Pinar Selek: from judicial persecution to media defamation

by Béranger Dominici

The Turkish justice system’s relentless pursuit of Pınar Selek never ends. After fourteen years of proceedings, a new hearing is due to take place in early August. Recently, a defamatory media campaign has created new tensions in the case. A look back at a case that is symptomatic of the authoritarian drift of the Turkish state.
An oppressor’s talent lies in his ability to establish his domination without violence. In other words, his power is exercised all the more effectively when he circumscribes more precisely the behaviour of those he targets, and when his objectives can be achieved without injunctions. In short, when it discourages resistance. The unfortunate thing is that the strings – or the meshes – are too big, and all that’s left to do to make those who resist listen to reason is to silence them.

Government by deterrence

As I write these few lines, how can I fail to think of the « government by deterrence » being implemented in Turkey1? Above all, how can we not think of its failures: the sad chain of events that remind us that the Turkish regime is an authoritarian one, where fundamental freedoms are under threat2. The method is very simple: it is based on a legal system that is sufficiently vague to allow the scope of repression to be first extended in the name of the « Turkish nation », protected by Article 301 of the Penal Code, which severely punishes it’s denigration. Then, and above all, in the name of the « fight against terrorism ». It is in fact by virtue of the anti-terrorist law, which, as is customary, makes it possible to repress even potential dissent, that journalists, lawyers, academics, trade unionists and ordinary citizens who have also wanted to exercise their right to freedom of expression are currently being detained.

In cases like these, the « State’s reason » can always rely on the national legislature, which adopted the law under which the repression is carried out: there is a text, there are facts – the abuse of power comes through their interpretation. But some stories are perplexing: some stories where the Turkish state’s strategy of exhaustion does not bother with such precautions, and where its desire to achieve its goals may well lead it to take certain liberties with reality.

A look back at a symptom

Pınar Selek’s story is one of these. It is an approach that made Pınar Selek undesirable: that of trying to understand Turkish society by studying its margins. An approach to knowledge that has always been driven by a desire to act on the reality she was discovering: to act for women’s rights, against the living conditions of street children, against discrimination against people designated as LGBTI, for recognition of the Kurdish and Armenian populations and their history. A deliberate multipositionality, based on an understanding of the systemic dimension of relations of domination, and on which the Amargi3 association she helped to found is working: LBGTI, anti-militarist, feminist, Kurdish, Armenian and other activists come together. A grassroots effort, marked by campaigns and reinforced by symbolic work aimed at changing the way Turkish society looks at itself. This was clearly going too far: her commitment to the Kurdish
question earned Pınar Selek two years in pre-trial detention, accompanied by torture sessions. The main thing was to silence her. However, there are checks and balances, and any deprivation of liberty must be justified. This is what the Turkish state has been trying to do for more than fourteen years now, by trying to have her convicted for an explosion that took place in the spice market in Istanbul, causing the death of several people and injuring many others. On three occasions, Pınar Selek has been acquitted by the Criminal Court, and on three occasions the prosecutor has lodged an appeal4.

Lies to back up justice

What is surprising is not so much that the prosecutor is making use of his right, but that he is doing so in defiance of the expert reports which, by invalidating the hypothesis of the criminal origin of the explosion at the spice market in Istanbul, deprive the charge against Pınar Selek of any real basis. Similarly, what is worrying is not so much the next hearing, which will be held at the beginning of August, but the climate in which it will take place. Over the past few days, certain
media outlets, relying on more than questionable sources, have embarked on a smear campaign5 that brings back very sad memories: shortly before his murder in January 2007, Hrant Dink was also the target of such malicious attention. How can we understand this new context? How can we foresee its consequences? These are the questions facing Pınar Selek today. Since the application of the law is essentially its interpretation, and since this interpretation is made by judges who are no less affected by what is said and written around them, how can we not fear that these lies, if repeated enough times, will end up influencing
it? Worse still, by lending credence to the image of Pınar Selek as an « enemy of the nation » that the Turkish state is trying to project, this media campaign could encourage certain extremist groups to take the fight to them, or even to take the law into their own hands6. Fortunately, we have not reached that point. And it’s not a question of playing the bird of ill omen – simply of making everyone face up to their responsibilities.

A government that unjustly imprisons

Let’s get back to the heart of the matter: Pınar Selek still lives with the heavy thought that she could end her days in prison for a non-existent act; dozens of people have been arrested and placed in detention solely on the basis of their potential dangerousness7. Of course, we can repeat with Henry Thoreau that, under a government that imprisons unjustly, the place of the just man and woman is in prison, but that will never be much consolation. The question remains: how far can the Turkish government go too far?

1: We here repeat the words of Etienne Copeaux – essentially to encourage you to read his very
stimulating analysis:

2: The joint report by the International Federation for Human Rights and the World Organisation
Against Torture is instructive in this respect:

3: « Amargi » is a Sumerian word (not Turkish, Kurdish or Armenian) meaning « freedom ».

4: For a chronology of events up to 2011:

5: Pınar Selek is portrayed as a terrorist with close links to the PKK.

6: Once again, we can only refer you to the article by Etienne Copeaux, who, referring to the attacks on Akın Birdal and Hrant Dink, adds that « in this way, the state delegates repression and violence. It can then wash its hands of it by disowning and condemning the madman or extremist, but the damage is done, and moreover the sentences handed down are often shortened ».

7: the story of the preventive custody of Sevil Sevimli, a Franco-Turkish student suspected of belonging to an armed terrorist group, the absurdity of which will eventually be admitted, is just one of many unfortunate symptoms of the authoritarian drift of the Turkish state.

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