In Turkey, Mothers’ Quest For Justice Exposes Political Hypocrisy

Mothers in Istanbul and Diyarbakir fight for their sons, either to find them or to release them from prison after unjust conviction. The ruling party’s selective approach exposes deep moral flaws.

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Mothers of young boys who were believed to be taken by PKK to mountains protest in front of Kurdish HDP party in Diyarbakir. (Photo Credit: D Agency)

In Diyarbakir, the heartland of Turkey’s restive Kurdish population, a group of mothers’ weekslong sit-in protest in front of the pro-Kurdish party to demand information regarding whereabouts of their sons believed to be captured by the outlawed PKK has generated an ongoing political controversy. It galvanized the public and whipped up remarkable support for the mothers at the national level.

The protest in Diyarbakir is, by nature, of an awkward type from numerous angles, but grasping the rationale of choosing the People’s Democracy Party (HDP) as the responsible actor expected to resolve the riddle of mysterious disappearances of several high school students is the most difficult part of any effort to make sense of the entire drama. Why the HDP? Is the party’s regional headquarters in Diyarbakir an office of finding missing persons?

Certainly, the issue is more complicated than it seems. Why does a government minister embarrass herself by shedding tears in front of HDP in supposed solidarity with grieving mothers? If the sons of mothers are captured by the PKK, as the government and its media claim, why does an Interior Minister (Suleyman Soylu) visit a sit-in protest instead of doing his job — trying to locate the missing children? Isn’t it his and his government’s responsibility to find them? To shifting the onus on the HDP, just because it shares some ideological, if not completely organizational and structural, roots with the militant group is entirely misleading.

Whatever the public perception may be about the HDP regarding its leading role on the political front within the context of the intractable Kurdish question, the party is not the address where mothers, and a large group of Turkish celebrities and media outlets, can vent their outrage and frustration for the lost children.

That said, the whole drama playing out in Diyarbakir is less a tragedy than a farce marked by the most naked display of hypocrisy, public manipulation and political grandstanding. There is ample reason to be suspicious and skeptical about the motives of the government in the Diyarbakir chapter. Does the pro-government media tell the truth about what really happened and who was responsible for this scandal?

According to a commentator, the government is launching a psychological campaign against the HDP and seeks to associate it with the PKK in the eyes of the public for a possible move to shut down the party in the months to come. The precursors and signs of such an intention have been in place for some time as authorities removed mayors of three Kurdish cities in August, negating the result of a democratic election held in March. The August removals meant the blatant disregard of the people’s will, which manifested itself by electing the mayors they wanted, registering their disapproval of the outside intervention in the democratic process. Following the 2016 coup, the Turkish government dismissed mayors of more than 100 Kurdish-run municipalities. The majority of mayoral posts were regained by the HDP in the March election. But that electoral victory is now being reversed by authorities in a piecemeal fashion.

Unlike previous takeovers in 2016, the August move stirred up a public backlash and the opposition coalesced around the HDP this time. The recent government-backed protest in Diyarbakir, some journalists argue, aims to isolate the HDP and divide up that solidarity among the opposition parties. One month ago, the HDP was a victim, now it is presented (by national media) as a villain.

In Istanbul, Mothers’ Call For Justice Is Ignored

Apart from political implications, there is a moral dimension to the story as well. The most important aspect of the latest solidarity act with Diyarbakir mothers is the government’s undeniable hypocrisy at play. The sudden political fondness and pompous flattery for mothers become all the more self-contradictory and insincere when someone remembers how anti-riot police violently broke up a peaceful protest of Saturday Mothers (in their 70s and 80s) during International Women’s Day this year. Interior Minister Soylu even insulted them with incendiary rhetoric when Saturday Mothers demanded an answer from authorities about their sons missing for decades.

But the stark contrast between the government’s dedicated sponsorship of the Diyarbakir protest and its rebuttal of other cases came to public spotlight once again when a group of mothers, whose sons — Air Force Academy cadets — are currently serving life sentences in prison on the charge of involvement in the 2016 coup, gathered in front of Istanbul AKP headquarters. For them, and for many people of conscience, the aggravated life sentences handed to cadets and soldiers who only followed orders on the coup day were nothing other than a miscarriage of justice. The majority of them had nothing to do with the violent episodes of the putsch as they immediately surrendered themselves to police and the pro-government protesters the moment they realized that there was a coup attempt taking place.

The mothers’ plight, although not covered by national media, is not unknown to people on social media. Yet their demand for justice is systematically ignored by media and unheeded by authorities.

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Families of cadets come to the Istanbul Caglayan Courthouse for a protest after police removed from AKP Istanbul headquarters. Photo Credit: Ahval

On Monday, the mothers understandably expressed their dismay over the media’s blind spot on their struggle. If authorities are sincere in their display of sympathy to the cause of the mothers in Diyarbakir, the mothers of cadets insist that they deserve audience and media coverage, too. But, from what we observed in the past three years, it can be said that their sustained struggle only has moved attentive people on social media, while the entire mainstream media remained largely indifferent and unmoved.

When families went into AKP (the Justice and Development Party) Istanbul headquarters to demand justice for their sons, the official reaction was completely different. At first, police allowed them to protest, but then demanded their leave when media showed interest in their short-lived gathering.

In remarks to Ahval, Ayten Gulesci lamented that none of the authorities pay attention to their plea. “Everybody tells us that “We know that your children are innocent,” but nobody does anything. We want them [authorities] to do something.”

