What’s at stake for student activism and LGBTI+ rights in Turkey: METU pride march trial

The recent violent police response to university-centric protests in Turkey, reminds us of an ongoing legal case of a similar origin. The METU pride march trial displays the government’s repression of student activism and discrimination against the LGBTI+ community. At a 2019 pride march, 18 students and 1 professor were detained and now face criminal charges. The case could reshape Turkey’s human rights trajectory, but as their verdict was postponed again, it is clear much more is at stake.

Dorothy Rau / Duvar English

As the Turkish news is flooded with images and stories of students being attacked and detained at the mass protests which have broken out across the country as a result of Erdogan’s insertion of a pro-government rector at one of Turkey’s top institutions of higher education Bogazici University, we are reminded that this is far from the first time the government has cracked down on student activism in such a way.

On Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, a group of 18 students and 1 professor from Middle East Technical University (METU) stood in a courtroom of Ankara’s 39th Criminal Court of First Instance anxiously awaiting a long-postponed verdict. After giving their statements to the court once again, they learned that final judgement for their case would be postponed for the 4th time since their trial began over a year and a half ago. The crime of which they are accused? Peacefully participating in their university’s LGBTI+ pride march.

“We got up early in the morning to go to the courthouse. Three or four of us were waiting outside. Then over 30 police officers arrived and began to shout at us telling us we couldn’t gather there. We told them we were just waiting,” Özgür Gür, one of the students on trial, told Duvar English.

“They just want to psychologically push and intimidate us. Some of the officers at the courthouse were the same ones that attacked us at the METU Pride March. The specific police officer that arrested me was following me around, taking pictures of me with his phone, even after the hearing.”

METU students and foreign embassy observers standing together after hearing

Özgür, a self-described ‘out LGBTI activist’ who has become one of the faces of the trial, has a long history of participating in pride marches and advocating on behalf of Turkey’s queer community.

Which is why, on May 10, 2019, Özgür gathered on the METU campus with a group of students and faculty for the yearly pride march. Hours before the march was even scheduled to start around 400 Ankara police officers arrived on campus and the mood quickly shifted.

“We were shocked how early the police arrived, we only had one tent and a rainbow flag set up. They encircled the few of us that were there and told us to get rid of our stuff. We did.”

Several hours later, after more people had gathered, the police officers began to violently attack students all around campus, regardless of whether they were participating in the march or not. Students were beaten, dragged across the ground, and held against trees. Several sustained head injuries. When the cloud of pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets had cleared, a total of 21 students and 1 lecturer had been detained.

METU student being attacked by police at pride march
METU student being attacked by police at 2019 pride march


“When they arrived on campus they already knew our names. When we tried to negotiate with them, they said, ‘we will get you first,’ and they did.”

Three months later 18 of those students and the 1 professor were informed that they were being charged with ‘participating in an unlawful assembly’ and ‘resisting despite warning.’ An investigation was subsequently launched against them.

In addition to the potential jail time, the students from METU, a prestigious university known for research in engineering and natural sciences in Turkey’s capital of Ankara, have faced public vitriol, intimidation tactics, and personal anguish since the case began.
Özgür said they have even involved his family. “The police came to my family’s home looking for me. My parents are deaf so they couldn’t hear the bell, and the police broke down our door and went into my parents’ bedroom and put guns in their faces while they were asleep.”
On the same day, the anti-terrorism police units arrested several of Özgür’s friends, trying to accuse the students of being linked to a terrorist organization, but the claims went unsubstantiated, and they were released.

“It was all intimidation because obviously, there is no evidence. There are a lot of tactics like this that they use.”

Ground zero for Turkey’s LGBTI+ movement

Özgür along with many of the students from the protest belonged to the METU LGBTI+ Solidarity organization. The club started in 1996 and has been campaigning on issues of gender identity and sexual orientation in Turkey, with their most visible display of activism being the yearly pride march.

METU also has a reputation in Turkey for its trailblazing protest culture, and often exists at the forefront of youth-driven sociopolitical change in a country that, especially since the 2016 failed-coup attempt, remains shrouded in activism anxiety.

The METU LGBTI+ Pride March, which has happened for the past 10 years, has been a beacon of the groups’ work to increase the visibility of the LGBTI+ community and advocate for change to Turkey’s agenda of discrimination.

