EventsHuman Rights

Unsolved III: ‘Coming together for truth and justice transcends borders’

The Media and Legal Studies Association (MLSA) organized its third “Unsolved” panel this year online on the evening of December 17. The panel which took place under the moderation of human rights defender and President of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) Şebnem Korur Fincancı brought together Lana Estemirova, daughter of the Chechen human rights defender and journalist Natalya Estemirova who was murdered in 2009; Şemsiye Bağdu, the wife of Kadri Bağdu who was murdered while distributing the newspaper Azadiya Welat in 2014; Sebla Arcan from the Human Rights Association (IHK) as representative of the Saturday Mothers who have been searching for their “forcibly disappeared” relatives since 1995; and Emel Aktatürk from the Hafıza Merkezi which implements the Perpetrator not-Unknown project working on impunity and “enforced disappearances.”

“Instead of talking about her death, I will talk about my mother’s life”

Lana Estemirova was the first to take the floor in the panel, which began with the opening remarks delivered by MLSA Co-Director Barış Altıntaş. Thanking the panel organizers for the invitation, Estemirova started her speech with a question:“Every time I am given an opportunity to talk about my mother, I think about where to start. Should I talk about her life or her death?” Recounting that “every day for the last 11 years, I have been waking up thinking about my mother’s murder. The perpetrators have still not been found, they are walking around freely,” Estemirova said she prefers to talk about her mother’s life. “My mother lived in Chechnya. In the 90s, there was a war between Chechnya and Russia. At that time, my mother was trying to collect stories of the victims, she devoted her life to defend their rights. She had a really difficult life and I shared that difficult life.” 

“My mother was one of the first victims of the new regime in Chechnya” 

“Death has always been a part of our lives,” said Estemirova. She added that after the Russian occupation of Chechnya came to an end with the government brought to power by Vladimir Putin, the number of kidnapping, torture and murder cases did not decrease; but rather increased. Estemirova described this period in which everyone was tried to be silenced as “time of serious fear, horror and terror” and stated that her mother was one of the first victims of this new regime. 

Estemirova said that her mother never hid her professional activities from her, as it was impossible for her to do so and added: “Whenever we saw a news report on the kidnapping or murder of individuals, we would think: ‘We hit rock bottom, this cannot get worse.’ But, it did get worse. On July 15, 2009, they kidnapped my mother from outside our house, while I was sleeping inside. They kidnapped and murdered her. Everything simply froze.” 

“Reporting on injustices was like a duty for my mom and her friends”

Estemirova noted that after her mother’s death, her colleagues realized that they could no longer continue to work as they did before, they had to go elsewhere, and that some people even had to change jobs. “What’s more, the violence and threats did not end after the death of her mother,” said Lana Estemirova. Referring to the absurdities that took place, she said: “My mother’s office was burned, her colleagues were taken and beaten. However they continued to work because they considered it as their duty to report on injustices. One of my mother’s colleagues was arrested for completely trumped up charges. Drugs were placed in his car and he was held in prison for two years for an absurd offence such as drug possession and selling.”

Estemirova emphasized that this had nothing to do with “heroism” and that her mother and her friends always felt the need to tell the truth, that it was a natural attitude for them, a part of their identity. “To find the murderers of my mother, not even a proper investigation was initiated, there was no effort to find the killers. On the contrary, they tried to discredit my mother with lies,” explained Estemirova but also called upon not to let oneself be carried away by anger and hopelessness.

“Coming together for truth and justice that break boundaries gives me hope”

At the end of her speech, Estemirova said: “I am very angry but I know that my mother’s friends did everything to make sure she is not forgotten. Russia did not even lift a finger to find the culprits. There is certainly some evidence somewhere and it will eventually come to light. Thinking about this gives me hope and strength. If we succumb to anger and hopelessness, it means that we have already lost. Because they want this, they want us to give up. We have to continue with hope. 11 years later, I am able to join this panel and talk about my mother. Listening to you, being with you, feeling the solidarity here, the feeling of coming together here for truth and justice which transcends boundaries gives me hope.” 

Taking the floor after Estemirova, moderator Korur Fincancı emphasized the importance of fighting for the pursuit of truth: “This solidarity that gives us strength is very valuable. Enforced disappearances are similar wherever in the world they occur. The resistance to reveal the truth shows us who the perpetrator is. Countries are different, but what is experienced is so similar. This encourages us to stand side by side on a global level.” 

“Another person we lost is Kadri Bağdu. Despiting the surfacing of a video containing important evidence four years after his murder, the murderers of Bağdu were not brought to justice” said Korur Financı and gave the floor to Bağdu’s wife Şemsiye Bağdu. 

