A Female Protester Abused by Police. Turkey Erupted, But Authorities Not.

A police officer’s groping of a female protester caught by a camera. What followed afterward was more disturbing than the act itself.

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College student Merve Demirel.

What is it more disquieting than an abuse, played out in front of whole Turkey, itself?

It is more jarring and distressing when the victim, not the perpetrator of the act — a police officer, was blamed by authorities, Ankara Police Department, for the assault. And Turkey’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu even portrayed Merve Demirel, the victim, as being a project of “terrorism,” dismissing the allegations of the abuse, although the whole incident was captured by cameras, something that has left no room for any doubt.

The tragedy took place in Ankara last week when a group of left-leaning TAYAD members, during a protest, was demanding jobs back for the dismissed public workers. They protested the government’s efforts to stymie and dodge working of a commission entrusted with overseeing the sacked workers’ files and applications. Riot police intervened to disperse the small TAYAD group in Sakarya Street, the usual avenue for protesters in Turkey’s capital. During the intervention, several police officers grabbed Merve Demirel, a 22-year-old college student wearing a headscarf, and forcefully took her into a police van. But while officers forcing Demirel to the van, one police officer was caught by a camera while molesting her.

The shameless groping stirred up a strong public backlash, sparking a deluge of criticism from opposition parties in Parliament to ordinary folk on social media. It even aroused uneasiness and reaction from unlikely quarters, from avowed supporters of the government. No other episode of police brutality or a recent crackdown galvanized the government’s discontents this much given the symbolic, even political, resonance of assaulting a female victim, a headscarf-wearing young student.

“If she were an AKP supporter,” said opposition lawmaker Sezgin Tanrikulu, “[President] Erdogan would have raised hell.” The government, the senior politician fumed, displayed a self-debasing double standard in the face of the assault which rattled the nation.

The senior deputy from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) co-sponsored a move with People’s Democracy Party (HDP) lawmaker Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu for a parliamentary inquiry against the police officer who, to the dismay of the public, was spared by authorities from a potential administrative or legal investigation.

At a press conference in which the victim Demirel appeared alongside with the two lawmakers, the politicians unleashed a scathing criticism of the government’s apparent double standards.

“The detained women suffer some form of sexual abuse in detention. Now, an abuse has first time been documented,” Tanrikulu exclaimed, referring to the camera footage of the police officer’s inappropriate touch.

“Why AKP remains silent regarding the abuse,” he contended, “because it sees it as legitimate.” He reasoned that if Merve turned out to be an AKP supporter, then the president would have wreaked havoc in the country. “[Interior] Minister Soylu must resign,” the CHP lawmaker demanded during his address to a handful of reporters in front of the Ankara Courthouse on Tuesday.

Tanrikulu, a self-proclaimed defender and champion of the purge victims, pleaded action from Emine Erdogan, President Erdogan’s spouse and the country’s First Lady, regarding the incident.

The social media was swept with frenzy after the footage of the assault spread like a wildfire. The reaction was nothing less than a social uproar as people poured their disdain on Twitter against the brazen and shameless behavior of the policeman.

What is more galling was the fact that Ankara Police Department, in its press statement, deflected public criticism by noting that Demirel’s father had been dismissed by the government during the state of emergency over alleged ties to “FETO,” a term used by the government in reference to Gulen Movement, and there was nothing wrong on the part of police officers when they pushed Merve to the vehicle.

When Demirel, along with some leftist elements, resisted against the police, “those unpleasant scenes emerged,” the department said in response to the criticism.

The statement appeared to be bewildering and baffling. As if, many people reasoned on social media, the abuse would be seen acceptable or normal when someone, either herself or a relative, has alleged “FETO” links.

The police explanation was scandalous in its language and deeply flawed in its reasoning. It has generated as much contempt and backlash as someone would imagine, especially when the police bluntly rejected to call what it was — the assault, in plain sight, by a police officer.

“Do you see that how they defend the police abuse? The depth of your disgracefulness…” Professor Haluk Savas, a psychiatrist, fulminated on Twitter.

“As long as the police officer, who sexually assaulted a female protester, is not suspended from duty and prosecuted, nobody should feel secure for himself/herself or for his/her family in Ankara and in Turkey. In this case, it means that a state shields a perpetrator of sexual assault, granting him authority, power and gun,” legal expert Cenk Yigiter said, expressing his bewilderment.

The official response was regarded as granting a broad license to police officers in their dealing with female protesters or detainees if they have, in any form, ties to a movement that was designated outlawed by the authorities.

