Attending the Ankara hearing of jailed KESK colleagues – a personal impression

Jan Willem Goudriaan, EPSU

(13 December 2012) We were waiting outside in front of the Ankara court building. It was almost four thirty. The staff of the Court had ushered us out while the judges were deliberating what to do with the three colleagues of KESK, the Turkish confederation of public employees standing trial. The three colleagues were put in jail on 13 February 2012 for their union activity. They were organizing events in preparation of Women’s Day on 8 March. The three (Guler Elveren of Tum-Bel-Sen, the municipal workers union,
Bedriye Yorgun of SES, the health and social services workers union and Guldane Erdogan of Egitim-Sen, the education union) had faced the judges before on 4 October when I had been here last.

They had been arrested together with 12 other female trade union leaders of which nine were held in prison amongst whom six were released on that 4 October. Suddenly we heard loud cheers and an outburst of joy coming from the 15 and friends and family that had lingered on in the hall way. And then the mobile phones rang and people stormed outside to tell the good news: our three comrades were released. This outcome is the culmination of many events during the day and a long campaign of the KESK unions, Turkish women’s organisations and many other sympathizers and allies since the arrests in February.

That long day started when I bumped into my Swedish colleague Torgny of TCO early that morning. He had arrived late that night. Some sort of generator had woken us both up several times during the night, a terrible noise that subsided after 15 minutes but had kept him awake. We had been in contact since our last visit in October, exchanging information on the Turkish labour situation, the KESK trial and the new labour legislation that is so problematic for workers as it makes it harder to organise themselves. He was on his way to the Swedish embassy to brief them on his views and seek support. As the released colleagues would later be telling, it is important that the EU delegation and embassies continued to monitor the trials and even visit the prisoners. We were both part of the international delegation that would attend the hearing. Other colleagues that I met over breakfast were from the German education union (GEW) and the French teachers union (SNES-FSU). Its President was also vice-president of ETUCE, a sister Federation of EPSU. We talked about the result of our discussions the evening before when we had dinner with the colleagues of KESK and Egitim-Sen. Their lawyer briefed us on what we could expect at the trial. We had discussed a short statement that the colleagues would finalize after breakfast. The statement also committed to continue the pressure and struggle for the release of jailed trade unionists.

Apart from the 15 facing these hearings, another group was arrested in June including the KESK President Lami őzgen and human rights defender Osman Isci. I had met him just days before in the seminar organized by the ILO and European Commission. While comrade Lami was released, Osman and many others were kept in jail. The European Commission had protested against their detention with Commissioner Fūle arguing “The legal framework on terrorism and organised crime leads to recurring infringements of the right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial and the freedom of expression, of assembly and association, and it needs to be amended as soon as possible.” As I had to leave I signed the statement later that afternoon.

International delegation :

- Odile Cordelier, SNES-France and ETUCE vice-president
- Ola Carnelid, Lararforbundet, Sweden
- Ulrich Thoene, Suleyman Ates, Manfred Brinkmann GEW, Germany
- Peter Hess-Nielsen, DLF, Denmark
- Abdullah Muhsin, NASUWT-UK
- Michalis Vasiliadis, OLME, Greece
- Torgny Wiktorsson, TCO, Sweden
- Jan W. Goudriaan, EPSU
- Miekie Awater, Judith Westhoek, Jan Molenaar AbvaKabo, Netherlands
- Marten Van Den Berge,TIE, Netherlands,
- Lili Brouwer, AbvaKabo LGBT group and FNV Women’s union.

I was picked up by Ozgur Doruk working for Yol-Is and the EPSU/PSI coordinator in Turkey as well as colleagues of GENEL-Is. We were joining a demonstration of municipality workers.

The workers active in street cleaning, road and park maintenance as well as refuse collection, are angry about the political games being played by the major of the Metropolitan Ankara. He refused to approve the budget of the district municipality of Cankaya and hence the workers faced not being paid, the outsourcing of their work and ultimately they could lose their jobs. The issue of payment became urgent as winter was approaching and fuel needed to be bought to ensure heating of the homes. The sick political game in which the workers and their union branch refused to play a docile role was that the political colours of the mayor of Ankara, from the governing AKP party of Prime Minister Erdogan were different from those in Cankaya were the citizens had voted a major of the left leaning opposition party. The AKP tried to destroy a popular opponent by making sure he would be blamed when services could not be delivered to the inhabitants of the Cankaya municipality. To me it seemed very much a reflection of the attitude of the AKP against those criticizing its politics such as KESK and the mayor here. The two English language newspapers I read during my stay – the Daily News and Today’s Zaman had many similar stories of how the AKP sought to dominate political life. The most worrying was about the new constitution
AKP members threatened to use their majority to ram through change. The ruling party was also continuing with the privatisation process of electricity companies such as the distribution company of Istanbul or large sections of the high ways as well as the bridges over the Bosphorus. Large consortia are profiting from this and you can bet that this will feed the campaign coffers of the ruling party. It delivers the country in the hands of a financial and corporate elite.

