Senal Sarihan and Sezgin Tanrikulu
1997, Turkey
Senal Sarihan and Sezgin Tanrikulu

Senal Sarihan was once sentenced to 22 years in prison for exercising her right to freedom of expression. As a member of the Executive Committee of the Turkish Teachers Commission, she wrote pro-union articles for the commission’s monthly newspaper. These writings caught the attention of Turkey’s military regime, and in 1971 she was imprisoned and given her lengthy sentence.

In 1974, Turkey’s newly elected government released her. She emerged from prison more determined than ever to advocate for human rights. She decided to study for a law degree, and by 1976, she was defending human rights activists, intellectuals, and union leaders. She also continued writing, and in 1980 she was again arrested and detained, this time for 35 days as a result of “espousing anti-state views” in her articles.

Undeterred, in 1986 she founded the Contemporary Lawyers Association, which lobbied for legal reform in Turkey. She served as the organization’s president and as the editor of its monthly magazine, where she became the most prominent critic of Turkey’s antiterrorism law and its violations of the right to free expression. In 1996, she organized the largest women’s rights rally in Turkey’s history, with 35,000 women marching. She has faced death threats and political oppression, but she marches on for human rights, just as she asked those women to do. “When you look back on your life,” she says, “you should have changed the world somehow.”

Tanrikulu is the leading human rights attorney in Turkish Kurdistan, a strong advocate of legal reform and strengthening civil society. Co-founder of the Diyarbakir Human Rights Association, the Secretary of the Bar Association in Diyarbakir, and the regional representative of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, his work has taken him where few dare to go.

For over a decade, the Kurdish region has been under a state of siege, including food blockades and curfews. Fighting between Turkish troops and the Workers Party of Kurdistan has caught civilians in the crossfire. Turkish forces engaged in a systematic practice of targeting civilians, destroying villages, and forcibly evicting noncombatants. More than twenty-six thousand people have been killed and two million displaced since 1992.

Extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary detention, and torture in police custody are commonplace. Freedom of expression is severely curtailed. Throughout Turkey and particularly in the southeast region, lawyers avoid defending politically unpopular clients.

In Diyarbakir alone, more than thirty lawyers have faced criminal charges apparently based solely on their defense of clients in the courts. Even submitting complaints to the European Court of Human Rights or passing information to international human rights groups has been considered evidence of terrorist support and has resulted in prosecutions and prison terms. Tanrikulu has been indicted several times for his activities as a lawyer and in 1994 was charged with "insulting the judiciary" for appealing a decision to convict on the basis of a statement ruled inadmissible by another court because it was extracted by torture.

Since 2010, he has served in the Turkish Grand Assembly.