When Mehmet Bozgeyik, co-president of KESK (The Confederation of Public Employees’ Trade Unions), addressed our national delegate conference in Brighton last month, he inspired and shocked us all with his vivid and passionate address about the strength he and his comrades have had to maintain in the face of appalling treatment of trade unionists in Turkey.
However, this still couldn’t prepare me for my visit to Turkey, and the travesty of justice I witnessed in a court in Ankara.
I was there to observe the trial of eight leading members of SES, the public health and social services union, who have been charged with terrorist offences for their legitimate trade union work.
Turkey has been an international priority for UNISON since 2015, when the attacks on trade unions intensified. It was therefore an enormous privilege to be able to share the solidarity of our 1.3 million members with SES, particularly as this was my first opportunity as general secretary to travel abroad to visit one of our partner unions.
Our eight colleagues were arrested on 25 May 2021, when police raided their homes in the early hours of the morning. Five stand accused of leading a terrorist organisation, while the other three are accused of being members of a terrorist group.
The case is important to UNISON, particularly as the attendance of one of the accused – our good friend Gonul Erden – at our national conference in 2018, appears among the allegations of terrorism against her.
Gonul was initially given bail by the judge, but has been held in a high security prison since September last year, when the prosecutor appealed against the decision.
The hearing took place in the heavy penal court in Ankara, which is reserved for the most serious criminal cases. Even before proceedings began, I was informed that another one of the accused, Selma Atabey, the co-president of SES, had been arrested that morning and was being held by police.
One by one, our colleagues and their lawyers addressed the court, demolishing the flawed charges against them and demonstrating convincingly that the only thing they could be accused of was defending the rights of workers.
But despite the strength of their evidence, it could do little to influence a decision that had been made long before the hearing.
An independent judiciary is an essential pillar of any democracy. But in Turkey, the rule of law has been seriously undermined since the state of emergency in 2016 and the controversial constitutional referendum in 2018, both of which gave President Erdogan enormous new powers, described by many as ‘one-man rule’, including influence and control over the justice system.
I heard how the eight accused had their phones tapped and were monitored and followed for months before their arrest. Their homes and offices were searched and computers seized.
But despite this, the prosecutor failed to produce any credible evidence of leadership or membership of a terrorist organisation. Instead, the entire case hangs on the testimony of an anonymous informant, who, as the defence explained, has also testified against at least 350 individuals in recent trials, without even being required to appear as a witness.
This case was no different. When the defence lawyers asked the judges to uphold the principles of a fair trial and allow them to question the informant, their demands were rejected.
Being a union leader or activist in Turkey carries with it the constant risk of being arrested and charged for your everyday trade union work, so most of the accused have regularly appeared in court. Some of the allegations were recycled and had already been considered by another court and the defendants acquitted.
In fact, rather than presenting a balanced case for the court to consider, the prosecutor just threw as much dirt as he could at our colleagues, in the hope that some of it might stick.
As the day’s proceedings drew to a close, Gonul’s lawyers again pleaded with the judges to release her on bail, or to at least move her to be with other political prisoners. They refused. She defiantly raised her fist as the courtroom applauded their brave comrade, before she was handcuffed by armed guards for her journey back to jail.
Trials against trade unionists in Turkey can take a very long time. Another trial of 97 leading KESK members that UNISON has been following has continued for over a decade and has many more years to go. Lawyers anticipate that this trial might go a similar way.
In the absence of evidence, justice delayed is justice denied.
After the hearing, as we paused outside the courthouse to allow the KESK co-president to say a few words (pictured above), riot police arrived in force in buses and plain clothes police officers provoked and harassed the small and peaceful crowd.
Our colleagues in Turkey have done nothing wrong. They are being persecuted for doing the job you and I do every day – defending workers’ rights. Terrorism has been redefined to encompass any criticism of the government.
So, when unions like SES fearlessly speak out against the government’s handling of the pandemic, or campaign against femicide, or Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention against violence against women, activists are arrested and charged as terrorists.
As I left Ankara, our colleagues from KESK went to address a press conference on media freedoms. I later heard that police responded by beating and arresting two journalists.
I have already met with journalists in Turkey, and the British Embassy, to share our outrage at the way our colleagues in Turkey are being treated. UNISON colleagues will be back in Ankara on 3 October for the next hearing and we will continue to campaign and put pressure on the government of Turkey, and their friends in our own government, until trade union rights are respected and our colleagues are free.