Workers were doing a traditional dance accompanied by the music and huge drums. Genel-Is General Secretary Beko Kani offered me the typical small glass of tea, welcome as the temperature was hovering around zero. Suddenly a march started amid confusion as the little union bus of DISK hit an advertisement board. The driver had forgotten to lower the railing of the platform on top of the bus. I would see the bus back several times during the day. And with 600 workers, we walked with a banner demanding funding of the municipality and a huge flag of DISK, the confederation , being carried in front and the huge drums. And with shouts, cheering, the drums and the honking of passers-by that showed support we continued for around 1000 meters until being stopped by a police barricade. Policemen in full anti-riot gear (Shields, helmets, anti-bullet vests, the hard plastic kneecaps - the full works) and their armor: a water cannon and a small armored vehicle, both with large fences before them. And that for 600 workers. A colleague says: they are afraid of us when we come out together.

The small bus maneuvered itself between the police and the demonstration. It served as a platform for photographers, camera crew, the union leadership and the vice-mayor that addressed the workers. I was asked to say a few words and brought the greetings and solidarity of Europe’s public service unions for a fight for decent working conditions and jobs that is so similar to that of many public service workers in Europe and across the world. With Ozgur I had practiced some Turkish such as “dayanışma” and that came across quite well. The union’s attorney assisted in the translation and did an excellent job.

After ½ hour, the demo and the police dispersed and with the bus we went to Genel-IS main office after a funny if not also telling accident. A secret service agent (but not so secret to the union colleagues as known from before) that was assigned to accompany us, had problems getting us through a police barricade as he could not identify himself and his commander had to assist. In the union office we discussed the trade union situation in Turkey with members of the union’s staff. I expressed my belief that despite all the tensions and political differences of opinion the Turkish unions should be in a position to work together to defend basic trade union rights. We continued a discussion on the recent labour law. The labour legislation since the military coup in 1980 in which property of DISK amongst others was seized and still not returned has been a serious obstacle to organizing new members. The Turkish unions and global union federations as well as the ILO and the European Commission have all expressed concerns. The Turkish government has pledged to change the law and new legislation was adopted in October 2012. According to the union colleagues and supported by an analysis of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung little has changed. Some of the changes for example to merge sectors with a larger number of workers seem specifically designed to ensure that the unions cannot acquire the minimum thresholds to get union recognition. We discussed the importance of informing the European and global unions of these problems. The European Commission was very much aware of the problems as the progress report showed. But despite the criticism, the labour law was adopted by the Parliament.

From the European Commission Progress 2012 report on Turkey}

(…) Turkey needs to amend its penal code and anti-terror legislation to make a clear distinction between the incitement to violence and the expression
of nonviolent ideas. The application of Articles 6 and 7 of the Anti-Terror Law in combination with Articles 220 and 314 of the Turkish Criminal Code leads to abuses; in short, writing an article or making a speech can still lead to a court case and a long prison sentence for membership or leadership of a terrorist organisation. High-level government and state officials and the military repeatedly turn publicly against the press and launch court cases. On a number of occasions journalists have been fired after signing articles openly critical of the government. All of this, combined with a high concentration of the media in industrial conglomerates with interests going far beyond the free circulation of information and ideas, has a chilling effect and limits freedom of expression in practice, while making self-censorship a common phenomenon in the Turkish media. (…) p.22

However, the need to change the legal framework with regard to political parties and trade unions was not met. There were examples of restrictive interpretation of legislation vis-à-vis associations and harassment of their leaders9. Freedom of association for trade unions is compromised in practice by police raids, as happened in June with the arrests of more than 70 trade union activists, including the President of KESK, a civil service confederation. p.23

There has been limited progress in the area of social dialogue. A new law on trade unions in the civil service was adopted in April 2012, leading to the first collective bargaining exercise in this sector. The final decision was taken through mandatory arbitration amid strong criticism of the public servants’ trade union confederations. The law falls short of meeting EU and ILO standards.

The law on collective labour relations regulating the private sector is still pending parliamentary approval. High thresholds for entering into collective bargaining continue to significantly restrict the possibility of collective agreements and consequently impede the full exercise of the right to bargain collectively. Moreover, the lack of release of data on the number of workers in each sector by the authorities has prevented the conclusion of any new collective agreements for several months. Turkey excessively restricts the right to strike. In May 2012 the government adopted a law excluding also workers in the civil aviation sector from the right to strike. Following their protest against losing this fundamental right more than 300 airline workers were fired. Increasing the number of activities in which workers are deprived of this right takes Turkey a further step away from respecting full trade union rights in line with EU and ILO standards. Turkey also excessively restricts the right to establish or join trade unions as they cannot be set up along professional categories or in certain sectors, for example for civilian staff working for the Ministry of Defence. p.64}

Following a meal in the union’s restaurant (grilled sardines, vegetables and soup if you are interested) a car brought us to the main purpose of the visit to Turkey, attending the hearing of the trial of our jailed KESK colleagues in the Ankara Court. A little crowd of seven hundred members or so of KESK-unions had gathered, the Ankara Kadin (Women’s) Platform, friends, family and other sympathizers from political parties.

