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Interview With Laywer Eren Keskin – Defending Human Rights as Lifestyle

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Eren Keskin is a lawyer, human/women’s rights defender and former head of the Istanbul Human Rights Association. She is also the co-founder of the Project for Legal Aid to Victims of Rape and Sexual Assault Under Custody providing free legal aid to the victims of violence. For exposing and speaking out against the abuses happening to women, she has been threatened, harassed and arrested many times by the state authorities.

This interview was made in Istanbul in April 2020. For French version, click here.

L’OBS: How are your confinement days going?

Eren Keskin: I find something to do at home, but my mind is at work.

L’OBS: But you still go to work on certain days?

EK: I am going to office once a week. We complete the new legal notifications about the clients or an expected petition. Other than that, we cannot go to prisons.

L’OBS: Courthouses are also closed in the confinement days, right?

EK: They do not start new proceedings apart from the current detention hearings. The hearings are being postponed.

L’OBS: Our interview coincided with 24 April, the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. It is one of the unrelieved pains of our country… This year has been the 105th year of the genocide, but it remains in the background…

EK: It could not be a topic of the agenda of the opposition, the alternative movements in Turkey. I mean in the true sense. It became an issue 100 years later; this is a terrible thing.

L’OBS: Right, this issue is not just a problem whether a State recognized a crime or not. It is also a matter of widespread awareness. It is also important that it should on the agenda of the society. In Turkey, it came after the murder of Hrant Dink.

EK: As Human Rights Association (HRA), we have been organizing a commemoration since 2005. And personally, I was always saying my opinion, but it was too late for institutions to put it into their agenda in general. It is still not on the agenda of the leftist movements. When there is a positive step of the State, awareness increases a little bit in the society, and it became visible in the agendas. Because we all, as the institutions and the individuals of this geography, look like the state.

L’OBS: You said that often. You think the opposition has a “bad habit” to imitate the state’s behavior. For a person, even saying this is risky. But you talk openly on various risky topics of Turkey’s politics. You are such a person who likes to push the limits, who lives ‘in danger’. But no one starts such things just to be in danger. Why did you go this way, why did you choose such a way?

EK: You mean, why did I go crazy like this (laughter). I think it is something about the family. My father is from a Kurdish family from Sivas, a central Anatolian city of Turkey but they were assimilated. My mom is Circassian (Çerkez). I was 13 years old when I first learnt from my father’s aunt’s son that I have a Kurdish origin. To be honest, I think, I saw some problems a little earlier. For example, I got to know this Armenian genocide for a non-political reason. My uncle married with an Armenian woman during 1970s. He married with Josephine. I was a child then. My grandfather was a law graduate, a governor, a deputy governor, a man known as a democrat. But in order for my uncle to marry Josephine, he wanted Josephine to be a Muslim and wanted her name to be Hülya.

L’OBS: And he chose the name as well?

EK: Yes. I then asked my mother, “Are we going to call her as Josephine or Hülya?” I could not grasp the situation as a child. My mom said, “her name is Josephine, you’ll always call her Josephine”. No one called her as Hülya except my grandfather. This event always remained in my mind. One day, while sitting at the beach, I asked to Josephine, “Have your family affected by the genocide?” Josephine was so scared that she said, “let’s swim.” We went far in the sea, till the barges, she told me the story of her family there. This was something that I realized through a family experience. Then I became a part of a leftist organization and I saw that this problem was never discussed there. We had a veteran comrade then, and I asked him, “Why is the Armenian genocide never spoken?” He was a Kurd, but he was a part of Turkish leftist movement. He said to me, ‘There is a lot of issues like this that has not been spoken yet.’


