for the families in their search for justice.
When the peace process became official, some of the cases and investigations regarding torture, forced disappearances, and assassinations were filed. After 2015, when the peace process was ripped apart, almost all the cases resulted in the acquittal of the suspects.
Meanwhile, the Saturday Mothers continued their peaceful gatherings in Galatasaray, demanding their sons, fathers, siblings’ bones.
I remember during those days, the Saturday Mothers became a natural part of the square. Usually, passing crowds would ignore them as the Saturday Mothers held up pictures of their missing loved ones, ending with a press release.
After protesting in Galatasaray Square was totally banned (riot police are still stationed at the square) the group began to gather on a small backstreet in Istiklal, in front of the İHD office.
They repeated their demands to sit in Galatasaray: It represented a shared history and an invisible cemetery for their beloved ones, as well as their only remaining space to demand justice.
Last November, almost 2 years after they were forcefully dispersed, the state filed a suit against 46 of the Saturday Mothers and their supporters. The indictment is laughable, since they are accused of opposing the police.
Back to the question: Why now?
Well, it’s the Turkish Presidential regime. In 2018, Erdoğan managed to abolish the parliamentary system and was chosen for the second time as President, with the aid of the MHP. After the Gezi Park protests, and so many other protests around Turkey, it became harder to hold peaceful gatherings. The right to assemble and hold a peaceful protest without asking for permission is a constitutional right. But there are laws and regulations which arbitrarily seek to limit this right.
Given this state of affairs, it is no wonder all major protests, like the May 11 Women’s Day March and Pride Week have all been banned. The Islamist-nationalist-neoliberal regime does not want such displays to be visible. They prefer squares to be flooded with tourists and heavily-clad riot police. They prefer shopping malls and hotels in the squares.
The Saturday Mothers symbolize every crime, injustice, and anti-democratic act the regime wants so desperately to hide.
Some of the group’s elders have died in search for justice. Their children and grandchildren grew up in Galatasaray Square. They won’t give up.