Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over the weekend met with Saturday Mothers, an advocacy group that meets every week in İstanbul's Galatasaray Square in its cause to seek justice for enforced disappearances in Turkey, marking the first time a prime minister talked to the group.
Twelve members of the Saturday Mothers and members of the Human Rights Association (İHD) participated in the meeting on Saturday at the Dolmabahçe Prime Ministry Office in İstanbul's Beşiktaş district.
The activists first met in front of the Galatasaray High School, as they normally do, in their 306th meeting. Speaking to the press before the meeting on behalf of the group, Maside Ocak said, “I want to be hopeful about the meeting that we will have with the prime minister.” She said they had met with parliamentary speakers and deputies before, but this was the first time they will be speaking to a prime minister.
“We have been here for 17 years and for the first time a prime minister will meet us,” she said, adding that the group would demand that mass graves in the East and Southeast be excavated and that those who are responsible for the disappearances and unsolved murders be held accountable. “I want all the mass graves to be opened. I want the search for a gravesite to end for all the families. Up till today, many have recounted stories of how their sons went missing. In the past few days Arif Doğan and other JİTEM members were talking about this. We want these people to openly and truly confess everything at this point.”
The cases of missing persons and unsolved murders in the East and Southeast, highly common in the ‘90s, are usually attributed to an illegal anti-terrorism and intelligence unit called JİTEM inside the Gendarmerie General Command. Arif Doğan is a retired colonel who is now a suspect in the trial of Ergenekon, a secret organization with members of the military, bureaucracy, press and other civilian spheres, that is accused of having plotted to overthrow the government. He claims that he was the founder of JİTEM. Although the background to JİTEM’s founding has not been completely illuminated by investigators, the evidence they have so far clearly indicate that JİTEM and the military members of Ergenekon are related. Doğan and some ex-JİTEM members have shared some information about the disappearances, both in court testimonies or via the press, but in general have not included the names of the victims of extra-judicial executions.
İHD İstanbul Branch President Abdülbaki Boğa said the victims of unsolved murders and disappearances in Turkey numbered 17,500, adding that the İHD had presented a comprehensive report on the disappearances to the prime minister. Deputy Chairwoman of the AK Party’s Parliamentary Group Ayşenur Bahçekapılı and Parliament’s Gender Equality Commission head Güldal Akşit also participated in the meeting.
During the meeting, mothers of the missing persons said they “sought no revenge, only justice.” They demanded a commission in Parliament to investigate the disappearances and that Turkey involve the UN Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.
During the meeting, the prime minister said that involuntary disappearances have been prevented for the past eight years, adding that the government was resolute in its determination to fight such crimes. He promised that his government will do everything in its power to alleviate the pain of the victims’ families. He said that although it was not easy to achieve results in cases after more than 30 years have passed, they were not going to hide behind any excuses and try to solve every case.
The prime minister noted each statement from the victims’ families, Boğa said, “He also said that unsolved murders and the disappearance of custody are a human rights issue.”
Speaking to journalists after the meeting, Kadriye Ceylan -- the mother of missing Tolga Baykal Ceylan -- said, “I think that his approach will be different after this point. I am waiting and I am hopeful. I am hoping that they will find my son’s body and deliver it to me. We now have renewed hopes as mothers of the missing.”
Missing Hayrettin Eren’s mother, Elmas Eren, said her son has been missing for 30 years, noting “The prime minister took notes. We hope that he will help us.”
The sister of Cemil Kırbayır -- who has been missing since he was detained by the gendarmerie on Oct. 7, 1980, when he was a student at the Kars Atatürk University -- said, “I want justice. I hope your conscious hurts, Kenan Evren,” referring to the general who lead the coup d’état. The participants also included the mother of Cemil Kırbayır, 103-year-old Berfo Kırbay. He was only 24 at the time and his mother has not left her village in the hopes that one day her son might return.
Another participant was Hanım Tosun, whose husband Fehmi Tosun -- whose name was listed in an album by the rock band U2, along with other victims of injustice -- disappeared in 1995. Her husband was taken to custody in 1994 in İstanbul, where they had to migrate when their village was burned down, from their home in Avcılar. He was taken to a vehicle with the license plate 34 UD 597, as she and her children watched from the balcony. He never returned. In a recent concert in İstanbul, U2 once again mentioned Tosun’s disappearance on the stage.