The Istanbul Courthouse is not a monument, museum, archive or library, but as a repository of social recollections, it is still a place of memory.
Çağlayan is just a bus stop away from Mecidiyeköy in central Istanbul. The neighborhood is primarily known for its courthouse, one that has witnessed large numbers of judicial scandals in the recent past. As you get off the bus, this building appears before your eyes in all its grandeur. The plot that it sits on used to be a venue for large rallies.
After you descend from an overpass, you can reach the edge of the facility only by passing through a labyrinth that is Pac Man-like in its complexity. The difference here is that the walls of the labyrinth consist of police barriers. And then there are the labyrinths that one must pass through inside the building; lawyers, politicians, journalists, right defenders, academics and victims — all are trying to find their way to justice inside this labyrinth.
The Istanbul Courthouse sits on a 343,000-square-meter plot — the size of eight football pitches. There are 296 courts, 37 bailiffs’ offices, a medical clinic, post office, grocery store, prayer room, barber, bookstore, banks, recreation rooms and cafeterias inside this four-gate, 16-story building. Around 50,000 people go in and out of this building on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the busiest times. The park across from Gate A, which is used by judges and prosecutors, hosts the mausoleums of Enver Pasha, Midhat Pasha and Mahmut Şevket Pasha — the three senior members of the İttihat ve Terraki Cemiyeti (Committee of Union and Progress), who were known as the “deep state” during the Ottoman era — in addition to the mausoleums of two grand viziers. Only judges, prosecutors and courthouse staff can enter the park.
Social memory starts working even while entering the court. Lawyers, who are elements of the judicial branch, were dragged on the ground and detained during the Gezi Park protests in 2013. After that, every time they have raised their voice against injustice, they have been forcibly thrown out of this gate. Some have broken a backbone, some their nose.
Sometimes you can enter the building from the wide avenue that runs in front of it. In this area, a hitman shot at journalist Can Dündar on May 6, 2016, for his journalistic work, right after he was targeted by politicians. NTV reporter Yağız Şenkal was injured in the leg in the incident. Immediately thereafter, Dündar was sentenced to jail time.
As you pass through these memories, you reach the gate used by the civilian public. Here, another memory awaits those who can remember. Hanıme Aslan came to the courthouse on March 11, 2014, to file a lawsuit against the man she divorced. Two police officers were guarding her, yet her son, Dursun Zehir, shot Aslan and one officer dead as they were entering the gate. In the end, male violence found her in the place where she came to seek justice.
A large yard and statues of Themis welcome visitors who pass through the security check after the entry gate. The two giant Themis statues are nearly 20 meters high; it seems as if someone thought that “the bigger we make it, the more just we’ll seem.”
In author Jose Saramago’s Seeing, the government explodes a bomb in a city of people who did not elect it. People rally at the presidential palace after burying their relatives. When they get there, they stage a peaceful protest, merely staring at the palace. Lawyers outraged at injustice conducted a Justice Watch at the Istanbul Courthouse for 84 weeks — just like the people in Saramago’s novel. The participants, who staged a peaceful protest by simply staring at the Palace of Justice (another term for courthouse in Turkish), were subjected to tear gas and a police attack in the first week of their demonstration. Erkan Ünüvar, one of the detained lawyers, broke a leg, while colleague Gökmen Yeşil broke his nose. After the incidents, the lawyers were put on trial and acquitted. Those responsible for the violence did not have to give an account.
Nearly every floor of the courthouse triggers another memory. The trial into the Cumhuriyet newspaper was held in the grand hearing room at ground zero. In this hall, judges and prosecutors tried journalists for engaging in journalism, only to cast them out because they did not like their defenses. On hearing days, the corridors were full of people who wanted to go inside.
One floor upstairs, a court is trying the murderers of journalist Hrant Dink, but none of the perpetrators have provided an account for the murder despite the passage of 12 years of prosecution.
The offices of the Criminal Courts of Peace, to which detained people are brought when referred to the court, are on the sixth floor. There is a waiting hall at the end of a very long corridor here. This is also a place of sad memories. Here, many journalists have been arrested, particularly after the coup attempt in 2016: Cumhuriyet columnists and journalists Ahmet Şık, Erdem Gül and Can Dündar, as well as İsminaz Temel, Tunca Öğreten, Ömer Çelik, Murat Aksoy, Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak and others.
This floor also reminds us of the cold face of terrorism. The office of prosecutor Mehmet Selim Kiraz, who was taken hostage by DHKP-C members, was on this floor. Those who entered the office after Kiraz and the DHKP-C members were killed said they saw the walls covered with bullet holes. The office was later restored and turned into a memory room. Even today, the bullet holes in the windows of the room remain in the memories.
One can run into academics on any floor of the courthouse, as they are on trial almost every day for signing a peace petition; that’s why some hearings look like university courses in big lecture halls. Since those cases started, the courts have been automatically dishing out 15-month sentences for each suspect.
While following hearings in these corridors, one frequently hears shouts. If the sound of joy follows, it means someone’s been released, if voices of mourning come, it means someone’s been arrested.
According to French historian Pierre Nora, monuments, museums, archives or libraries are “places of memory,” as the focal point of everyone’s common heritage. Places of memory aid in recollection to prevent people from forgetting because, after all, “the defect of the human memory is that it forgets.”
The Istanbul Courthouse is not a monument, museum, archive or library, but as a repository of social recollections, it is still a place of memory. But if the erasure of these recollections — which have hurt justice from the point of view of social memory — can finally be stopped, then maybe justice can be restored.
This article was published as part of “Stories of Justice,” a project supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.