L’OBS: It is remarkable that your mother behaved openly and truthfully…

EK: My mom has a special place in my life. She always opened the doors in front of me, she was my first friend, we always stayed as friends. I never hid my boyfriends from my parents. My mom and dad respected me. They always had fears about me, but they believed in me. I am incredibly lucky indeed. They listened my advice as their daughter. And I was a part of a leftist organization then. I was making make-up, and the guys in the organization criticized me for making make-up. I was annoyed. I thought this is not their business to give advice about my appearance. My uncle was a psychiatrist. He was a doctor in Germany. He was an atheist, and he was against the “nationalisms”, and a person I was extremely impressed. My grandmother was a chemical engineer, she was one of educated women oh her time. Living with strong women encouraged me in my opinion.

L’OBS: When did you become a part of human rights movement?

EK: Starting with 1990s. I intentionally chose human rights movement rather than being a part of a political organization or a party. Because it was always in my mind that the alternative organizations are in fact somehow become a male-dominated and military-like organizations like the state. I found human rights movement closer to my personality. Because it allows me to stay as an independent individual. Because, in my opinion, the alternative organizations somehow try to create the typologies they want. And I never regret my preference, I love my job very much. Apart from my individual problems and painful days in my private life, I am a happy person.


L’OBS: During 1990s, Human Rights Association (HRA) was a meeting point for almost all the sectors of the society. Its door was open to people from all walks of life.

EK: At the beginning, we tried to figure out what should be done by trial-and-error. Human rights movement in Turkey taught us ‘taking sides but staying objective at the same time’. We must take side along with the oppressed gender, the oppressed nation, the oppressed class, the oppressed individual, but we must be stay objective. We should be able to criticize them when they violated the human rights. For example, we always defended that “it is not allowed to torture to a torturer”. We have always condemned so called in-organizations death-sentences. At that time, HRA went beyond the ordinary. It was a period in which the state was carrying out a dirty war, people were disappeared in detention, when heavy torture methods were used, opponents were executed on the streets and villages were burned… The only organization at that time that went Kurdistan and gathered evidence and wrote reports was the HRA. Because of this reason, we were accused of taking side with pro-Kurdish party PKK (Kurdish Worker’s Party). And we always reported objectively. If the academy was able to carry on a study on the 1990s, this is thanks to the HRA’s efforts because there was only HRA that collected data at that time. It is valid for Armenian genocide as well. HRA Istanbul branch is among the institutions who condemned it first. For this reason, HRA Istanbul’s name is written in the list of institutions who recognize the genocide in the genocide monument in Armenia. In my opinion, HRA is the institution where it is easier to criticize the official discourse.

L’OBS: As you told, there were also police officers who applied to HRA about the violations of their humans rights.

EK: Yes. Such things are not known much. For example, I never forget, once a member of the Turkish nationalist movement (ülkücü) who was tortured while he was in the military made an application to HRA. As he told, he applied to other associations before, but no one paid attention to him. It was 1990s, the military was enormously powerful, no one wanted to confront with the military. Then a journalist from a right-wing media advised him “go to HRA and find Eren Keskin, she would accept to be your lawyer”. He came to HRA and introduced himself, “I’m a member of Turkish nationalist movement but my commander at the military tortured me heavily’ he said and asked, ‘do you accept to be my lawyer?”. We accepted and said, for the application criteria, it is enough for us to be tortured. His trial lasted for years. And one day he said, “I still believe in the Turkish nationalist movement, but I voted for [pro-Kurdish party] HDP (People’s Democracy Party) because I like you as a person a lot” (laughs).

L’OBS: During the 1990s, the most visible and the most severe human rights violations were against the Kurds.

EK: So is today. For example, they passed the latest amnesty law for COVID-19 release in this way so that the Kurds are not out of jail. This is extremely clear.

L’OBS: During 1990s, instead of taking data remotely, you were going to the field. That was a generation of activists working on the field.

EK: Of course, wherever there was a violation of rights, we immediately created a commission on it and went to the field to observe and derive data. Then, many extrajudicial executions were held, all over Turkey. Many people were killed, especially in Istanbul. At that time, we had a commission against extrajudicial executions, we would immediately meet and go to the field wherever it happened. We would go to some places before the police.

