On 12 May 2021 I wrote to the Government of Turkey about my concerns regarding the criminal charges brought against the Saturday Mothers/People (CurmatesiAnneleri/Insanlari). Saturday Mothers/People is a group of human rights defenders who gather every Saturday at noon for half an hour on Galatasaray Square in Istanbul, holding photographs of their loved ones, victims of enforced disappearance or political killings in the 1980s and 1990s. They demand the disclosure of the fate and whereabouts of their relatives and ending impunity for these crimes. The letter was signed by 3 other UN experts.
Galatasaray Square in front of Galatasaray High School in Beyoğlu, Istanbul became a site of memory as the Saturday Mothers/People and Human Rights Association (Insan Haklan Dernegi) Istanbul Branch’s Commission on Enforced Disappearances had been holding sit-in protests there for 700 weeks (26 years) without any interruptions. On 25 August 2019, which marked the 700th vigil, the police dispersed the gathering by force, using tear gas and rubber bullets, and detained 47 protestors. Since that date, the group has been prevented from gathering in Galatasaray Square.
In the communication we expressed concern that the Saturday Mothers/People were being unduly criminalised. We conveyed our particular concern over the alleged excessive use of force by police against 46 participants in the vigils and that Turkey continues to undermine the rights of relatives of the disappeared to truth, justice, reparation and memory.
Additionally, we conveyed our concerns that this case may be representative of a seemingly deliberate and systematic pattern of judicial persecution of human rights defenders in Turkey, as well as what appear to be systematic restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly and to freedom of expression.
This is a shorter version of the original communication.
On 18 November 2020, the Istanbul Penal Court of First Instance charged 46 peaceful protestors, including members of the families of the disappeared, as well as members and executives of the Human Rights Association (Insan Haklan Dernegi) with ‘unarmed participation in an unauthorized assembly and refusal to disperse without warning’ (art 32 of the Law on Assemblies and Demonstrations) in connection with their participation in the Saturday Mothers/People 700th vigil, held on 25 August 2018, despite the ban imposed by the Beyoglu District Governorate.
The indictment from the Terrorist Offences Investigation Bureau of the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office argued that the 700th vigil had been banned by the authorities to ‘guarantee national security, public order, public morality, public health and to prevent the commission of crimes’. Participants were allegedly not notified of the ban before the meeting.
On 25 March 2021, the first hearing of the case took place before the Istanbul 21st Penal Court of First Instance. During the hearing, lawyers representing the defendants requested their acquittal, which was rejected by the court. The judge issued an interim ruling, adjourning the trial until 12 July 2021.