Crowds at post-METU pride march boycott

Özgür, believes this may have been the reason for the attack. “I’ve attended pride marches all over Turkey and this was by far the worst. The violence was the worst. We had run a lot of campaigns before the march so it had become very political and very public.”

METU rector’s attempt to ban the march was illegal

METU’s current rector Mustafa Verşan Kök, who was appointed by the Erdogan administration in 2016, sent out an email 4 days before the march saying it was banned, citing a no-longer-in-effect citywide ban on LGBTI+ events, saying “The march […] will not be allowed, because the Ankara governor’s ban on such events from March 10, 2018, is still in effect.”

The METU pride march has happened every year, even despite a now obsolete citywide ban on pride events from Ankara’s governor. So, once the email was sent, Özgür along with members of the METU LGBTI+ Solidarity group filed a lawsuit to challenge the rector’s authority to ban such events. “When the court asked the METU rectorate why they did it, they denied banning it, they said they just ‘shared their concerns,’ because they knew they did not have this authority.”

The ban in question, which the rectorate references in the email, was lifted by Ankara’s 12th Administrative Court in early 2019, prior to the march. In their ruling, the court stated that “it is necessary to protect these events rather than ban them.”

The students later won this lawsuit against the rectorate. An Ankara administrative court ruled that the METU rectorate’s ban on the 2019 pride march was illegal and subsequently overruled it.

So, when the students received the email saying the march was banned, they remained confident in their right to assemble and determined to proceed as planned.

Evidence of disproportional police violence

The charges of ‘participating in an unlawful assembly’ and ‘resisting despite warning’ fall under Article 2911 of the Law on Meetings and Demonstrations of the Turkish Penal Code. As a result, if not acquitted, the students and professor face up to three years in prison.
The prosecution has claimed that the police used proportional force in their attack on the students, despite eyewitness reports and videos of unprompted police violence, as can be seen in the video below.

The defense attorneys of the METU students and professor previously attempted to file a criminal complaint against the police who waged the attack on the pride march in order that an investigation be launched into their violence, but the request was denied. Their request to file a lawsuit against the METU rectorate is still pending.

The police have been extremely apprehensive to cooperate with the courts regarding any evidence of disproportional violence. The court had to request multiple times for the Ankara Security Directorate to send the unaltered records detailing the police violence.

The UN, which has taken interest in the case, sent six reporters to pose questions to the Turkish government regarding the illegal ban, the use of chemical weapons in the attack, and the rights of LGBTI+ people in Turkey. This is the first time this has ever happened. 

Turkey’s Ministry of Justice responded to the UN questions by distancing itself from the events, saying it was a METU rectorate ban, not a state ban, further discrediting the rector’s initial argument that its ban was the result of the obsolete government ban.

So, why then are these students still being attacked by the Turkish judicial system? The answer lies in Turkeys’ history of LGBTI+ discrimination and a broken legal system.

LGBTI+ events as a threat to ‘public safety and morality’

Despite the fact that homosexuality is not technically a crime in Turkey, it is often responded to with aggression. The METU Pride March trial is not the first case of Turkish security forces using violence to break up a pride march. In 2015 Istanbul police broke up a pride parade using water cannons.

Istanbul Police are seen using water cannons on participants of a 2015 pride march

This is also not Özgür’s first time being arrested at a pride march. In the summer after the METU pride march he was arrested by police at a march in the city of Izmir. He believes the police targeted him specifically at this march, saying, “I think they knew me. I was on the edge of the crowd, but when they saw me they immediately arrested me.”

The Izmir pride march case concluded last week and Özgür has been acquitted of all charges.

Since the 2013 Gezi Park protests, a wave of protests and civil unrest that swept through Turkey, the LGBTI+ community in Istanbul has had increased its visibility and support within Turkish society, in part to the role they played in the protests. However, this increased visibility has coincided with the power overhaul of the neoconservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) headed by President Erdoğan.

Erdoğan has pushed populist Islamist rhetoric centered around ‘traditional family values’ to the forefront of his administration, a narrative that unabashedly excludes the LGBTI+ community. The government’s previous ban on LGBTI+ events in the name of “public sensitivity” and “safety and morality,” incentivizes their far-right constituencies to continue threatening and attacking such events and communities.

In 2017 President Erdoğan himself made a statement regarding an opposition party introducing discrimination quotas for LGBTI+ participants, saying that the party “broke their ties with our nation’s values.”

