Turkey releases the final three ’KESK 15’ female prisoners

Thursday 13 December. The three male judges and a male prosecutor sit in a row under a bust of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the authoritarian ‘father’ of the Turkish state. A soldier guards the courtroom door, his finger rests lightly on the trigger guard. Three more soldiers surround the defendants.

Five metres away, the 15 women in the defendant’s box are on trial for their defence of women’s rights. They are members of KESK, the independent confederation of Turkey’s public sector trade unions.

They are both ordinary members and women’s officers for their local branches or national unions who challenge government attempts to push back women’s rights. They are also Kurds.

Kurds, who make up about 20 per cent of the Turkish population, have been campaigning over many years for mother tongue teaching and autonomy in Turkey’s Kurdish area. An armed group, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), has been confronting the Turkish government militarily in the region. In 2009 hopes for a negotiated agreement faded and since then repression against Turkish Kurds has increased dramatically.

The public gallery is packed with family, supporters and international delegations from across the European trade union movement. These women are charged with terrorism.

In Turkey, if you have views shared by any organisation which is deemed to be ‘terrorist’, you are a ‘terrorist.’

A confession extracted under pressure, a name on a computer, words in a speech, attendance at a demonstration, supporting Kurdish autonomy, supporting Kurdish mother-tongue teaching or even wearing a traditional Kurdish scarf – any of these is enough, and sentences are around five to ten years.

The women bravely denounce the prosecutor’s evidence. The ‘evidence’ amounts to their legal union work: attending meetings; photographs of a peace initiative in relation to Kurds; their work as women’s officers for unions.

After two hours the court breaks. Suddenly there is chaos, people are shouting, others are hugging each other. The court has granted bail to the three women who still remain in prison. Later that night, in freezing weather, the three women are released and are instantly submerged in kisses and hugs from hundreds of supporters.


The next day we spoke to Canan Çalağan, the national Women’s Secretary for KESK. She is one of the 15 women defendants in this trial. She was arrested with the other women in February. Her husband was arrested in a second wave of arrests of trade union members on 25 June. While he remains in prison, she was bailed on 4 October.

She says that knowing that she could be taken away at any time forced her to have a difficult conversation with her son: “I had to tell him that I could be arrested, but that I will be back.”

Çalağan says that the Turkish government has gone after the women of KESK because their very existence is a direct challenge to the government’s deeply ingrained prejudices.

“The government recognises women only in her role within the family,” she states. She condemned Turkey’s governing party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) as neoliberal and opposed to the multicultural nature of Turkey.

“[They want] a unitary state, one leader, one religion, one nation, one language.” Later, she laughs and adds: “Also, one gender.” Çalağan said that if you are against this policy or you oppose flexible working conditions as a trade unionist, you face arrest and imprisonment.

Violence against women

Women are a particular target. “The state mentality is masculine. It is well known that [the] women’s struggle can break the old structure, so they try to repress especially women.”

She also refers to the consequences of the 1980 military coup d’etat and the ensuing political violence: “For thirty years there is war situation in Turkey and this affects all women and it also reproduces masculine violence.”

She says that there are two dimensions to the repression of women. “One is that there are many women killed in Turkey – domestic violence.” It is reported that about five women are murdered in Turkey each day.

“There are also sexual harassment, rape and now violence against women is more visible than before. [The government reacts] when we take a strong step to prevent this or when we demonstrate against this,” she says.

Çalağan says that female members of KESK have attempted to have a dialogue with the government but so far, it hasn’t led them anywhere. “You make many efforts to a get a small piece of freedom in Turkey. But we have been in struggle many times and – this is not a wish or a dream – we will get what we want.”

The trial is likely to last many months – and possibly years – as the judges list hearings for one or two days at a time at intervals of a few months. The next hearing for the 15 women is set for 18 April 2013.