In 2009, she escaped murder from a knife injury inflicted by him; he was enraged because of her official petition for divorce. But on July 8 of this year Tuğba couldn’t escape. She was burned to death along with her son: Her ex-husband set her on fire. Rengiye Mersinli, a 46-year-old mother of four, however, was successful in her attempt to get a restraining order from the court in the Black Sea province of Bartın thanks to a volunteer educator who worked closely with her. Despite that, she couldn’t escape the husband she was trying to divorce; his bullets killed her in front of many family members.
Would Özbek have escaped being murdered if she had received prompt responses from the court and the police after repeated violent acts by her ex-husband? What went wrong in Mersinli’s case? Why was she killed despite being put promptly under protection?
Fighting against the widespread problem of violence against women is of utmost importance for Turkey as almost half of all women say they have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of their husbands or partners. Moreover, approximately five women each day become victims of violence in the country.
Women’s rights activists stress that restraining orders are universally seen as a key element in the fight against domestic violence, but they also add that without understanding the crucial roles of others -- police, prosecutors, judges, the legal system, various other government agencies and society – in how restraining orders are implemented, it will be too difficult to solve pandemic violence against women.
“We have a fairly good legal framework,” said lawyer and women’s rights activist Hülya Gülbahar, who referred to Turkey’s 1998 adoption of Law 4320 on the Protection of the Family, which was amended in 2007.
One of several problems she pointed out is how the laws are implemented.
“The spirit of Law 4320 is about protecting women before they are subject to violence,” she said. The Legal Support Center for Women (KAHDEM) two years ago investigated 2,019 petitions made to family courts in 11 provinces regarding how the law has been implemented. The center found that restraining orders are usually given after a violent act has occurred.
“The law says that as soon as there is knowledge of a case of violence against women or if there is a suspicion that violence might occur, prompt action should be taken. Prosecutors should immediately forward those complaints to family courts. Violence does not stop on weekends and after regular work hours,” said lawyer Habibe Yılmaz Kayar, who heads KAHDEM.
‘Some prosecutors act promptly, some do not’
She said some prosecutors are quick to act, while others are not. She added that if a prosecutor requires a medical report to prove there is an injury, this further delays the process.
In Özbek’s case, she applied to the Eyüp Chief Prosecutor’s Office in 2009, and the prosecutor issued a restraining order against her husband, Şükrü Öksüzoğlu, ordering him to stay away from Özbek’s house for six months, as failing to do so would land him in jail for a period of three to six months. Shortly after that she filed for divorce, and two months after that she was stabbed by Öksüzoğlu on the street.
Özbek’s maternal aunt Yıldız Batmaz Liu said Öksüzoğlu stayed in jail for only five hours, and the court ruled for his trial without arrest.
“I am a witness to Tuğba’s many struggles at the Eyüp Chief Prosecutor’s Office. She informed them that Öksüzoğlu had told their son, Buğra, that he was going to kill Tuğba and showed him a gun. But the prosecutor’s office did not want to hear his testimony. We never saw any signs that she was protected,” Liu said.
When asked by Sunday’s Zaman last Thursday, a high level prosecutor from the Eyüp Chief Prosecutor’s office said: “Prosecution steps in only when a crime has been committed, but do not write that. We have thousands of petitions. Turkey is a country of 70 million. That does not mean that everyone is set to kill his wife or children.”
The prosecutor’s words have demonstrated some of the other problems that women’s rights activists pointed out: a lack of continuing education and a required mentality change for prosecutors, judges and law enforcement officers concerning violence against women.
“I’ve been involved in this issue for years,” said researcher and women’s rights activist Pınar İlkkaracan, pointing out a mentality problem, “A lot of our judges and prosecutors are somehow unable to accept or digest the fact that they should be educated by women’s rights lawyers.”
İlkkaracan also said law enforcement officers often neglect their duties as they tend to tell women who suffer from domestic violence, who ask them for help, that they should keep and solve the problem “inside the family.”
Activists say too often those women are not told that they have rights when they first turn to the police. They become aware of Law 4320 much later; they are not made aware of the fact that they can have access to a lawyer for free if they lack the resources to do so.
Another prosecutor from the Eyüp Chief Prosecutor’s office said prosecutors do not have the authority to issue protection orders and, furthermore, Law 4320 does not protect women. The prosecutor said: “The protection of women is the job of the administration and law enforcement.”
Asked by Sunday’s Zaman when and if the Eyüp prosecutor issued a restraining order for Öksüzoğlu, prosecutors were not willing to provide any specifics about her seven files in the court but did say it would make no difference in Özbek’s case or those of others even if a restraining order had been in place or was renewed.
However, women’s rights advocates say prosecutors are not that powerless.
‘Adequate shelters essential to protect women’
In Mersinli’s case, she was able to obtain a restraining order on the day she submitted her petition to a prosecutor. In practice, that meant one visit a week by the gendarmerie to her home to check how things are going. Mersinli moved out of the house that she lived in with her husband, Hasan Mersinli. She stayed in three separate houses -- either in her two sisters’ homes or her parents’ house. The restraining order included all three homes.
“There is no women’s shelter in Bartın,” Gülbahar said. “She was caught by her husband at her family’s house.”
Only 70 shelters exist in Turkey, a country with a population of more than 75 million, and women’s shelters only began to be established in Turkey in 1990. However, according to Municipal Law No. 5393, if an area under the jurisdiction of a municipality has a population of more than 50,000, that municipality is required to open a women’s shelter. If the law was implemented, there would be 3,800 women’s shelters in Turkey.
Educator Yasemin Güven, who worked with Mersinli, pointed out some of the remarks of the family members after the murder.
“One family member said they should have called the gendarmerie since Hasan Mersinli was coming to pick up two of their children. Another family member said, ‘We took his property [wife] away, and he came to get it back.’ These words are food for thought,” Güven said. She added that witnesses say Hasan Mersinli repeatedly told his side of the family that he was going to kill his wife and older daughter, saying his daughter was “poisoning” her.
Women’s rights activists call on the government to enforce measures and establish a national coordination office to prevent violence against women. They also stress the role of education and professional training to change old attitudes and establish new ones. To them, Law 4320, currently under review, has some deficiencies, but who interprets the laws is more important. Furthermore, activists often refer to one retired judge, Eray Karınca, who had several fair judgments in his interpretation of Law 4320, and many women have been protected because of his rulings.
Contacted by Sunday’s Zaman, Karınca emphasized that since the law concerns “Protection of the Family,” some courts do not interpret it to allow protection of women from their partners’ violence if they are not married even though the law is open to interpretation.
“It should be made clear in the law that unmarried women can benefit from the law, too,” he said. “Should women be valued only when they are in the family? We need to see women as individuals who are not subordinate to men. Customs, laws and religious teachings have long nourished an understanding for an open or veiled permission for violence against women.”