“If the father’s affiliation is added to a statement on the victim of alleged sexual harassment, you can infer only one thing from this; she deserved it! This statement weighs the same severity with the incident itself,” said Kerem Altiparmak, a law academic who was dismissed during the state of emergency.

Equally important, the macho mindset espoused by the police department stirred up a strong feminist reaction as female writers exhibited their disgust.

“Police Department announced that the father of the woman groped by a police officer during detention was a “Feto” member. This is horrible. They confessed that they assaulted women they jailed on Feto charges, did they mean that they not just abused but also raped them…” Hilal Nesin, a writer, wrote. In another tweet, she wondered what would policemen do to women behind bars if they do this openly in front of the whole public.

Journalist Melis Alphan was as much aghast with the police statement as with the assault itself. “When her father is Feto, does it mean that a sexual assault would be approved to the daughter? And from the police?” she wrote on Twitter.

“Isn’t sexual assault a crime in Turkey? Will the police officer who sexually assault this woman not be tried?” she continued, in a mixed reflection of anger and wonder. She summoned further scrutiny into what she described as hypocrisy and double standard embedded in state mindset regarding morality and law.

The seemingly moral deprivation rooted in the official response was not lost even on journalists affiliated with the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). Cemile Bayraktar, usually known for her supportive views against the crackdown on Gulen Movement, scrambled for a cogent explanation to make sense of the unscrupulous official stance.

The “FETO” remark, the lack of coverage in mainstream media, and the silence of female writers, the writer emphasized, made her feel uneasy and dismayed.

Ankara Police Department’s apparently justifying statement, pro-government journalist Ibrahim Kiras noted, was worrisome more than any other thing regarding the incident.

For television programmer Merdan Yanardag, if the assailant police officer is not suspended and punished, then the crime would taint the entire police department.

Interior Minister Sides With Assailant Police Officer

Amid a deluge of criticism that followed the incident, Interior Minister Soylu swayed the course of the debate and placed the blame on Demirel for being a “project of terrorism” to unfairly taint the integrity of the police force.

The minister’s denialist position went against the grain of public opinion. He not only denied the allegations of the abuse, but also showed no compunction over abiding by the police officer who came under the public spotlight.

His stance did only aggravate public sentiment. Acun Karadag, a purged teacher, asserted that the police was first time caught red-handed. She praised Merve Demirel for her inspiring courage after going public to denounce the assault, instead of retreating to her private domain, something that mostly happens when abuse victims prefer to avoid challenging public spotlight.

Speaking alongside with the two lawmakers this past week in Ankara, the victim Demirel said the shame belongs to the police officer, not to her.

To her, authorities tried to distract public attention from real problems and from the tragic incident befell her by casting the issue within the scope of “terrorism.”

“Daughters, brothers and sisters of some 100,000 dismissed people go out in streets and you will say, without trial process, that you are a member of a terrorist organization,” she told media. “Do not terrorize the matter through my father.”

She was equally defiant in the face of the police statement. The police, she noted, brought her father to the public attention, although there was no court ruling or a final decision by OHAL Commission, which was, according to her, designed to pacify thousands of dismissed public workers.

The veiled woman and her treatment in the not-too-distant past by the secular establishment, be it on a college campus or public service, was a favorite, recurring theme for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to dwell upon whenever possible. He tirelessly used the victimhood narrative regarding headscarf-wearing women’s exclusion from civil service and universities for much of the Republican history, something that still looms large in pious segments’ view of politics in Turkey.

But under the same government, thousands of pious women have become targets of political persecution. They wore, as Merve did, headscarf, too. But this did not spare them from the government’s collective punishment in the aftermath of a failed coup attempt. Merve pointed to this contradictory element entrenched in the government policies.

“For 16 years, there is an AKP government in this country. They structure their discourse through headscarf. It was also AKP which gave a comfortable life to headscarf women after what happened during Feb. 28 [coup in 1997],” she told ARTI TV, an online television portal, in an interview. She offered a sharp contrast between the AKP’s political rhetoric centered around headscarf and its policies targeting some headscarf-wearing women who simply seek to obtain their rights.

What made Demirel’s story all the remarkable was her frankness to refuse conventional labels and political boundaries in her struggle for rights of the purge victims. Merve’s appearance alongside with left-leaning TAYAD members made her a target of the interior minister’s criticism laced with terrorism charges, but did not deter her from her path.

Politically conscious of what her case sparked, she welcomed the public outrage and united response as a gain on behalf of the government discontents for coalescing around a shared goal of defending the rights of victims, either of abuse or the post-coup purge.

“They found a strong public with all different social segments in front of them.”

Written by

Virginia-based journalist and writer. Politics, culture, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, the MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

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