Could the Şule Çet murder-rape trial change the way Turkish courts tackle violence against women?

Could the Şule Çet murder-rape trial change the way Turkish courts tackle violence against women?

Photos of Şule Çet with the slogan “We won’t stay silent!” sit on a table in her family’s apartment in Istanbul, Turkey.

(Nick Ashdown)

The first hearing in a murder-rape case that has engrossed and enraged millions of people in Turkey was held on 6 February. Şule Çet, a 23-year-old university student fell to her death from the 20th floor of a plaza in the capital city Ankara in the early hours of 29 May 2018. After being initially dismissed as suicide, strong evidence soon emerged that Çet may have been raped and killed by her boss and his friend that night.

Aside from the gruesome details and alleged initial mishandling, the case has attracted attention for the arguments conjured by the defence, namely that Çet wasn’t a virgin and she shouldn’t have been out drinking with men at that hour. The arguments are all too common in Turkey, which has been plagued by numerous high-profile femicides, but what’s different with this case is that it now seems that society is no longer willing to put up with these victim-shaming arguments.

Before Şule Çet’s name started appearing in headlines all over Turkey, before she became a hashtag and symbol for women’s rights groups, she led a relatively normal life. She lived in Istanbul but used to love spending summers in her family’s village in the mountainous, rainy Giresun province on the Black Sea. Her family would make her favourite meals – pickled green beans and beetroot soup – and they’d pick hazelnuts together.

Şule’s childhood wasn’t easy. Her family wasn’t wealthy and her mother died of stomach cancer when Şule was just 13. But she was always a cheerful girl. A framed pencil etching of Şule in her family’s apartment in Istanbul’s inner city Sultangazi district shows a girl with shoulder-length flowing hair, smiling with her mum.

“That’s how she normally looked,” says Şule’s sister-in-law Songül, an affable 31-year-old homemaker who lives with Şule’s 64-year-old dad İsmail and brother Şenol, a security guard.

When Şule was older she decided to study textile design at Gazi University in Ankara, so that one day she’d be able to get a proper job and be financially independent. “She loved studying. She always wanted to stand on her own two feet,” İsmail tells Equal Times.

After moving into a dorm in Ankara, Şule got her first taste of freedom. She got her first tattoos, died her hair blonde, and clashed with her family over whether or not she should wear a headscarf, according to a friend and university classmate, a 22-year-old woman who didn’t want to be identified. “Şule was so full of life, a real Pollyanna,” her friend in Ankara says.

Despite sometimes bickering with her family, Şule was completely devoted to them. “When her dad got sick she suspended her studies for a year and took care of him,” her friend says.

But Şule was also plagued by money problems, and had difficulty focusing on her studies. After moving into an apartment with three roommates, she sometimes couldn’t pay the rent. She got a part-time job as an assistant in an office, but the company, Std Kimya, had major problems. Its owners borrowed money from loan sharks, and one of the them ended up fleeing abroad. Many employees, Şule included, ended up getting laid off. To make matters worse, the company owed her money.

She told her boss, 34-year-old Çağatay Aksu, who she was friendly with, about her problems. He told her he’d try to help her solve them. “Şule told me she thought Çağatay liked her but she saw him as more of a brother. Neither she nor I ever thought things could get so dangerous and end this way,” says Şule’s friend in Ankara.

On the night of 28 May last year, Aksu invited Şule out to a restaurant for drinks, and later to his office with his 33-year-old friend Berk Akand. A few hours later, Şule’s broken body was lying outside the tower block.

From suicide to a murder investigation

Early on the morning of 29 May in Istanbul, Şule’s brother Şenol came home from his job with some workmates after receiving a phone call from a police officer in Ankara. İsmail and Songül were still sleeping when he got in. “I could tell something was wrong from Şenol’s colour,” İsmail says. “They told me I had to go to Ankara right away. That’s when I thought of Şule.”

They told him his daughter had died in an accident. İsmail and Şenol immediately got in the car and made the six-hour drive to Ankara. When they got there, there seems to have been confusion over whether to treat the death as a suicide or a ‘suspicious death.’ İsmail says the police told him it didn’t appear that Şule jumped, but the prosecutor opened the case as a suicide.

The Çets’ lawyer Umur Yıldırım says the prosecutor was incorrect in dismissing the case as a simple suicide, which meant the evidence and crime scene weren’t investigated thoroughly enough, nor were Aksu and Akand arrested.

Şule’s friends and family insist she’d never kill herself. “I realised something wasn’t right. Şule has a fear of heights and she wasn’t the type to commit suicide at all. She’d just moved into a new apartment, painted it two or three days before, and was buying new furniture,” Şule’s friend says. “She wanted to set up a life in Ankara and keep living here.”

