Turkish families protest disappearances (“Saturday Mothers”), 1995-1999

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Time Period:  
April 11,
March 13,
Location and Goals
Location City/State/Province: 
Location Description: 
Galatasaray Square
To protest the disappearance of their loved ones, bring justice to governmental officials responsible for disappearances, and change Turkey’s detention procedures to prevent future disappearances. Many participants also voiced hope that their loved ones would be freed, if they were still alive.

Many Turkish families know the horror of having a loved one simply disappear. From 1991 through 1994, more than one hundred Turkish citizens disappeared after being detained by police. Most, but not all, of the disappeared were Kurds from southeastern Turkey suspected of collaborating with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an independence movement of the historically oppressed Kurds. When families of the missing sought information from police, they were mocked, beaten, and often imprisoned. Many victims were eventually found alongside highways or in unmarked graves.

On April 11, 1995, Emine Ocak, mother of the recently disappeared Hasan Ocak, and Birsen Gülünay, wife of Hasan Gülünay, interrupted a court hearing in Ankara, shouting, “We want our sons!” The two women were arrested and sentenced to one month in prison. Soon after they were released, they organized a vigil at bustling Galatasaray Square in downtown Istanbul. The square, located in front of an imposing high school and near the British Consulate, was chosen for its visibility. On Saturday, May 27, about thirty people gathered in the square and sat down quietly on the sidewalk, not obstructing the flow of traffic. Emine Ocak held a large photograph of her son and a placard that said, “Hasan Ocak was taken under custody; he was lost like hundreds of others and found dead. We want the murderers.” Neither the police nor the press paid the protesters any attention. However, publicity soon grew as the mothers returned to Galatasaray every Saturday. The press coined the name “Saturday Mothers” to describe the protesters; this name obscured the fact that the campaign included men and women who were not only parents, but also spouses and siblings of the disappeared.

As the weekly vigils gathered attention from the media, police responded with increased aggression. On July 1, the fortieth day after Hasan Ocak’s burial, a vigil was held at his grave in accordance with Turkish custom. When the mourners arrived by bus, they were met by riot police, who claimed they received reports of a Molotov cocktail on the bus. Forty-two people were beaten and detained by police. One woman was imprisoned under the Anti-Terror Law, which permits three years’ imprisonment for so-called “separatist” statements. Others were tortured with electric shocks and hung by their wrists from the ceiling. After being released, Emine Ocak and others were again detained only a week later when the vigil returned to Galatasaray Square.

The vigils were somber events—each week, the protesters would read the story of one disappearance, and then sit in silence for a half hour. They publicly stated that they did not intend to break any laws or commit civil disobedience. Based on news reports, it seems that police violence subsided somewhat in late 1995 as the campaign grew in influence and numbers. Possibly in response to the public vigils, Turkey amended Article 8 of its Anti-Terror Law in October 1995 to reduce the maximum sentence for subversive speech. This was an unsubstantial reform, however, because the government could still abduct innocent citizens at will.

In mid-1995, Amnesty International began publishing reports about the Galatasaray Square vigils for a worldwide audience. This won the protesters, who were already well known in Turkey, a worldwide following. Amnesty International brought members of other anti-disappearance movements to Istanbul in October 1996, including the Argentinean Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, the Bosnian Mothers of Sebrenica, and the Committee of Families of the Disappeared and Detained in Lebanon. The same weekend, also in Istanbul, Amnesty International hosted a conference of experts on disappearances to pressure the government to establish an investigatory commission. In response, Turkey in December established the “Bureau for the Investigation of Disappearances,” but the bureau’s reports turned out to be nothing more than brief statements denying that disappeared persons had ever been taken into police custody.

In mid-1998, governmental officials suggested that the protesters move their weekly vigil from Galatasaray Square to an out-of-the-way neighborhood elsewhere in Istanbul. By this point, several hundred family members and supporters of the vanished were congregating each week. When the protesters refused to relocate, police violence again increased. Protesters sometimes arrived at Galatasaray Square to find it completely occupied by police officers. Protesters who attempted to hold vigil were detained and beaten. From May 1998 onward, the vigil was held each week under the watchful eye of police contingents, who harassed, assaulted, and arrested innocent people. In one reported case, police forced dozens of protesters, many of them elderly, onto a bus, which was then filled with tear gas. After months of increased violence, organizers finally decided to end the campaign after March 13, 1999, the 200th weekly meeting.

Although no officials responsible for disappearances were ever held responsible, the weekly vigils did have a significant effect. The number of disappearances, which had reached a high point in 1994, declined once the campaign began.

After a ten-year hiatus, protesters resumed their campaign in Galatasaray Square in the winter of 2009.

Research Notes

This campaign much resembles the Argentinean Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, but no direct inspirational link has been demonstrated.

“Annual Report 1999.” 1999. Human Rights Foundation Turkey. 22 Oct 2010. <http://www.tuerkeiforum.net/enw/docs/hrft1999report.pdf>

“1997 UN Commission on Human Rights – 50 years old.” 1997. Amnesty International. 22 Oct 2010. <http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/IOR41/001/1997/en>.

Baydar, Gülsüm, and Berfin Ivegen. "Territories, identities, and thresholds: The Saturday Mothers phenomenon in Istanbul." Signs. 31.3 (2006).

Das, Bijoyeta. “Turkish probe reignites the ‘Saturday Mothers.’” 2010. Women’s eNews. 22 Oct 2010. <http://www.womensenews.org/story/crime-policylegislation/ 100421/turkish-probe-reignites-the-saturday-mothers>.

“Turkey: Amnesty International and relatives of the ‘disappeared’ from around the world join vigil in Istanbul.” 1996. Amnesty International. 22 Oct 2010. <http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/EUR44/165/1996/en>.

“Turkey: Children at risk of torture, death in custody and ‘disappearance.’” 1996. Amnesty International. 22 Oct 2010. <http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/EUR44/144/1996/en>.

“Turkey: Families of ‘disappeared’ subjected to brutal treatment.” 1995. Amnesty International. 22 Oct 2010. <http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/EUR44/080/1995/en>.

“Turkey: Listen to the Saturday Mothers.” 1998. Amnesty International. 22 Oct 2010. <http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/EUR44/017/1998/en>.

“Turkey: No security without human rights (includes erratum).” 1996. Amnesty International. 22 Oct 2010. <http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/EUR44/084/1996/en>.

“Turkey: Saturday Mothers’ vigil under threat.” 1998. Amnesty International. 22 Oct 2010. <http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/EUR44/041/1998/en>.

“Turkey: The duty to supervise, investigate and prosecute.” 1999. Amnesty International. 22 Oct 2010. <http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/EUR44/024/1999/en>.

Additional Notes: 
The Saturday Mothers resumed their weekly vigil in early 2009.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
William Lawrence, 22/10/2010