A crowd of people, young and old, is once again filling Taksim Square, the symbol of the Gezi Park revolution and the theater of repression. “Long live our cause and our resistance,” they sang loudly while hoisting signs that read, “We want our work back” and “Illegal government.” Police officers remain on the sidelines, on the edges of the square.
The protest is peaceful but firm. Some display photos of Nuriye Gulmen and Semih Özakça, fired public employees who have become a symbol of the struggle against oppression. “Give him his job back,” they chant. “You are not alone.” Turkey is mobilizing for them. For weeks, spontaneous demonstrations continue in major cities in the country.
Nuriye was a university professor, and Semih taught at an elementary school. Both were dismissed, like 138,147 other officials, teachers and scholars, during the purges initiated by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the failed coup July 15, 2016. The two teachers were among the first to protest, standing on Yuksel, a small street in the center of Ankara, to defend their rights. “Nuriye was arrested 15 times, and 15 times she returned to the streets to demand that the government give her job back,” says the Turkish journalist Günes Seferoglu. On the 60th day of protests, they both began a hunger strike. “At that point they became the symbol of resistance. Their actions gave strength to thousands of others who have begun to follow them to the streets.”
The strong sense of solidarity from the population, however, has sparked harsh government repression. On May 23, Nuriye and Semih were arrested in Ankara on charges of “fomenting chaos.” They continue their hunger strike in prison. Today is the 94th day, and their health conditions are more and more critical. We met with their lawyer Ebru Timtik during the protest in Taksim. “They’re running on water and sugar. Nuriye moves in a wheelchair because she cannot walk anymore, and both are beginning to lose lucidity.”
On June 8, two days before taking to the streets, Ebru, in a small courtroom at the Caglayan courthouse in Istanbul, also reminded the judge the poor health of his clients and attacked the increasing violations of human rights in the country.
But the reasons for gathering in Taksim go beyond Nuriye and Semih’s stories. Ebru is also there to defend herself. In January 2013, she was arrested along with nine other lawyers. The prosecution accused her of being a terrorist for Fethullah Gulen, the imam who, according to Erdogan, devised the coup attempt.
Ebru spent 14 months in jail before she was released. But the trial, which is now in its seventh hearing, seems neverending. As we sat beside Günes in the courtroom, she said, “They try to draw this out any way they can.” The determined tone with which she addresses the judge, who regarded her impassively, caught us off guard: “Stop saying that we are members of terrorist organizations. You all know the truth. The point is that we do not accept fascist attitudes. That is why they arrested us.”
Günes explained the prosecution’s methods: The accusations against Ebru are supported by ghost witnesses no one has ever seen, who, according to the journalist, were forced to give false testimony under threat of torture.
Throughout Turkey almost 3,000 judges, lawyers and prosecutors are in jail; many of them had their licenses revoked. Ebru explained this during a courtroom break. “Most of those who are still sitting in their positions live in fear of losing their jobs or being arrested; for these reasons, they adapt to the government’s regulations.”
The defense attorneys took the floor and attacked the judge with determination. The words were harsh, but the atmosphere was not tense. Four years into the proceedings, everyone knew their roles in the courtroom. The impasse seemed created ad hoc. The repeated delays, the serious accusations, the indifference of the judges, the stagnant bureaucracy that hovers over their actions — it’s all part of a charade meant to keep the wheels spinning and weaken the resolve of the actors in this theater.
Among those observing the proceedings in court were several European lawyers. “We are French, Spanish, Italian, German,” one of them told us. “We have been coming here since the beginning of the trial to support our colleagues and defend, with our presence, fundamental human rights.” We all went back into the courtroom. The judge quickly set another hearing.
We left the court with Ebru. “They call it a courthouse, but they are just stones and pillars,” she lowered her eyes, and, for a moment, the feeling of bitterness takes the upper hand. “I am very concerned about the future of my country, not for me. I’m a fighter. ”
A fighter who has suffered the abuses in the Turkish jails: “They kicked us, they tied us, they threw us on the ground, sitting above us. They even refused to give us a glass of water.” But the prison and torture failed to extinguish Ebru’s determination and hope. Her strength stems from an awareness: “I count on the support of my big family, all my colleagues and clients, like Nuriye and Semih. People who struggle every day for truth, freedom and justice.”