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UN special rapporteur calls on Turkey to drop charges against Saturday Mothers

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Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, has called on Turkey to drop charges against 14 members of the Saturday Mothers, a group of activists and relatives seeking the fate of loved ones who disappeared while in police custody in Turkey in the 1990s, the Voice of America Turkish service reported on Thursday.

The group had gathered at a cemetery for orphans in the Altınşehir neighborhood of İstanbul to make a press statement on Aug. 30, 2022, on the occasion of the International Day of the Disappeared.

The participants were met by the police at the entrance to the cemetery, making it impossible for them to issue their press statement. When the protestors refused to leave the area, the police used force to disperse them and detained 14 people including some mothers whose children were victims of the enforced disappearances as well as human rights activists.

Although the detainees were initially released after police questioning, they were detained again on the order of a prosecutor. They were later indicted for violating Law No. 2911 on Meetings and Demonstrations by “refusing to disperse despite warnings and the use of force.”

In a tweet she posted on the day of the protestors’ first hearing at the Küçükçekmece 1st Criminal Court of First Instance on Thursday, Lawlor urged Turkey to drop the charges against the group.

“Gathering peacefully to honor and remember disappeared relatives is not a crime. To disappear people is. Today’s trial against Saturday Mothers/People is the latest evidence of the persecution faced by [human rights defenders] in Turkey,” Lawlor said.

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 week, had been held peacefully without any restrictions by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government until the 700th week in 2018, when dozens of protestors were detained after police used force to break up the protest.

The trial of the 46 people who were detained during the 700th gathering and are facing charges of “participating in unlawful meetings and marches and refusing to disperse despite warnings and the use of force” is ongoing.

The Constitutional Court ruled on Nov. 16, 2022 that the police intervention in the 700th-week vigil was a violation of the right to freedom of assembly and demonstration.

Since the 700th gathering, the group has been holding their demonstrations in front of the Human Rights Organization’s (İHD) İstanbul office.

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