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January 11, 2011, Tuesday

Judicial roundabout

Overburdened, short-staffed and financially under-resourced, Turkey’s justice system has come under close scrutiny in the past few days. The government and judicial institutions trade accusations and blame each other for the current state of affairs, apparently oblivious to the devastating impact these shortcomings have on real lives.

One case that has been stretching the resources of the judicial system, as well as the very notion of justice, for over a decade is the case of the feminist sociologist Pınar Selek. Her Kafkaesque journey through the Turkish justice system began two days after an explosion ripped through the Egyptian (or Spice) Bazaar on July 9, 1998, killing seven people. Sadly, it has yet to come to an end.

Selek was 28 at the time and conducting research on the Kurdish community. In those days, any sign of interest for the Kurdish issue was still interpreted by many as synonymous with collaboration. Selek was arrested and accused of being a Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) sympathizer. She was not, however, questioned about the events at the Spice Bazaar. Only several days after she was picked up did Selek find out that she had been charged with planting a bomb. Heavily tortured during her interrogation, Selek spent a total of two-and-a-half years in prison before being released.

Six expert reports ruled out that a bomb was responsible for the explosion, suggesting instead an accidental gas leak. Four found evidence insufficient to reach a conclusion. Only one document, added in 2001 by the Interior Ministry, which was not a party to the trial and whose opinion had not been sought, blamed an explosive device for the deadly blast.

The only “evidence” against Selek was the confession of Abdulmecit Öztürk, who claimed they had planted the bomb together. He later recanted, and was acquitted by the court, which accepted that his alleged confession had been obtained under torture. The authorities made no attempt to challenge his acquittal.

Yet the same shaky evidence is still used against Selek. Acquitted twice, in 2006 and 2008 by the İstanbul 12th Criminal Court, the peace activist has not yet been able to clear her name.

Her file has been travelling from one judicial institution to the next, caught in an endless game of judicial ping-pong. Except, of course, that for the defendant and those close to her, this shuttling back and forth is anything but a game.

Unable to find the peace of mind she needed to work, Selek moved to Germany 18 months ago, where she is a writer-in-exile supported by the writers’ group PEN. Her latest book focuses on the construction of masculinity in Turkey and the role of the military, and she is currently working on a PhD. Her plight has attracted widespread international support.

Last year, the 9th chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals rejected her acquittal and requested life imprisonment. The chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals himself pointed out that without firm evidence of a bomb, the young woman could not be condemned for planting it, but his objections were overruled by the Supreme Court of Appeals’ General Criminal Council which, in November 2010, confirmed the decision to quash her acquittal and returned the case to the lower court.

Twelve years, 11 expert reports and four court decisions later, Selek’s case file will be back where the judicial rollercoaster began, in front of the 12th Criminal Court in İstanbul, on Feb. 9. With not a shred of new evidence, judges will have to re-examine her dossier in the light of the Supreme Court of Appeals ruling.

What happens next, explains Selek’s international spokeswoman, Yasemin Öz, depends on the court decision. If it confirms her acquittal, the file will likely return to the Supreme Court of Appeals’ General Criminal Council. If, on the other hand, the local court accepts the Supreme Court of Appeals’ view and sentences Selek, her defenders will seek redress once again in the higher courts.

In short, this case, which has kept the judicial system busy for years and has blighted the sociologist’s life, could remain on the judicial roundabout for a while longer, contributing to its backlog and violating all the principles of a fair trial.

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