UNISON attends trade unionist trial in Turkey

Gonul Erden faces charges of ‘terrorism’ for her trade union work, when she was co-president of the public health and services union SES

UNISON vice president Andrea Egan stands with Turkish trade unionists

Last month, UNISON representatives attended the trial of former union leader and friend of the union, Gonul Erden. 

Ms Erden, alongside several colleagues, is facing charges of ‘terrorism’ for her trade union work when she was co-president of SES, the public health and services union in Turkey. 

Eight current and former leading members of SES, including Ms Erden, were arrested in May 2021, when police raided their homes. Five members are accused of leading a terrorist organisation, while the three others are accused of being members of a terrorist group.

Ms Erden is accused of leading an armed terrorist organisation and, despite being initially granted bail, has been held in a high security prison since September 2021, after the prosecutor appealed the bail decision. 

In addition to ‘accusations’ of attending UNISON conference and wearing a shawl in Kurdish colours at her sister’s wedding in the UK, Ms Erden is also alleged to have attended a terrorist training camp in Iraq. 

The prosecution’s case hangs on the claims of one witness, thought to have been involved in a plea bargain, who has also testified against at least another 450 individuals.

Clear evidence that Gonul was in Turkey and nowhere near Iraq at the time seemed to have little traction with the judges or prosecution, nor did the fact that months of monitoring and phone surveillance had produced no compelling evidence against her. 

During the 3 October hearing, Gonul gave a passionate and defiant defence, explaining how she had dedicated her life to the trade union movement and the struggle for workers’ and human rights.

It became evident that the prosecution’s case against Gonul was not for any crime, but for her role in championing workers’ and women’s rights and her legitimate criticisms of the government and its policies.

As the day’s proceedings drew to a close, Gonul turned to her family and friends in the court and smiled, before being taken away by armed guards. Despite 13 months in prison in appalling conditions, the authorities had not and would not crush her spirit.

Selma Atabey, the current co-president of SES, also faced trial. She connected to the courtroom via a remote system; however, due to the poor connection, she could not make her statement and no one was able to hear her. 

For the judges and the prosecution, this was no reason to postpone the trial. Ms Atabey asked the presiding judge to arrange her transfer from the prison to the courtroom in the next hearing.

UNISON President Andrea Egan was in Ankara to observe the hearing. This was the third time UNISON has observed a hearing in this ongoing trial, with general secretary Christina McAnea attending the previous hearing in July this year.

Ms Egan commented: “It was an enormous privilege to observe this trial and show UNISON’s solidarity. Although the situation was dire, the lawyers told us it would have been far worse if international observers weren’t there. 

“Seeing two strong women who have given their lives to the movement and the fight for workers’ and human rights was deeply inspiring for me.

“Despite their horrendous situation, separated from family and friends, and in prison for what they deeply believe in, Gonul and Selma remain passionate and defiant. They are true heroes of the trade union movement.”

Turkey has experienced a rapid erosion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in recent years, leading to a steep increase in attacks on trade unionists and human rights defenders.

According to the ITUC, Turkey continues to rank amongst the 10 worst countries in the world to be a trade unionist; for many, the threat of arrest or even imprisonment is considered an occupational hazard.

UNISON head of international relations Nick Crook said: “When trade unionists in Turkey are arrested, detained or put on trial for defending worker’s rights, it’s important they know that they are not alone and UNISON and trade unionists throughout the world are in solidarity with them.

“It’s also essential that the authorities know that the eyes of the world are on them, particularly in such a politicised trial.”

The next hearing in the trial will take place on 26 December. UNISON will continue to campaign and put pressure on the governments of Turkey and the UK until all colleagues in Turkey are acquitted, and trade union rights are respected.