L’OBS: What do you mean by extrajudicial executions? Do you mean the executions within the political organizations themselves?

EK: No, there were intense execution of the police against some leftist political organizations, for example DHKP-C (Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front). And in the case of the executions within the political organization we made our statements to protest immediately. This is why we were declared traitors by many organizations, we were declared police collaborators, but in the end, everyone got used to it. IHD condemns every organization that harms civilians, this is something everyone now accepts.


L’OBS: But during the 2000s IHD weakened, why was that?

EK: I can say some of our people joined to political parties. The first civil society structure established after the September 12, 1980 military coup was the Human Rights Association. Political parties, other associations, non-governmental organizations were established later. People of IHD started to join such organizations.

L’OBS: So HRA, raised the staff  required by the alternative political structures of that period…

EK: Of course, it is. For example, all the deputies in the opposition, especially the HDP are former HRA executives of Istanbul, Ankara or Diyarbakır HRA.There are also some former HRA members among the main opposition party CHP (Republican People’s Party) members. There are others in the EMEP – the Labor Party. HRA prepared the civil society for politics after September 12, the military coup. Those who really want to stay in the field of human rights have stayed in HRA, those who want to do politics are gone.

L’OBS: Beside this, HRA, as an Association criticizing the state’s and government’s politics was persecuted. There were armed attacks against you as human rights defenders as well as HRA offices. People murdered, put in prison, so it is another reason of such weakening.

EK: Sure. There were many HRA executive staff murdered, our branches were bombed. In 1994 and 2001, I was attacked twice in Diyarbakır, in Istanbul. We survived, maybe it was for intimidation.


L’OBS: Former head of HRA Istanbul, Akın Birdal was about to die …

EK: Indeed, Akın Birdal was back from death’s door. It was done to prevent people from participating in the human rights struggle. The State has always used different methods for this. In the 1990s, they used physical violence a lot. Now they are firing people from work, arresting them without hesitation, harming their family, threatening them, etc… However, it is the same state mentality. It has a long tradition date back to Teşikat-ı Mahsusa. There is a hidden, criminal state structure inside the State, it becomes visible frequently. There are two main genocides in this geography: One is against the Christians and the other is Dersim genocide against Alevis in 1938. It is still forbidden to talk about them. Can you imagine? We live in a geography where there is no freedom of expression. Therefore, social changes are also awfully slow.


L’OBS: You have lost a lot of friends, there are many deaths around you, how and why do you continue? How does it feel that gives you the power of endurance and determination to continue?

EK: Actually, it becomes a way of living over time. You do not know another life. So, I do not know any other lifestyle. For example, there is a COVID-19 pandemic now. Rather than taking precautions to protect ourselves, we regret that we could not go to prisons, we think about the people there. Your identity is shaped like this, it is your way to think about others. But you can only do this if you love it. We all do it fondly. People always ask if I am not afraid. Now, I have been sentenced to 17 years and 2 months in prison for being a part of pro-Kurdish daily newspaper Özgür Gündem.  The case is at the Supreme Court now and we are waiting the result. Beside this, I was fined of 456 thousand Turkish Liras from other cases, almost 250 thousand of them have been determined. I will go to jail if I do not pay them. We are trying to pay them with international solidarity. But I did not want to go abroad. Because after bringing the struggle to this point, it makes more sense to continue in prison. If I go abroad, it feels as if all I do is wasted. Of course, I have anxiety. Because they can come at any time to put me in prison, but I have cats. I had a mother, I lost her, I am in great pain. When my mother and father were alive, I was always worried about them. Because I do it with love and belief, that anxiety and fear is never at the forefront. As you said, we have lost so many people that you feel you owe them. One of the things that motivates me the most is our debt to the dead.

L’OBS: If you go abroad, you can have a comfortable life. You are a globally recognized human rights advocate. The Kurdish and Armenian diaspora may offer you opportunities, but you prefer the more difficult one.