‘I am worried for my physical safety’

The toll on the students in trial has not been solely emotional. Immediately after their arrest, before an investigation was even announced, all the students lost their university scholarships from Turkey’s Higher Education Student Loan and Housing Board.

Although Turkey’s pro-government media networks have been radio silent on the trial, the more vocal members of the group have received a plethora of threatening social media messages.

Özgür Gür (left) and fellow activist Melike (right) seen holding a LGBTI+ pride flag

After 7 years of activism Özgür is used to such messages, but says there is something recently that scares him. “Some ISIS members who were arrested were planning to bomb an LGBTI+ organization.” The government has not told any organizations which one the group was planning to target, including the one Özgür has started since the trial began, UniKuir (pronounced UniQueer).

The organization, whose purpose is to create solidarity among LGBTI+ students from universities all around Turkey, has been coordinating with a number of international organizations who are heavily invested in the trial.

International audience says, ‘you are not alone’

Fortunately, not all the attention the group has gotten since the trial began has been negative. Özgür says the group “has gotten thousands of letters from all over Turkey and the world, saying ‘you are not alone,’ and that has been a really great feeling for me personally. We know we are not alone now.”
International organizations such as the EU, the UN, Amnesty International, and countless others focused on human rights abuses, have demanded the immediate acquittal of the students. According to Nils Muižnieks, Amnesty International’s Europe Director, the students and professor on trial have been “dragged through the courts on baseless criminal charges and face absurd jail sentences” and that they have had “their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly violated.” 
During the most recent hearing, which was also followed by a record number of country delegations, including most of the European countries, America, and Canada, the prosecution failed to prepare an opinion. As international attention and messages of solidarity for the students and professor on trial increases, the government has further cause to postpone the trial in hopes that scrutiny will fade. 

Amnesty International poster regarding trial, Özgür (left)

“All the details are complete: the evidence is complete; the reports are complete. We are just waiting for the prosecutor’s office to give their statements again so the judge can decide. We expected a decision, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. I wasn’t surprised,” Özgür said of the postponement.

In addition to immediate acquittal, international organizations are urging the Turkish government to launch an investigation into the excessive force used by the police and to take steps to ensure students and other LGBTI+ citizens have the rights to express themselves and assemble peacefully protected.
This verdict postponement to April 30th, has posed a major red flag to human rights organizations. “LGBTI rights have been systematically attacked in Turkey in recent years and by postponing the trial yet again without any comprehensible reasons, the courts are clearly infringing the right to a fair trial and fair judicial process,” said Katrin Hugendubel, Advocacy Director at ILGA-Europe, an independent international organization which advocates for rights for LGBTI people.
“This is a worrying signal from Turkey’s judiciary, especially in the context of rising hate-crime and hate-speech against the LGBTI community in the country. In 2020, LGBTI activists in Turkey have seen their offices targeted by violence, their online spaces restricted, and the LGBTI community has been blamed for the COVID-19 pandemic by religious and political leaders,” Hugendubel added.
The METU Pride March trial is in danger of falling into the postponement chasm of the Turkish legal system, which often exists as a mechanism for reducing public and international attention on unreasonable rulings when they do finally come.

A landmark case for LGBTI+ rights

Özgür, says that, although he isn’t optimistic the next hearing will be the last, he feels they have a very strong case. “They have to acquit us. All of the evidence points to that, and the international solidarity has been so important as it has made the discrimination of LGBTI+ people in Turkey so obvious.”

President Erdogan and his administration have recently spoke of sweeping new legal reform and have said that Turkey will soon “surpass Europe in protecting human rights.”

Because of such language from the government and the international attention, the METU LGBTI+ pride march, which was intended to fight against LGBTI+ human rights abuses in Turkey, has become the center of a landmark case for LGBTI+ rights in Turkey, the impact of which could extend far beyond the 19 individuals on trial.
“Once they rule on this case, they will have no legal basis to ban pride marches,” Özgür pointed out.

“They now know, because of this trial, that if they do something to us, if they come after us, a lot of people will react, but we should keep putting pressure on them because the trail isn’t finished.”
As Özgür along with the other students and professor await a potential verdict at the April hearing, the Turkish LGBTI+ community and international human rights organizations will keep a close eye on the outcome, to see if Ankara is willing to make good on its promises of legal reform and an improved human rights record, or whether the government will sink further into the patterns of student activism repression and LGBTI+ discrimination it is becoming known for.