Pınar Selek
Theater of the absurd in Turkey's courts
By Caleb Lauer

ISTANBUL - The Istanbul Palace of Justice is sleek, huge (nine floors high), and built on the round. The new courthouse - said to be Europe's biggest - sits on that continent's side of the city.

Inside the courthouse, past the airport-like security - jackets and belts off, shoes stay on - one stands in a soaring atrium filled with light falling from the glazed ceiling nine storeys overhead; floors of courtrooms rise on either side.

The foreign visitor can expect every courtesy and every assistance. But the loft and elegance of the place seem to bring into even starker relief the impression that a number of people on trial here face dysfunction and absurdity.

On December 13, 2012, a pregnant woman in the gallery of one courtroom stood on tip-toe, waved, and leaned back to show her belly to some of the accused. She pivoted and swayed to find a sightline. Fourteen gendarmes - mostly young conscripts doing their military service - stood shoulder to shoulder along the bar, backs to the gallery, cutting communication between it and their prisoners, though the two groups were just an arm's length apart.

"Five weeks to go," the woman mouthed, patting her belly. Smiling, she flashed an open hand through a sightline.

In the gallery - three short pew benches split by an aisle - four dozen people sat squished together. They craned their necks and ducked their heads. Through the shifting gaps between the shoulders and elbows of the gendarmes they waved, pantomimed, and blew kisses. One baby-faced gendarme was turned outwards, keeping watch. But a young woman had captured most of his sheepish attention; whenever she chanced to glance at him, he quickly dropped his gaze.

Both the gendarme and the young woman looked about 20 years old. This trial began before they started high school. If the pregnant woman had given birth when the accused were first arrested, that child today would be in the middle of first grade.

One of the accused was journalist Fusun Erdogan, detained - but not yet convicted - since September 2006. Like her two dozen co-defendants, Erdogan is accused of belonging to the illegal Marxist-Leninist Communist Party, known by its Turkish initials as the MLKP. She faces life imprisonment. The charge is not complex, nor is the evidence exceedingly voluminous - the main exhibit is a document prosecutors say is a MLKP roster; defense lawyers say it's fake.

Erdogan is being persecuted for her journalism, she says, a claim supported by the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the France-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The Journalists' Union of Turkey says more than 70 journalists are currently detained without conviction; many have been in jail for more than a thousand days. After more than 2,300 days and 17 hearings, Fusun Erdogan's (and her co-defendants') detention continues.

"There is concern that arrests and long pre-trial detentions without conviction are used as a form of intimidation," the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe wrote about Turkey in April 2012. The CPJ identified Turkey as the 2012 world-beater in jailing journalists.

The packed gallery paid little attention to the proceedings. They had come to visit. People waited out in the main corridor behind a turnstile. One by one they were let through as others left and seats became free. But rather than rotating out to free-up more seats, many in the gallery squeezed empty spaces from the pews by cramming closer.

A woman asked what language I was writing in; it was not an intrusion as my notebook was practically on her lap. "Get out!" a new arrival hissed to the gallery - family members were waiting, she implored - "Get out!" The bailiff eventually intervened.

Please, he said quietly as the proceedings continued behind him, stop squishing together, leave during recess and give others a chance, it's the only way. A pew that had been full with five people now held nine; everyone pretended - for the bailiff's sake - to be comfortable.

Then the gendarmes changed shifts and the wall of green fatigues disassembled, and before the replacements reassembled, for what must have been too brief a moment, the courtroom was like the arrivals hall at a silent airport.

During a recess, hundreds of people milled about the main corridor or leaned against the railing overlooking the atrium. The crowd was full of well-known activists; Lesbian, gay and bisexual, Kurdish, Armenian, socialist, and other struggles were all represented.

One man with a long white beard paced and clutched to his chest Hasan Cemal's latest book 1915: The Armenian Genocide. (Cemal, a columnist, promotes awareness of the Armenian Genocide though he is the grandson of Cemal Pasha, a member of the Ottoman triumvirate allegedly responsible for the genocide. Oddly enough, the other two, Enver Pasha and Talat Pasha, are buried just outside the courthouse.)

Bedri Adanir, a Kurdish journalist who had been in the gallery, was buoyed by the crowded support for Erdogan. Adanir had himself just left jail. Convicted of belonging to the illegal Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which he denies, he served three years of a six-year sentence. Like Erdogan, Adanir was targeted for his journalism, the CPJ and RSF say. While in prison Adanir and Erdogan wrote letters to each other. They have not yet properly met, but that day, for the first time, they were able to exchange waves.