EK: Two different states offered me for asylum, one by inviting me to the consulate, and one by calling me. I did not want. Amnesty International arranged a house for me on one of the islands in Greece.

L’OBS: But your safety was in danger, non?

EK: Yes, it was. But I never thought about leaving the country.

L’OBS: There are many who respect you from the Muslims or right-wing people. People respect the people who supports the victims. Also, ordinary people and those at the bottom highly respect you. That is, street sellers, vendor, etc. Maybe it is because you are providing free legal aid to them.

EK: I believe that courage is a virtue that protects people. I am a person trying to defend my thoughts boldly. They respect you when you dare defend something against a judge, albeit very opposite to that judge. For a while I have been deeply disrespectful of Kemalists. They had posted on newspapers to humiliate me. Then women organizations and feminist organizations had supported me then. Even the Kemalists are now behaving well for us. Because a lot has changed politically. In fact, we are now just where we were before as human rights defenders. Apart from the attitude of the Kemalists at that time, I have not seen any disrespect from people who think differently with me. We have suffered many insults when Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan was brought to Turkey because we were his lawyers, but I never experienced anything heavy outside it.

L’OBS: You were asked to be a deputy; you did not accept. Why?

EK: I got offers for deputy, many times, right. But I never thought to be a part of politics. As I said before, for example, I vote for HDP, but this political party also has problems and I want to criticize them. But when you become a party member, you have to act according to the will of the party. I never want it. I do not enter parliament to swear on giving priority to the Turkish nation. Many people could not understand it. But when I swear it, I think that as a human rights defender, I will feel unfair to myself. So, I never thought of going into politics, I do not regret it at all.


L’OBS: You are leading a women’s law firm that you started in the late 90s. At that time, you started to give free legal aid to the victims of violence. You were in prison for a while, then you started it. How did that happen?

EK: I was put in prison in 1995. Because I used the word Kurdistan in an article I wrote. It was illegal then. I was sentenced to 2.5 years. The law changed when I was in prison, and I left the prison at the end of the 6th month. We knew that women were subjected to sexual torture, but women did not reveal it. One day in prison, when I was pacing at the yard, one of the women who was my client approached me and said, ‘you know what happened to me’ and she started to tell all the story. That she was raped in custody, that she could not share it with anyone, that she constantly had nightmare, etc.. Other women in prison started revealing the similar experiences one after another. I thought there, this crime goes unpunished, and sexual torture is the most violent form of torture for a woman. After I got out of prison, I talked about it with my friend Jutta Hermans, a German lawyer. She knew Turkish as well as Kurdish. There were many attacks on lawyers in Kurdistan in the 90s. She had come to Turkey to prepare a report on this issue. ‘Let us do it together, it is particularly good idea’ said Jutta. Heidi Weber from Amnesty International and another women’s association supported us. And in 1997, we opened an office to provide free legal aid for women victims of sexual torture. First we tried to meet with women who engaged in politics. Because their litigation capacity was higher, we thought we could move on more rapidly. We started to visit the prisons. At that time, many political structures criticized us, saying that this is a bourgeois approach, and that revolutionaries cannot distinguish between torture and sexual torture. They made inconceivable objections. At that time, only the Kurdish movement paid attention to this work and many Kurdish women revealed the sexual violence they faced during the war. Over time, this prejudice was broken. Everyone started to apply to us. We started to reach women who were convicted of ordinary crimes and trans women. So far, nearly 700 women have applied to our office. This number is of course very few of the actual number. Because it is extremely difficult to reveal sexual torture. Many women are afraid to reveal, but I still think that our work is effective. I think women are starting to be more courageous about this.

L’OBS: In addition to providing legal aid, you refer the applicants for their physical and psychological health problems. After all, the woman who has experienced such a trauma, her husband, her children, her family have too.

