"When I am in court, eye to eye with people that I am accusing of torture, be it soldiers or policemen, when they look into my eyes and I don't look away, when I am not the first to flinch, I feel that I have more courage than they do. In their eyes you can see the hatred they have, their hatred of you, that they want to kill you for what you are doing."
Sezgin 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 dared 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 cross fire. Turkish forces engaged in a systemic 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: until recently, Turkish law forbade the Kurdish language, Kurdish dance, Kurdish songs, and even the use of Kurdish names. Throughout Turkey and particularly in the southeast region, lawyers avoid defending politically unpopular clients. In this climate, lawyers become victims of persecution themselves, and are routinely identified by prosecutors, police, and security agents as "terrorist lawyers." 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. Tanrikulu’s commitment to stay and defend human rights in the face of state persecution reflects his tenacity and devotion to the rule of law.
When I graduated from law school in Istanbul in 1984, I returned to my native city, Diyarbakir, and started my practical training. The government had imposed emergency rule and there were at least three thousand political prisoners in jail, so tension was high in the city. It was very difficult to be indifferent to such a situation. The mayor of the city, Dr. Megdi Zana, who is the husband of Layla Zana, the Kurds’ most famous political prisoner, was charged with separatism. He needed the energetic work of a young lawyer to help him full-time, so I started defending him. Once I got involved, I became a specialist in human rights. The scale of terror increased in the region, the war became bloodier, and it was impossible for me to take cases other than those involving human rights abuses.
Megdi Zana was an independent mayor, without any party affiliations. After the military takeover in 1980, he was alleged to be a member of a terrorist organization and had to spend from 1980 to 1991 in jail. He was dedicated to the Kurdish cause. In the 1980s the Turkish government banned the Kurdish language. However, every time he was in court defending himself, against their charges, Megdi Zana spoke Kurdish to the judges. Because of his efforts the law was abrogated in 1991, and the Kurdish language was accepted by the Turkish central government.
Six of my friends, all of them lawyers of Turkish origin, were killed between 1990 and 1995, a time I call the nightmare period. They were killed for nothing else than their courage in defending human rights, killed because the authorities wanted to send a signal to people like us working for human rights. They were just the victims of our situation. We suspected they were politically planned assassinations, involving military intelligence. Our suspicions were corroborated when an information officer asserted that one of the lawyers was assassinated by an agency linked to the military. This information officer was later murdered.
From 1992 to 1995 the situation in Diyarbakir was especially acute. At least two or three people were killed in Diyarbakir every day in extrajudicial political assassinations. It was a very tense period. I was followed from the moment I stepped foot outside my door every morning. There was nothing to do, but find humor in the situation. Most of the time when people were killed they were assassinated with one bullet from behind. We joked at the notion of placing mirrors on our shoulders so we could see who was creeping up!
In 1988, with five of my colleagues, we decided to establish the Human Rights Association of Diyarbakir. By 1997, the Human Rights Association had six hundred members. But on May 22 that year, the government closed down the HRA after they allegedly found forbidden publications in the archives of the association. We weren’t alone. Two other cities, Mardin and Urfa in southeast Turkey, also had human rights associations closed for the same reason.
I was detained for short periods of time. On my way back to Diyarbakir from Europe, the authorities stopped me at the airport, and told me that I was on their list of suspects. I knew that if they took me to the police station bad things could have happened. But in Diyarbakir there are also some very honest judges and prosecutors, and one prosecutor who heard about my case immediately called, and insisted that they had to interrogate me in court. He saved me.
In another instance, a state prosecutor really believed me once he heard me—that I was not guilty on the charges of separatism and membership in a terrorist organization—said: "Why don’t you just write up your defense and I will just sign it as if I had written it?" That was amazing—but it happens. That’s why I have to say that although the picture is very bleak, there are pockets of hope.
My conscience is clear because I haven’t done anything illegal; I am not in contact with any terrorist organization. Everything I do is on the record. I have no reason to fear security forces or state authorities. I would have no problem in court defending my case. All my fear is based on the fact that there are circles within the state that are beyond state control. These people can really be dangerous and that’s why our job involves a certain risk.
There were times I was really concerned about my family but my wife says she’s the one who is always scared. Something that I’m particularly afraid of is car bombing, because once you switch on the engine it’s too late. A friend’s car, a lawyer in Diyarbakir, was bombed like this.
The struggle for human rights is as old as human beings themselves. And I believe that if we do not stand up against injustice, nobody can help us. It’s only people themselves who can change situations. To live under conditions in which there is no justice is worse than dying. So I do what I do in order to ensure a better future. On the other hand, our region is a very backward one. The literacy rate is very low and there is a war going on. So for people who are ignorant but who are still suffering abuses of human rights, we are seen as people who can save them. We lawyers are considered demigods, which carries a lot of moral responsibility. Since there are so few lawyers in Diyarbakir, we really have to work hard to deserve the people’s trust. That’s why we feel, in our region particularly, that we have a special task. Once you work for people, once they call you at two o’clock in the morning, once they come to your office and you see the suffering in their faces, you don’t think about representing a case, you’re representing people. Your job becomes a very human one.
Let me offer a very narrow personal definition of what I think courage is. If I can represent someone who was tortured, if I can stand up to the police force, to the system that has tortured this person, this is courage. And this is my way of fighting. There are different ways of getting to the same end but representing people who have suffered is my way. When I am in court, eye to eye with people that I am accusing of torture, be it soldiers or policemen, when they look into my eyes and I don’t look away, am not the first to flinch, I feel that I have more courage than they do.
In their eyes you can see the hatred they have, their hatred of you, that they want to kill you for what you are doing. And as someone who is fighting for justice, you should not be ashamed of what you are doing. I have friends who keep telling me, "Why are you fighting so hard against the system? Why are you putting so much at risk?" But I think I am doing what I must do. I do something that someone has to do. And I have no second thoughts, no doubts about the rightness of what I am doing. If everybody was responsible in what they were doing, there would be no problems in this world.