An İstanbul court has rejected lawyers’ request for the immediate acquittal of 46 defendants who were indicted for participating in a banned 2018 protest by the Saturday Mothers, a group of activists and relatives seeking the whereabouts of loved ones who disappeared while in police custody in Turkey in the 1990s.
An indictment drafted by the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office seeks up to three years in prison for the 46 individuals, including human rights defenders, political activists, journalists and relatives of victims of enforced disappearances, for violating Law No. 2911 on Meetings and Demonstrations by “refusing to disperse despite warnings and the use of force.”
Human Rights Association (İHD) co-chair and lawyer Öztürk Türkdoğan, who spoke first at Thursday’s hearing, requested the immediate acquittal of the defendants, a motion that was rejected by Judge Naim Atam.
Türkdoğan argued that the ban on the 700th vigil was unlawful since it wasn’t announced at least 24 hours before the planned event as Law No. 2911 requires. “Therefore what’s unlawful is using [in the indictment] the expression ‘unlawful meeting’ [to describe the 700th vigil],” he said.
Following the statements of the defendants and their lawyers, the judge announced his interim ruling and adjourned the trial until July 12.
The first hearing took place at the İstanbul 33rd High Criminal Court since it was larger than the courtroom of the İstanbul 21st Penal Court of First Instance, which had accepted the indictment in November, and saw the participation of representatives from the Saturday Mothers as well as opposition politicians.
Among those who attended Thursday’s hearing were main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP)’s İstanbul branch chair Canan Kaftancıoğlu and lawmakers Ali Şeker and Turan Aydoğan, in addition to Oya Ersoy, Züleyha Gülüm, Musa Piroğlu and Dilşat Kaya, MPs from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP), and independent deputy Ahmet Şık.
The Saturday Mothers, who first gathered on May 27, 1995 in Galatasaray Square on İstanbul’s İstiklal Street and have continued meeting there every Saturday for a silent protest since then, has staged the longest-running protest Turkey has ever witnessed.
The vigils, which saw the participation of larger numbers of people on landmark dates such as the 500th and 600th weeks, had been held peacefully without any restrictions by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government until the 700th week.
Forty-seven individuals, including a minor, were briefly detained for participating in the 700th vigil on Aug. 25, 2018, which was banned by the Beyoğlu district governor. The detentions were carried out after police officers told the large, peaceful crowd of protestors to disperse and intervened using excessive force including tear gas, water cannons and plastic bullets against the women.
Two days after the incident, Turkey’s Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu justified the use of force by the police on the grounds that the mothers were “being exploited by terrorist organizations” that were “using the concept of motherhood to create victimization, masking terrorism and polarizing society.”
Since the 700th gathering, the group has been holding their demonstrations in front of the İHD’s İstanbul office. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, they started to hold their vigils online last year.