“My husband continued his job, he didn’t quit because he had faith”

Şemsiye Bağdu, who delivered her speech in Kurdish, began by expressing condolences to the families of the deceased. She recounted that in 1990 they were forced to leave the Pervari district of Siirt and move to Adana, as, at that time the villages in Kurdish cities were being burned down and evacuated. “When we came here, my husband was unemployed. He was a member of the Human Rights Association (HRA) and was also doing party politics in the Kurdish political party, which was the predecessor of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). He began to work as a distributor of the Azadiya Welat newspaper. From that moment on, the pressure, torture, detentions and even arrests against our family began,” she said. Since the newspaper was published daily, her husband went to distribute it every day and the police raided the house nearly as often so that their home almost turned into a police station.”

Şemsiye Bağdu

“During this period, I was arrested twice along with my husband, and even imprisoned for a short while. In the same period, my son was also arrested” said Bağdu and added that “the reason for these detentions and arrests was the fact that Azadiya Welat was a Kurdish daily newspaper.” Kadri Bağdu continued to distribute the newspaper for 17 years and did not quit his job “because he had faith,” his wife Şemsiye Bağdu said.

“He was held responsible for the Kobane protests, after testifying he was murdered by ISIS”

One week before he was killed, Kadri Bağdu was called from the police station close to their home and summoned for a statement. His wife did not hear from him for seven hours and after the statement they learned that he had been under technical surveillance. Şemsiye Bağdu explained that “He told us that he had been shown a number of photographs taken during the technical surveillance. At that time, he seemed pensive. As if the detentions were not enough, he was now under technical surveillance as if he had committed a crime. One week later, he was murdered.” 

Describing the process in which her husband was killed, Bağdu said, “The period when Kadri was called to the police station, coincided with the siege of Kobane. During that period, some protests were held by people who did not remain silent towards the incidents taking place in Kobane. The security forces approached my husband in a manner of holding him responsible for these protests. One week after he testified, he was murdered by ISIS members. My son received a message via Facebook, by someone who said he felt remorse and had crossed the border. This person openly confessed when, where and how he had killed my husband. Although seven years have passed, no proper investigation has been carried out. We want the perpetrators to be revealed.”

“The murder case of my husband has not been solved because he was Kurdish ”

“We believe that the newspaper was under scrutiny because it was published in Kurdish. My husband and his friends were oppressed because they were Kurdish. And because my husband was Kurdish, his murder case is not solved,” said Şemsiye Bağdu and added that although they had a video with a confession and sent it to the police, the file has not been investigated. She continued like this: “Our struggle has been going on for seven years without results. We will take this case to the European Court of Human Rights. I will not give up on the case of my husband. Both of my hands are around the neck of the state, even around its throat.” 

Bağdu recalled that her husband did not advocate violence but was a peace-loving person: “He was a human rights defender. He wanted all peoples to live together, in peace. They riddled someone like him with six bullets.” She ended her account by emphasizing: “We want the war in this region to end. We want no one to die, neither the soldiers nor the police nor those in the mountains.” 

Moderator Korur Financı took the floor again after Bağdu, and thanked her. Korur Fincancı came back to the story of forced migration that Bağdu talked about and added: “The forced displacements that started in these lands in early 1980s brought about serious damages. They still continue. Forced displacements, forced disappearances, unsolved murders… All are closely related.”

Korur Fincancı drew specific attention to how human rights defenders became targets and recalled how the shared experience of enforced disappearances brought into our lives a new form of struggle led by women, namely the Saturday mothers. She then introduced the next speaker: “The struggles of the Saturday Mothers emerged out of the need to speak with a louder voice. Sebla Arcan, the spokesperson of the Saturday Mothers, who have been active in the struggle since 1995, will tell us about the extent of the forced disappearances and the importance of pursuing truth and calling for justice.”

“Language of pain and resistance is the same all over the world”

Sebla Arcan, the spokesperson of the Saturday Mothers, began by emphasizing that she had the same feeling listening to Lana Estemirova and Şemsiye Bağdu; as she listened to the families and close ones of those forcibly disappeared in Plaza de Mayo, Chile and Iran. She added that “The language of pain and resistance really is the same all over the world.” Arcan stated that she has been working as a human rights defender on the issue of enforced disappearances for 25 years and explained that this practice is a reality that has been passed on from the Ottoman Empire to the Republic. It became more systematic and well-known in the 1990s, “nevertheless, before and after September 12 [date of the 1980 Turkish coup d’état] many people disappeared in custody” explained Arcan. 