Mahmure Dereli was no less indignant and resentful. She is upset by the fact that while many generals managed to get lenient sentences, their sons, as if they planned and orchestrated the coup, bore the brunt of the post-coup punishments. At least 259, including three female, cadets have been sentenced to life in prison.

The situation of cadets touched the public’s conscience and aroused significant sympathy on many quarters of the political spectrum. Both the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu and Good (IYI) Party leader Meral Aksener assert that the young cadets and conscripts had no leading role in the coup and they should be released without further delay. Their call resonates across the society, if not among authorities.

As more and more people grow attuned to their protest on social media, the governor’s offices in Istanbul and Ankara imposed a protest ban on Tuesday to render their struggle ineffective.

Politicized Celebrities and Selective Form of Solidarity

If authorities have no scruples in unabashedly double-dealing of two cases, what about the Turkish celebrity community who, at the behest of Ibrahim Kalin, the presidential spokesman, hustled to the HDP office in Diyarbakir? A makeshift coalition of diverse stars, celebrities, artists and musicians seem to be driven less by a shared cause than an acute sense of opportunism and pragmatism in their craving for the approval of a government whose benevolence and good graces are as important and indispensable as their image to be cherished and respected by the public.

In his veiled criticism of the folk singer Yavuz Bingol, HDP lawmaker Veli Sacilik insinuated that the gambling debt would make someone (Bingol) do politics. Bingol, a late Erdogan supporter, lost many friends in Turkey’s music industry and on the left after his (commercially-driven) conversion to Erdogan’s fold. He, like many others in the Diyarbakir sit-in protest, has become a regular presence in many events organized and hosted by the Turkish president.

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Turkey’s leading celebrity figures heeded the call-to-arms by presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin to stand in solidarity with mothers protesting in front of HDP in Diyarbakir.

The celebrities of the president’s court are loosely connected to each other as many come from very different quarters of the political and social spectrum. The odd nature of their conviviality and gatherings are defined more by personal interests than a fixed ideological affiliation. A panoramic view of the past several years regarding what kind of celebrities attended Erdogan-led social events attests to this fact.

If any of those celebrities have the slightest hint of empathy and genuine care, then, as critics reason, they should display it for purge victims and mothers of cadets as well. But it is most unlikely. According to media and the government, they are not worthy of compassion. It has even become a taboo in the society to talk about the plight of KHK people ( who are dismissed by government decrees during the emergency rule). It is a political minefield that any mindful journalist and politician should pay extra attention not to cross, or face the risk of losing their profession as well as freedom.

The government has, for its part, done everything possible to choke the space for civil society, which could otherwise have been an effective organizing ground for a lasting and sustained resistance against rights violations both during the emergency rule and in its aftermath. The fight against the indiscriminate purge and post-coup persecution consequentially became a preserve mostly for the victims while the rights groups, exhausted by the government’s unrelenting crackdown, appear impotent and woefully disorganized. What amplifies the burden of purge victims is the breakdown of social fabric after the coup, as fear and mutual mistrust are woven to the physique of the society. To make matters worse, an entrenched political tribalism and clan mindset in matters of compassion leave victims of post-coup repression to their own fate, mostly devoid of outside help and empathy.

The story of mothers of cadets is a moving example of this social isolation. They are working hard to make their voices heard by society, by the government and outside world. Only occasionally, some media outlets accord a passing mention to their lonely but righteous cause. In most cases, a persistent media blackout condemn them into oblivion.

In conclusion, there is nothing wrong to pay close attention to the plight of Diyarbakir mothers. In fact, the matter about the PKK’s urban machinations to lure, or even forcefully abduct, young Kurds to enlist them for its (sometimes) shrinking mountain cadres is largely gone understudied and it warrants much more comprehensive scrutiny than the cursory attention the media currently accords to the story. But how media deals with the case gives little hope for the conduct of such a wide-ranging inquiry into historical precedents and current contours of the PKK’s urban recruitment strategies. The problem with the Diyarbakir protest, for this reason, is not whether media adequately examines the PKK’s social reach among the disgruntled Kurdish youth or not, but how much authorities politically exploit the matter to advance their interests.

In this context, the Diyarbakir protest lays bare the naked contradictions rooted in the government’s different approaches to mothers’ struggles (for their sons) in Istanbul and Diyarbakir. The ruling party’s own political interests to discredit and vilify the pro-Kurdish party made the Diyarbakir mothers’ case amenable to its constituency and the wider public while the Istanbul mothers’ plea was outright dismissed.

One cannot fail to ascertain the existence of a double standard by looking nowhere other than Ankara where police blocked the peaceful protest of Melek Cetinkaya whose son — a young cadet — serves a life sentence in jail. Encouraged by the Diyarbakir mothers’ protest, she appeared in Kizilay at the weekend and on Tuesday to demand her son’s release. But anti-riot police did not allow her to display a banner of his son even for a few minutes and abruptly detained her. When she walked away in front of the attentive gaze of cameramen and journalists, she chided current Defense Minister Hulusi Akar (the commander of the Turkish military during the abortive putsch) for his betrayal of cadets, and lashed out at the apparent legal travesty in post-coup trials.

Demanding justice for cadets in Turkey’s repressive environment is off-limits. The fact that they had no active involvement in the coup, the fact that they only followed orders and the fact that they were duped by their commanders on the pretext of a military exercise matter little here. By their political and military leaders, the young cadets have been condemned into a sort of protracted death in prison cells. While they serve their time (a life sentence) in jail, their mothers do the same outside.

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