Turkey's "Saturday Mothers" on trial for protesting against disappearances

Daren Butler
·2-min read
FILE PHOTO: Plainclothes police officers detain a demonstrator as they prevent Saturday Mothers' 700th gathering in central Istanbul

By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Members of the "Saturday Mothers" group, relatives of the victims of enforced disappearances in Turkey, went on trial on Thursday on a charge of refusing to disperse despite police warnings during a 2018 protest in Istanbul.

The case again focuses attention on Turkey's human rights record after President Tayyip Erdogan vowed this month to boost rights to a fair trial and freedom of expression - an initiative which critics dismissed as at odds with reality.

The Saturday Mothers have held weekly vigils in a central Istanbul square since 1995, seeking justice for relatives who in the 1980s and 90s were kidnapped or detained without a record by individuals presumed to be state agents, and never seen again.

The 46 on trial include members of the group as well as rights campaigners, journalists and other protesters, both men and women. They face up to three years in jail.

"That square is the burial place where we leave carnations for our loved ones who have no graves," Jiyan Tosun, who is among those in the dock and whose father was abducted in 1995, said outside the courthouse amid supporters of the defendants.

"It should not be us who are tried, but those who made our children, brothers and sisters disappear," she told reporters before the hearing.

The court began hearing defence statements after the judge refused an initial request to acquit the defendants, media reports said.

The trial was launched over protesters' refusal to disperse at their 700th vigil in 2018, which authorities had banned. Rights groups said police used excessive force with water cannon and tear gas to disperse and detain those on trial.

The police intervention occurred at the time of a sustained crackdown on civil dissent in the wake of a 2016 attempted coup.

The prosecution is part of "a relentless crackdown on civil society, human rights defenders and those who peacefully express their dissent in Turkey", Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Front Line Defenders said in a joint statement.

There were hundreds of disappearances and extrajudicial killings at the height of Turkey's conflict with Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants in the 1990s, mostly in the Kurdish southeast, rights groups' figures show.

Parliamentary inquiries into the issue have not resulted in anyone being held accountable.

Since Erdogan unveiled a "human rights action plan" on March 2, Turkey has pulled out of an international accord to protect women and a prosecutor has sought to ban parliament's third largest party - the pro-Kurdish HDP.

The government says the judiciary is independent and the presidency said the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention did not mean Turkey was comprising the protection of women.

(Reporting by Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans and Alison Williams)