“The crime of enforced disappearances occurred in İstanbul for the first time”

Arcan said, by virtue of the movie Missing that she watched in 1986, she realized that the practice of disappearance under custody was a specific strategy, and that there were many examples for this method in the world, which, according to the movie, started in Nazi Germany. Yet, Arcan explained that this is not true but that “The place where this crime against humanity was first committed, is Istanbul. When we mention April 24, 1915, a date related to Armenian Genocide comes to the minds of many; however, that day was the beginning of a process during which 250 Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul were detained from their homes, 174 of whom never returned home again.” 

“Why do states resort to the crime of enforced disappearances?” Arcan asked and answered the question as follows: “This method is different from other political murders. Disappearance in custody is not only a crime against that person, but a crime against anyone who is not in power. This uncertainty may cause backing off, silence and acceptance among the public. Disappearance in custody is always accompanied by denial and impunity. It is the situation in which a person is detained, kidnapped and deprived of their liberty by the security forces of the state or forces affiliated with them, the state denies this situation and the fate of the detained person is not disclosed.”

“The disappearance of Hasan Ocak marked a turning point”

According to Arcan, the number of  applications made to the HRA were close to 500, yet she also mentioned that this number may not be completely accurate. “One member of the Bulut family from Lice had disappeared. Four more family members who struggled to find this person disappeared too,” recounted Arcan. She stated that in the 1990s a total of 25 persons disappeared in Istanbul and that the disappearance of Hasan Ocak was a turning point: “After Ocak had disappeared in custody, he was found in the anonymous cemetery. He became the first one whose body was found and whose name was announced to the public by the mainstream media. He didn’t have a belt, he had ink marks on his finger. A typical procedure of police custody. His face was shattered so that he wouldn’t be recognized. When his family asked the Forensics department during their search, they had been told “There is no such a person here.” The commissioner of the Fatih district, where Hasan Ocak had been detained, closed the file stating that “Turkish police does not murder people or commit human rights crimes.” 

“Sitting in Galatasaray was a method to show the state that we do not consent to its violence” 

After the burial of Ocak, relatives of the disappeared and rights defenders started to sit in the Galatasaray Square. Arcan explained: “By sitting in Galatasaray we aimed to bring the fact of the denied disappearance to the public agenda. This was a method for us to show the state that we do not consent to its violence and that we oppose the policy of enforced disappearances. In this process, we aimed to bring forced disappearances on the agenda of Turkey and the global community and we succeeded.” 

Arcan recalled that the famous rock band U2 dedicated an album to another disappeared person, Fehmi Tosun, that Sezen Aksu wrote a song for the Saturday Mothers and that sculptors made sculptures for them. Given these developments, government officials cannot deny the reality any longer. The 170 weeks long lasting sit-in faced an extraordinary level of police violence, in 30 weeks they were subjected to violence, reported Arcan. “They put us in the bus, closed the windows and threw gas into the bus,” she recalled. 

“We returned to Galatasaray to demand Ergenekon defendants be prosecuted for enforced disappearances”

Arcan noted that March 13, 1999 marked the day that their demonstration recessed, which lasted for around 10 years. During this recess, Arcan said, they brought a number of case files to the European Court of Human Rights, most of which resulted with the conviction of Turkey, adding that no progress was made in terms of the country’s domestic law. Recalling the Ergenekon trials of 2009, Arcan stated: “We returned to Galatasaray Square, until it was sieged by the police right before our 700th week. We continued our demonstration before the HRA İstanbul Bureau, and since the pandemic started we organize social media campaigns.” Highlighting the fact that the struggle of Saturday Mothers hindered the state’s practice of enforced disappearances, Arcan said, “After the mothers started sitting in the square, the number of enforced disappearances decreased drastically, and stopped for a while.”

“Plaza de Mayo mothers told us: A case which you give up, is a case lost”

Arcan noted that she had been deeply moved by the speeches delivered by Lana Estemirova and Şemsiye Bağdu, adding that she has learned so much from the families she met with, while working in this field. Lastly she said, “Solidarity is by far the most important thing in this field. When people share their pain and endurance, they will eventually be victorious. I would like to remind everyone the following: Indeed, these crimes go unpunished today, and that we know it is impossible for these crimes to be enlightened and their perpetrators to be properly prosecuted. However, for the sake of justice, we have the obligation to remember and make others remember these crimes. For 30 years, the Plaza de Mayo mothers did this, and they had told us: ‘A case which you give up, is a case lost.’ We will eventually emerge as victorious, as we are the ones siding with the truth and law.”