Soon evidence emerged that seemed to contradict the suicide claim. Firstly, police found no fingerprints on the windows, possibly indicating that they’d been cleaned after the incident. According to security guards at the plaza and security camera footage, Aksu and Akand waited 18 minutes after Şule fell before they came down, and lied to one of the guards, saying Şule had left the building.

Phone records showed that Akand had sent a message to his ex-girlfriend at 2:39 am saying that “everything has gone bad,” an hour before Şule dropped from the window at 3:50 am. Akand and Aksu had also reportedly called an airline ten times about a trip abroad that night, allegedly to flee the country.

Furthermore, Şule herself had sent a text to her roommate at 1:48 am saying: “I can’t get out of here. The man is obsessed with me. He won’t let me go, I wish I hadn’t come.” Twelve minutes before that she’d called her roommate asking her to call Şule back and pretend she needed her to come home.

An autopsy was also performed in July which found possible evidence of rape – anal tearing, bruising, scratches, a possible bite mark on Şule’s hip, sedatives in her blood, and Akand’s DNA underneath her fingernails.

In light of such evidence, Şule’s friends and several women’s rights groups started a media campaign to raise awareness and open a new investigation. A Twitter account called Justice for Şule Çet was opened on 13 July, soon garnering nearly 40,000 followers, and the story was picked up by mainstream media.

Incredibly, the campaign worked. On 3 October, prosecutor Alev Ersan Albuz was dismissed from the case and replaced by a new one, Hüseyin Koca, who immediately opened a murder investigation (Akand and Aksu maintain their innocence) and started collecting evidence from scratch. The men are charged with murder, rape and false imprisonment, and face life sentences if found guilty.

Challenging the dangerous myth of the “improper woman”

The defence team, which argues Şule was depressed and killed herself, has sparked outrage for using arguments that legal experts and women’s rights activists have called irrelevant, archaic and sexist. They commissioned an expert report containing the line: “If a woman agrees to drinks with a man in a secluded place, it means she consents to sexual relations,” referencing a 70-year-old book.

During the hearing, one of the defence lawyers made light of the fact that Şule was not a virgin, causing an angry stir in the packed court room. “They want to portray an image of an ‘improper woman’ to the court,” Rüya İnanır, a lawyer and member of women’s rights groups Women’s Councils and the We Will Stop Femicides Platform, tells Equal Times in a cafe in Ankara.

“This is important because some men say [as an excuse for violence]: ‘I told her not to get a job, but she got a job,’ [or] ‘I told her not to speak on the phone with another man but she did, so I killed her.’ They always talk about the women seeing other men.”

In Turkey a man who kills a woman can get a reduced sentence if there is ‘unjust provocation,’ such as a woman cheating or flirting with another man. But İnanır says Turkish society is slowly reaching a point where people no longer consider such arguments valid.

“They’re questioning how it’s relevant to the law and to this case,” she says. “You can feel it in the atmosphere in the courtroom and in the media,” which has largely refrained from victim-blaming.

İnanır says that according to the Istanbul Convention, a legally binding Council of Europe treaty aimed at preventing violence against women that Turkey was the first country to ratify, cultural norms for woman’s behaviour can never be used as an excuse for abuse.

“The Istanbul Convention says you can’t normalise violence or explain it away with traditions. Meaning that a woman being outside after the hours that are deemed appropriate by society can’t be a reason for violence,” she says.

According to the We Will Stop Femicides Platform, which tracks the murders of women in Turkey, 440 women were killed last year (compared to 409 in 2017 and 397 in 2016), 85 per cent of whom were killed by their current or former romantic partners.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data from 2014shows that 42 per cent of Turkish women have been physically or sexually abused by an intimate partner, while the global average is 30 per cent. Turkey scores 130 out of 149 countries on the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index.

İnanır says the outcome of this trial is crucial, and she wants it to set a legal precedent that a woman’s so-called “inappropriate behaviour” is irrelevant.

“This isn’t just Şule’s trial. It belongs to all of us who think women shouldn’t end up like Şule, and what’s on trial here aren’t just these two villains. It’s the courts that give reductions for ‘unjust provocations;’ it’s those who don’t implement the Istanbul Convention; it’s those who say women and men aren’t equal by their nature. That’s why the courtroom was so crowded.”

Şule’s dad İsmail may never get over losing his only daughter, but what’s important to him now is that other parents don’t go through what he did.

“We lost Şule and nothing will bring her back. We just don’t want other people’s kids to end up like this,” he says. “The pain in my heart won’t ever fade, but [if we know] that her murderers are in jail, we’ll find a tiny bit of relief.”

Şule’s friend in Ankara still remembers her as the sunny young woman who, no matter how tough life got, never gave up. When she thinks of Şule, she remembers her tattoos most vividly, especially the birds on her collarbone that seemed to look so happy and free.

“She loved her bird tattoos. Those were the first ones she had done,” she says. “I just hope that now she is as free and happy as those birds.”