The DISK bus was there again and served also here as the platform for speakers. Various members of the international delegation expressed their continued solidarity. I supported the unions on behalf of EPSU and PSI in their defense for the right to do union work, to organise and bargaining, and the right to freedom of expression including the right to demand quality public services, to health care, education as well as the right to demand as unions the right to be educated in the mother tongue (Kurdish here) if that is another language then the main one. It was also a great pleasure to meet a larger delegation of colleagues of my old union AbvaKabo. They were also going to attend a LBGT – conference and have an organizing project with the TIE (Transnational Information Exchange) in Turkey. Mieke Awater, the AbvaKabo vice president expressed the unions’ solidarity. I also met a Member of the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) linked with the struggle for recognition of the rights of the Kurdish minority, as well as representatives of the Danish, Dutch and Polish embassies. The EU delegation was attending what should have been the final hearing of the Ergenekon trial in which hundreds had been accused of seeking to overthrow the conservative party government. The trial erupted in chaos when several organisations sought to block the final session amidst criticism that the AKP were not ensuring a fair trial].

Following the press statements and solidarity expressions the international delegation and about 150 others went to the Court. Although we had to pass several metal detectors, we were not checked and no ID’s were requested. We went through the court house, outside again and entering another building on the backside. The two doors to the Court room were closed. We chatted when unexpectedly a group of women, our colleagues so wrongfully accused, and their lawyers came and entered one door. We went through the other and were seated behind the defendants. In the first row were the three colleagues who were in jail, thereafter the 12 other women who were on trial but were released (6 only in October) and then us. The international delegation, the President of KESK and the president of Tum-Bel-Sen (VIcdan Baykara) were seated on the first row of the audience, and family, friends and other union colleagues followed, separated from the women union leaders by a wooden bench. Many cheers and shouts, handkisses were exchanged as many had not seen the jailed comrades since their arrest. Four sturdy looking gendarmes stood around the defendants and door was protected by an armed guard. The guards would regularly change during the hearing.

The hearing started. On the podium the three judges in their black robes with red lining and seated behind computer screens. But to me surprising also the prosecutor was sitting there, at the same level. As if to give the message that the judges served a higher purpose – to protect the state and were not independent. Below the lawyers, one for each of the union colleagues, black robes with green lining. The proceedings started with the chief judge confirming the identity of our sisters on trial. We could follow the text on a big screen to the side of the room as the assistant typed corrections. The atmosphere turned out to be positive, almost jolly. One of the Turkish unionists mentioned that this was very different at other hearings. Some of the accused asked to speak in Kurdish as they were entitled to a hearing in their mother tongue. The prosecutor denied this request, but it was also clear that this would be one of the last occasions. A new law is to be implemented as of January 2013 which would allow this now. Several of the accused comrades asked for the floor and read our statements indicating that the information which was assembled against them was fabricated with the chronology of events being such that they could not have been present at the occasions they were supposed to be at. Towards the end the judge asked what the opinion was regarding continued detention. We were then asked to leave the room while the judges would declare their opinion. And so it turned out to be very positive. Colleagues were released. Mind you, it is not the end of the trial and another hearing is planned for 18 April 2013.

With the KESK-sister that had assisted with translations during the trial hearing I walked back to the hotel to leave my stuff. We then went to have a drink while snow was falling. I thought of the demonstration earlier that day and the need for the workers to buy the fuel for heating. We passed the statute of human rights, a bronze of a woman reading. It is regularly used as a place to gather for demonstrations defending human rights. After the drink with some members of the delegation and staff of KESK I met Ozgur again. He had been such a terrific guide. We talked some more and Ozgur informed me that the money from the fund established after the 23 October 2011 earthquake to which several affiliates, PSI/EPSU as his union had contributed was being used for the furniture in a school in Van (East Turkey). The day ended when we were invited to dinner as international delegation. And I have to say, we have been looked after. I do like the Turkish food. And suddenly the three released comrades walked in with family and friends. They received a warm welcome. It was very emotional especially as Bedriye had brought her sons and husband with her. The boys are only two years older than my own daughters and I’m just starting to grasp the feeling of how it must be, close to 300 days without them. It was then that they told us how important the international support had been for them in jail and during the hearings.

- List of EPSU affiliates in Turkey

- Statement signed

  • Municipality workers demonstration, Ankara 13 December 2012
  • Municipality workers demonstration, Ankara 13 December 2012
  • Jan Willem Goudriaan speaking in support of the action
  • Photo by Manfred Brinkmann (GEW)
  • DSC 0070 WEB