Friday 23 August 2019

A trial without evidence - the world should know

My former partner is at risk of a lengthy sentence in Turkey for taking part in a peaceful protest, writes Helje Solberg

Turkish police attack Gezi Park protesters with pepper spray in June 2013.
Turkish police attack Gezi Park protesters with pepper spray in June 2013.

Helje Solberg

We fell in love as teenagers and set out to explore the world. Last month, we met again in a courtroom. I was in the public gallery. He was charged with planning to overthrow his government by force - and now he and his 15 co-defendants risk spending the rest of their lives in one of Europe's largest maximum security prisons - a concrete complex surrounded by high walls and wire fences. Mass murderers and rapists are held here, but also critics of the Turkish regime.

I am Norwegian, Hakan Altinay is Turkish and we met 35 years ago when we were exchange students in the US. We lived together as students. He travelled to Norway and studied Norwegian and social anthropology. Later we moved to Istanbul, where we studied international relations and political science.

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Time passed, things changed, and we are not together now - even so, I am not a neutral observer of his trial. I have, however, come to the conclusion the world needs to know about it - so I am writing this personal narrative.

I am deeply disturbed when I see Hakan surrounded by heavily armed police and military. It seems surreal that he risks life imprisonment for something quite normal in any democracy. The charge is linked to what started as peaceful protests in May 2013 in Gezi Park - a rare green oasis in the middle of Istanbul.

The government had planned to destroy the park in order to build a shopping mall. It aroused enormous public engagement. The protests spread to more than 80 cities in Turkey and eventually involved a variety of issues from legislation about alcohol and the civil war in Syria to criticisms of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Seven people lost their lives in these riots, thousands were injured.

The prosecutor claims the protests were a conspiracy to destroy the Turkish state. He demands from 600 to 3,000 years' jail for the accused.

The 16 defendants are community builders in Turkey. The group consists of academics, lawyers, architects, urbanists, writers, journalists, artists and actors.

The most well-known, Osman Kavala, a businessman and philanthropist, was arrested in November 2017. He was in detention for more than a year without knowing what he was charged with. My Hakan is director of the European School of Politics in Istanbul, and was arrested just over a year later. He spent 36 hours in jail before he was released, but received an indictment involving life imprisonment without appeal.

One of the most prominent figures in Turkish media, Can Dundar, is also a defendant. The former editor-in-chief of Turkey's oldest newspaper, Cumhuriyet, has lived in exile in Germany since 2016.

Legal observers, politicians and diplomats from a number of countries, and human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and PEN follow the case closely. They agree the charges are unfounded, and it is referred to as "a case without evidence."

Last week, the EU criticised the portrayal of the Gezi protests as a foreign plot, and is of the opinion this contributes to a climate of fear.

I arrive early at the courthouse on the first day of the trial. Anxiety hits me when I see a large group of police marching in step through the wide prison gate. They have sunglasses and helmets, knee pads and bulletproof vests.

I sit at the tea house 100m away when Hakan, his family and several other defendants arrive. We embrace each other. He jokes about the charge. He appears energetic and vital, even though his life is on hold and he is affected by the brutal reality. It is important to stick to normality when the unthinkable happens.

"We can do nothing but tell the truth, in good and bad days," says Hakan.

To my European mind, the case is absurd. Politicians and developers in Norway not only allow but want the involvement of citizens in planning how to use shared property.

Hakan's experiences are different. In Istanbul, his and others' support for the trees in the Gezi Park was met with resistance, tear gas, water cannon, anti-terrorist investigations, surveillance and now legal proceedings.

Turkey has many journalists in prison. Reporters Without Borders ranks Norway on top and Turkey number 157 on its World Press Freedom Index. Turkmenistan is in last place (180). Tens of thousands of Turks have been put behind bars in recent years.

The courtroom is the size of a large sports hall. I sit surrounded by family and friends in the first row in the back section. Close by is the mother of a 14-year-old boy who died after being shot with tear gas in connection with the Gezi Park demonstrations.

About 150 lawyers, clothed in their distinctive red, black and green robes, are present to show their support for the defendants. They sit on one long side, while diplomats, politicians, international observers and journalists sit on the other. On an elevated podium at the front are the prosecutor and the three judges.

The atmosphere is tense. Much is at stake. Relatives hold each other and weep openly. The public breaks out in warm, standing applause every time the defendants are brought in and out.

It is crucial the international community becomes engaged in the development of Turkey. A strong rule of law and a free press are a prerequisite for a well-functioning democracy.

At the end of my stay in Istanbul, I visit Hakan and his partner at their home in a rural district north of the Bosphorus. We stroll through the university where we both studied, and where he now teaches political science. Then we visit his mother, who lives not far away. She serves Turkish cakes and we buy tea at the cafe in the local park.

We talk about the first time we met. I was 18 and on an inter-rail trip to Istanbul to meet Hakan. She was a 42-year-old mother of two - 10 years younger than I am now. The tone is light, but below the surface lies despair. She chose not to attend the trial. I ask her how she is, and she answers: "We all pretend we are well and pray to God."

As I travel home to my safe Norwegian home, the trial of the 16 continues, with new hearings scheduled for July 18 and 19. Everyone I've talked to says the same: The outcome - and duration - of this case is completely open.

Helje Solberg is news director at NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Cooperation) and former VP of the World Editors Forum (WEF)

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