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February 11, 2011, Friday

Sun and shadow on an İstanbul morning

People caught on the wrong side of Turkey’s judicial system learn to be grateful for small mercies. Thus supporters of sociologist Pınar Selek who had gathered in Beşiktaş rejoiced when the Istanbul 12th criminal court on Feb. 9 confirmed its decision to acquit her.

This was the third acquittal for the peace activist, who has been fighting accusations for the past 13 years that she planted a deadly bomb at the Spice Bazaar. Expert reports attributed the blast to a gas leak, yet the Supreme Court of Appeals, quashing previous court decisions that cleared her, had called for Pınar Selek to be imprisoned for life. Several foreign observers attended the hearing. For Selek, currently living in Germany, the ruling offers the hope that the long judicial nightmare might be coming to an end.

There is clearly cause to applaud the İstanbul court’s decision, but the judicial process in Turkey involves so many twists and turns that Selek’s legal team cannot rule out the possibility that the case could return to the General Criminal Council of the Supreme Court of Appeals or indeed that the public prosecutor might challenge the ruling once more. They see light at the end of the tunnel, but the case has not yet entirely run its course. The İstanbul court will reconvene again in June.

While Pınar Selek, who is also an active women’s rights defender, and her friends were expressing their relief at the positive outcome of the hearing, across the Bosporus, in the district of Ümraniye, a mother of two, Arzu Yıldırım, was shot dead by the abusive partner she had tried to leave.

The two stories are of course entirely unrelated, except that they shine spotlights on two areas where implementation of the law regularly fails to protect individuals. In judicial cases that have a political dimension, many magistrates are still too often guided by the need to protect the state and its ideology rather than the defendant’s presumption of innocence. Luckily, this wasn’t the case in Beşiktaş on Wednesday, where the judges focused on the facts presented in court to clear Pınar Selek.

Another area where the Turkish legal authorities still fail to use the law to protect individuals is in cases of domestic violence. Legislation is in place that allows the authorities to take swift action against abusers, but all too often officials appear reluctant to intervene, partly because many magistrates and policemen still view the family as sacred, no matter how dysfunctional and unhappy it has become.

Arzu Yıldırım died on the pavement, pursued by her former partner. In December, she had lodged a complaint at the police station against the man she had married in a religious ceremony three years ago. Faced with further abuse as a result of her attempt to seek help, she later withdrew her deposition. Two days before she was shot, she had written to the prosecutor, complaining of constant threats and warning that her life was at risk.

In 2009, Turkey was found derelict in its duty of protection and condemned by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Nahide Opuz, who died at the hand of her ex-husband. Her murder and that of her mother marked the culmination of a similar pattern of harassment and attempts to get official protection. Turkey actually introduced legislation to protect family members from abuse as far back as 1998, but its provisions are often narrowly interpreted, leaving unofficial spouses or former partners unprotected. Victims who file charges often face an increased risk, unless the authorities immediately remove the abuser. Under pressure from their partner, many women also fear taking action that would leave them without a source of income.

The morning had started well at the court in İstanbul, but the atmosphere was later clouded by this act of violence. News has since emerged that Yıldırım’s former partner attempted to kill himself after shooting her and is currently in hospital.

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