However, the crowd had not, in fact, come for Erdogan's trial but for Pinar Selek's, happening the same day in another courtroom off the same corridor. One might understand if Adanir was slightly dismayed. After all, Erdogan and her co-defendants have been in prison without conviction for more than six years, more or less forgotten by the public, while Pinar Selek, whose local and international supporters crowd courthouse halls and issue multilingual press releases, is being tried in absentia, and lately enduring it in some comfort, exiled at the University of Strasbourg in France where she is completing a doctorate.

However, Adanir is the first to say that begrudging Selek would be unconscionable.

On July 9, 1998, an explosion at the Spice Bazaar in central Istanbul killed seven people and injured more than 100. Two days later, Pinar Selek was arrested on charges unrelated to the explosion - she was accused, like Adanir would be a decade later, of being a PKK member. While in custody, she was tortured by strappado (hands tied behind the back and the body suspended in the air by a rope attached to the wrists) and electricity.

A few weeks after Selek had been taken into custody, a man was arrested and confessed that he and Selek had planted the Spice Bazaar bomb.

However, state and academic experts had concluded, independently, that the Spice Bazaar explosion was most likely a tragic accident - it seemed a tank of cooking fuel had blown-up, not a bomb. The man who had confessed told the court he had been tortured into the false statement and had never known Pinar Selek. Selek was released in December 2000 pending trial; in 2006 she was acquitted.

But the prosecutor appealed and the acquittal was overturned. In 2009, the lower court acquitted Selek again. In 2010, the appeals court ordered a retrial. The lower court refused and confirmed Selek's acquittal. But then in November 2012, the lower court accepted the demand and proceeded with a retrial.

In other words, prosecutors insisted, over and over, that Pinar Selek was guilty of a crime that court experts doubt happened and for which she was repeatedly acquitted. Further, the basis of her presumed guilt is a confession the court found false, extracted by torture from a man who never knew the accused, and who was himself acquitted.

No one can explain why this is happening. One supporter who was outside the courtroom, Oner Ceylan, believes Pinar Selek is being persecuted for her work in the 1990s. Ceylan mentioned Selek's research on Ulker Street in Istanbul where many transgender women lived but were forced out.

Selek was also researching the Kurdish insurgency in the 1990s when she was arrested, Ceylan said. She had opened an art workshop for street children, and she had written about sex workers. Most commentators say Selek's research and writing on marginal groups, especially Kurds, in the 1990s had made her a target.

But nobody has a good explanation why, for almost 15 years, the state has persisted in what seems an illogical prosecution.

"I can't find any legal or lawful reason why a conviction of Pinar Selek is desired so insistently," Akin Atalay, one of Selek's lawyers, wrote in an email. "By bending the rules of logic, reasoning, and law - most of the time clearly violating them - and by covering up facts, it is clear this desire to convict comes from a place beyond law and justice. But whether the reason is political, social, or personal is impossible to know."

Pinar Selek's trial continued on January 24, 2013. That day, in the hall overlooking the atrium, lawyers told supporters it was "99%" certain the court was about to sentence Pinar Selek to life imprisonment.

The late afternoon crowd waited for the decision, chatting in Turkish, French, German, and English. The courtroom was larger than where Erdogan was tried, but with the same wood-paneling decor. Three judges sat on the bench. Behind them a stylized image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, hung on the wall with his words emblazoned: "Justice is the Basis of Property". The prosecutor sat elevated in his own box to the judges' right. In the well, the clerk worked behind two computer screens. Forty lawyers for the accused sat past the bar.

A judge read the majority decision in a faint, high-pitched voice. Reporters scribbled then turned for the doors the moment they heard Pinar Selek's life sentence and arrest order; they headed downstairs, across the now darkened atrium, to the square outside where cameras were lit and running and where supporters, who had skipped the verdict delivery, now prepared their protest. A gay pride flag flew; Kurdish ululations rose over the crowd. They shouted slogans in Turkish, French, and English.
"We cannot explain this decision in legal terms," said lawyer Ceren Akkaya. "But it was clear after the last hearing that this would be the decision."

The decision was two to one; the president of the court - the only judge to have been on the case from the beginning - wrote a dissenting opinion citing the lack of evidence.

Pinar Selek's lawyers have begun the appeal process. The Supreme Court of Appeals will hear the appeal and if that court confirms the conviction the decision will be final. "We see this as most likely," Atalay said.

In the end, Erdogan, Selek and their co-defendants will have recourse to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). On the same day that Pinar Selek was sentenced, Dean Spielmann, president of the ECHR, delivered the court's annual report, which shows that 65% of all judgements against Turkey in 2012 involved a violation of the right to a fair trial. Both the ratio and the real number (80) are the highest of any country.

Erdogan's trial continues March 12, 2013.

Caleb Lauer is a Canadian freelance journalist living in Istanbul and covering Turkey since 2006.

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