Defending human rights in Turkey as a way of life: Eren Keskin

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Alin Ozinian

The Turkish government is continuing to target and punish journalists and human rights defenders in the country. The latest attempt was on Monday, when a court handed down suspended sentences to four journalists and human rights activists who were tried on charges of “terrorism” for guest-editing the Özgür Gündem daily, a now-defunct newspaper that had focused on Kurdish issues.

Lawyer and human rights activist Eren Keskin, the daily’s co-editor-in-chief, was given a suspended sentence of six years, three months on charges of “terrorist organization membership.” Lawyers for the defendants and human rights defenders in the country describe the verdict as politically motivated.

“I was not an active editor-in-chief of the newspaper. Between 2013 and 2016, we included my name as editor-in-chief on the masthead of Özgür Gündem — it was a sign of solidarity with the newspaper. They have filed 143 suits against me for this solidarity in recent years. I have defended human rights for 30 years in Turkey, and I have never supported any armed struggle,” Keskin told Turkish Minute in a phone interview.

In August 2016 the court ordered the interim closure of Özgür Gündem for alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and for spreading “terrorist propaganda.” The daily was eventually shut down by an emergency decree-law, one of more than 130 media outlets shuttered by the government in the aftermath of a failed coup in July 2016.

Keskin has stood trial and been jailed many times for her views, but she never gave up. According to her, the verdicts were always political, but this time the punishment was more severe than in other similar cases. “They have judged me before, imprisoned me for my thoughts. However, for the first time I have been considered a member of an ‘armed organization’ and have been convicted. The only weapons I have seen in my life are police guns. There is life also in prison, and I have nothing to fear,” Keskin said.

“Editors-in-chief on duty” for Özgür Gündem was an act of solidarity from May to August 2016. Fifty-six prominent journalists and activists acted as ‘editors,’ and the campaign drew attention to the Turkish authorities’ long-standing attempts to put pressure on the publication. Immediately afterward, Turkish prosecutors launched investigations into 50 of the 56 editors.

The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) authoritarianism was consolidated following a 2016 coup attempt that triggered a dramatic crackdown on opponents. Constitutional amendments adopted in 2017 concentrated power in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has run the country since 2003. Critics say Erdoğan has been eroding the independence of the courts and the media since 2016. However, Turkish officials say the courts are independent and that arrests are a response to serious security risks.

A well-known human rights activist, Keskin has dedicated her life to defending the rights of minorities, women, the LGBTI+ community, political prisoners and many others in Turkey. She has fought for fundamental rights and has been a symbol of the struggle for democracy and equality since the early 1990s.

Eren was born in Bursa, a city in northwestern Turkey, in 1959. She graduated from Istanbul University’s law faculty and has practiced law since 1984. Keskin has also played a significant role in the establishment and strengthening of civil society in Turkey. In her early career as a lawyer, she became involved with Turkey’s Human Rights Association (İHD), the first nongovernmental organization established after a military coup in 1980. Today the IHD is a prominent rights organization and is frequently targeted by the AKP government as a “terrorism-supporting” organization.

Keskin served as president of the IHD’s Istanbul branch for years. She is also a founding member of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV), a well-known organization providing treatment and rehabilitation for torture survivors, and the Foundation for Society and Legal Studies (TOHAV), which investigates human rights violations in the country.

“My university was under fascist occupation during the 1980s – the military coup period headed by Chief of General Staff Gen. Kenan Evren. We suffered a lot, and because of the political upheaval we weren’t even able to attend classes. Many leftists were executed after the coup. It was a turning point for me, and during that repressive period the human rights field fascinated me more than politics,” said Keskin.

Although the 1980 coup itself was bloodless, at least 50 people were later executed and some half a million were detained. Many were tortured and hundreds died in custody. Political life was at a standstill for three years, and many civil liberties were suspended.

Keskin was 13 years old when she learned about her parents’ Kurdish ethnic identity and other family “secrets.”

“My generation grew up under an official state ideology and false history. I was a leftist in high school and read a book about 1915, when I didn’t even know it was a genocide,” she said.

“My uncle married an Armenian woman named Josephine. My grandfather, who was also a lawyer, asked her to take a Turkish name – Hülya — and convert to Islam. One day I asked Josephine that what happened to her family during the Armenian genocide. She cried and told me her story but advised me not to share it with the rest of the family. After all this, I was further drawn to the human rights struggle.”

In 1995 Keskin was convicted for using the word “Kurdistan” in a newspaper article. She spent six months in prison and met many women who were systematically subjected to strip searches, sexual assaults and rapes in detention. After her release she co-founded the “Legal Aid for Women Who Were Raped or Otherwise Sexually Abused by National Security Forces” project to expose the abuse of women in detention.

She received many threats, especially in the 1990s, when the Kurdish issue started to be discussed publicly in Turkey. She survived two armed attacks, in 1996 and 2001. At that time, she was also targeted by the mainstream Turkish media because of her pro-Kurdish speeches. The Istanbul Bar Association withdrew her license for a year and she was ostracized by her colleagues because she continued to use the word “Kurdistan” in her columns.

Keskin, one of the activists who organized the Armenian genocide commemoration on April 24 in Istanbul, thinks opposing the official state ideology is a tough job in Turkey.

“I was barred from practicing law for a year, but I never gave up. Now it’s no longer a crime, everyone can say ‘Kurdistan’ in their articles or speeches. Human rights defenders suffered greatly, but it seems at least something has changed in Turkey,” she added.

According to Keskin the Turkish state constantly shifts and changes its policies, but human rights defenders are a constant in terms of their demands. “From time to time, the state softens or hardens its policy towards Kurds, women or LGBTI, but we always stand in the same place and demand the same thing: democracy and equality. However, when they change their policies, all of a sudden we become terrorists.”

Among several international and local prizes, Keskin in 2017 received the International Hrant Dink Award, which is presented annually to people who work for a world free of discrimination, racism and violence, take personal risks for their ideals and use the language of peace.

“The most precious moments of my life are receiving the Hrant Dink award and the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. Sometimes I think to myself — yes, they punished me, they sent me to prison, but others are rewarding me. Those awards give me the power of endurance.”

Within the context of the worsening human rights situation in Turkey, Keskin is once again a target of the state. Despite everything, Keskin refuses to be intimidated and insists even under the most difficult and life-threatening conditions, she will stand for equal rights and freedoms for all.

“We are facing a state founded upon a genocidal ideology. Trying to change this militaristic and male-dominated feudal structure is very difficult and dangerous. I always think that courage protects us the most. When you are courageous, even if they view you as an enemy, they respect you.” said Keskin.

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