Flash news last Saturday: the police did not detain any of the Saturday Mothers, who wanted to protest at Galatasaray Square in central Istanbul. Normally it’s news when people are detained, but for the Saturday Mothers, detention has become so normal that not being detained is what actually makes it to the news. And now, the Interior Minister said that the mothers were subject to ‘victimisation’ and that he plans to address the problem. But please, don’t get too excited.
The Saturday Mothers have been protesting every week since 1995 to demand information about what happened to their loved ones who ‘disappeared’ at the hands of the state. They want those who are responsible for the ‘disappearances’ to be brought to justice. Most ‘disappearances’ happened in the 1980s and 1990s in the Kurdish provinces of the country.
I have attended the sit-in protests of the Saturday Mothers several times in the past to make stories about them or just out of solidarity. They are the most peaceful protests you can imagine: the mothers and sympathisers just sit with a portrait of the one they lost in their hands and with flowers, usually a banner on the floor in front of them demanding justice. Police have always been around but at the time didn’t interfere.
Much has changed ever since, especially since the 700th sit-in that was held in August 2018. That gathering was banned by the local governor on the grounds that ‘no notification was made beforehand’. The police attacked the mothers and detained more than twenty people. After a lot of court proceedings, this year in February, the Constitutional Court ruled that the right to demonstration of the Saturday Mothers had been violated.
But Turkey wouldn’t be Turkey if that was the end of the harassment of the peaceful mothers. Since the February ruling, the sit-in has been prevented and attacked every single time. It has become the new normal for the police to block the entrances to the square, even to prevent people from walking in the square’s direction holding flowers and to detain the mothers, their sympathisers and the lawyers standing up for their rights.
Last Saturday, this suddenly changed. The square was still cordoned off, but none of the Saturday Mothers were detained. The latest development is that Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya, under whose authority the police work, said: “What they are experiencing is victimisation. We will find a solution as soon as possible.”
We don’t know yet what he means, of course. Knowing Turkey, he could be meaning that the Saturday Mothers are victims of the PKK, not of the state. That he thinks the ruling of the Constitutional Court should be respected, is possible, but then again, in an unprecedented move, the Court of Appeals filed complaints against judges of the Constitutional Court today for their ruling in another case. That case revolves around Can Atalay, an MP for the small opposition party TIP, who is jailed and whose release was ordered by the Constitutional Court.
The dire situations of both Can Atalay and of the Saturday Mothers are purely political, and we all know that Turkey is seriously backsliding in democratic standards and the rule of law, as also the European Commission found in its latest report. The chance that Minister Yerlikaya will come up with anything more than lip service to the democratic rights of the Saturday Mothers, is extremely small.
And even if he would, what would it really help them? The goal of the Saturday Mothers is not to sit at Galatasaray Square every Saturday and reach a thousand weekly protests. The goal is to get information about what happened to their sons, their husbands, their fathers, their brothers, maybe even find their remains after a thorough investigation into who were buried in the mass graves and anonymous graves that are scattered all over the southeast of the country. The goal is to find those responsible and bring them to court – an independent court over which politics has no say.
Whatever Yerlikaya has in mind, it will not be enough. It wouldn’t even be enough if he went much further and would announce investigations. Why not? Because – and developments in Turkey in the last ten, fifteen years have shown that clearly – progress declared by a political figure without a solid legal foundation, preferably rooted in a new, democratic constitution, mean absolutely nothing and will be disregarded again as soon as they no longer serve a political goal.
The Saturday Mothers know that better than anyone, approaching their 1,000th weekly protest. Let them protest, and let it, please, someday soon lead to answers.