Moderator Korur Fincancı remarked Arcan’s reference to Costa Gavras’s movie Missing, and affirmed that it had been a milestone for many. Korur Fincancı reminded the audience of Yusuf Bilge Tunç, who was abducted in Ankara August 6, 2019, and said: “Just like the white Toros cars belonging to a while back, he was abducted with a black Transporter car 16 months ago. No word about him since then. Unfortunately, enforced disappearances and unsolved murders do not come to an end. Why not? Because impunity fosters a continuation of these crimes. That is why studies of impunity are highly valuable today, especially Hafıza Merkezi’s project titled Perpetrator not-Unknown.”

“Enforced disappearances depend on ethnic, sociopolitical or racial differences”

Pointing to the value of being together at the same panel with these three powerful women and listening to their stories, Emel Ataktürk said, “No matter where around the world, authoritarian states get involved in very similar practices of impunity when their own security forces, intelligence officials, and paramilitary forces are affiliated with criminal offences.” In addition to noting that countries around the world have commonalities in terms of practices of impunity, Ataktürk, stated that enforced disappearances depend on ethnic, sociopolitical or racial differences; and that they generally target leftist adversaries and Kurds in Turkey; whereas in Russia, Poland and Hungary human rights defenders are being targeted through enforced disappearances.

Remarking and denouncing the eveready argument of presenting enforced disappearances as exceptional which amounts to the disjunction of this practice from the state, Ataktürk said, “This is something we have been saying all along, this practice is very neatly delivered from hand to hand. Although there appears changes in government, state practice remains more or less the same.” Ataktürk also highlighted the importance of defending the right to justice against impunity, which results in the acknowledgment of the pain that victims suffer by public authorities.

“Enforced disappearances clearly demonstrate patterns of state violence”

Ataktürk noted that in 2011, when Hafıza Merkezi was first established, it aimed to contribute to the fields of memorization, impunity and peace through producing analytical information. “We started taking September 12, 1980 as a point of departure in our studies of impunity. We conducted discussions on which field we could conclude the patterns of state violence and approach of the judiciary. We decided that this field could be the field of enforced disappearances” Ataktürk said.

Ataktürk stated that, after putting together the data they obtained, they could clearly see what they already knew. She told the audience that 12 big cases in this field had turned into legal proceedings and added: “These case files involved detailed information on the arbitrary executions, and within which institutions’ scope they were conducted. The indictments pointed to JİTEM very clearly. They described how it was structured, when the Ministry of Interior allowed it to be established and by whom it was managed…”

“We operate with a focus not on results, but on the processes”

Ataktürk stated that most of these cases resulted in acquittal decisions and that only two cases were ongoing. As for the question of why they monitor these proceedings, she said, “We operate with a focus not on results, but on processes.” She added, “For instance, we are indebted to the families of the victims, to provide remedies for their hardships, and to give them strength. Moreover, there is an urgent need to think together the information leaking from each of these proceedings, in conducting studies regarding the ‘truth.’ Legal struggle is a hard one, and we believe that one should focus on the possibilities that it opens up, rather than its limitations.”

Towards the end of the panel Şemsiye Bağdu took the floor once again, and displayed some items belonging to her husband. Among those items were press cards of Kadri Bağdu from when he worked for Özgür Gündem and Azadiya Welat newspapers, a HRA membership card, and his last pack of cigarettes which was in his pocket when he was murdered on his bike delivering newspapers. Lastly, Bağdu took out a photograph of her husband, showed it to the audience, and stated that it was taken when Kadri Bağdu went back to his hometown for the first time after 25 years, as he could not return for a long time following the demolition and evacuation of his village.

Şemsiye Bağdu and journalist Veysi Polat

“This is a collective struggle that brings together everyone striving for justice”

Noting how moved she was by those items shown by Şemsiye Bağdu, Lana Estemirova told the audience about a perfume bottle that she holds on to, as it was the last thing that she spoke with her mother about. Estemirova drew attention the fact that she did not feel desperate as she was relived these traumas and said, “Ratherr, I am in a state of melancholia and solidarity. The day of the murder of my mother, was the day I felt the most supported. This is not only my or Şemsiye’s struggle, this is a collective struggle that brings together everyone striving for justice.”

Moderator Korur Fincancı, who is an expert on forensic medicine, shared her own comments as she closed the panel: “We should not forget that today, law seems as an instrument in the hands of those ruling. Whereas justice is not only something that law delivers us, it also indicates a sense of justice established in the eyes of the society. Therefore, solidarity, which two of our speakers remarked, is highly significant. As we know, although they had died or were acquitted, the masterminds behind the September 12 junta, were already convicted in the eyes of the public. I believe that this note in history, which denounces them as the perpetrators of crimes against humanity, will be of value.”