EK: Of course, we refer when necessary. In sexual torture cases, the problems come one after another. They also tell us about family problems. Because women tell you a very intimate situation. They expect much more than legal aid. Because the situation requires much more than legal aid. This also brings a lot of responsibility. Because our applicants are waiting for us to solve other problems in their lives. This is a difficult thing, a very heavy responsibility. But we learned how to handle the situation with my colleague Leman (Yurtsever). For example, we have children who were subjected to sexual torture when they were little, we witness their entire life as they grow. We become their kind of family. But we do it lovingly and willingly. Because these people are face with a serious poverty, unemployment, and in many cases there are abandoned by the family. We have a trans client, she said something, especially valid for trans women: ‘Our families leave us first and this office became our family.’ At that time, I was extremely impressed by his words. Indeed, it is, and we are happy with this.


L’OBS: So, they were applying directly to you. Because, compared to human rights movement, the LGBTT movement was institutionalized a bit later in Turkey, in the early 2000s, right?

EK: Right, LGBTT movement is younger than the human rights movement. There is an additional problem for LGBTT individuals. The alternative movements are also very transphobic and homophobic. There is no alternative structure that systematically discussing on homophobia. In fact, it is not different from racism. Homophobia is heterosexual racism. There is a male-dominated opposition structure that looks like the state. It is extremely difficult to do this. Because there is a very totalitarian state structure, and ordinary people have internalized the state’s perspective so much. For example, there is an international convention to which Turkey is a signatory: the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention. Turkey is one of the first signatories of this agreement. This agreement clearly says: “The so-called conception of honor shall be open to discussion”. But it has not been implemented in anywhere yet except the LGBTT movement. Having established their own institutions, they started to implement it. This is why I value a lot to the LGBTT movement.

L’OBS: We are talking about very heavy political issues. Executions, village raids, sexual torture, etc.… But you are commenting as such a kind and feminine woman. You do not have a typology that Turkey is accustomed to. This may be confusing both the state and the opposition.

EK: At the beginning they found me and my appearance strange, especially the leftist people (laughing). But I think everyone got used to me now. In the years when I first introduced with the leftist movement, there was an extreme trend as “revolutionary as an image”. I mean, being a leftist meant wearing a coat, walking hard, no make-up for women, etc. Now the women on the left almost all make make-up and wear their miniskirts. The old perception is not valid anymore, which is through struggle, the struggle for women has an effect. Each circle of power tries to create its own woman, but to me, the will of the woman belongs only to her. We have to be what we want to see ourselves as women. Kurdish women who want to make up give me an example for those who criticize them for their make-up (laughing). I love such anecdotes.

L’OBS: Kurdish women struggled with such things along with feudalism.

EK: Of course. But now everyone is afraid of the Kurdish women’s movement, men cannot insult to women. I mean, the women who active in politics. Otherwise, the woman continues to be oppressed everywhere. But at least it is changing, open to change.


L’OBS: So, why, in your opinion, women’s movement became so powerful in the Kurdish movement?

EK: It was a movement that took the woman out of the house, this is important. Women had the opportunity to join politics and public life. But I can see that it is still a male-dominated movement. That feudal understanding is still there. Let me tell you a recent anecdote. A Kurdish woman wants to divorce. Both husband and wife are in Kurdish politics. The whole family opposed to the decision of the woman, and to solve this issue faster, she asked me to talk to her uncle who had been in prison for years. You know what this uncle told me?! “Miss Keskin, we have no fear if you are, but she would go bad”. What does “she would go bad” mean? Can you imagine? This man is a revolutionary, he has been in prison for years, he is a part of active politic, etc. So, the situation is still serious, but now there is a women’s movement to deal with. This is an important thing.

L’OBS: It is a global issue. For example, domestic violence is a big problem in many European countries. It is increased during COVID-19 confinement. The men afraid of committing violence on the street because the state is punishing heavily, but it is a big problem in the households. It is important to have people or institutions where women will be in solidarity.

EK: Perhaps their degrees are different, but violence against women exists everywhere. You start to step back as soon as you stop fighting. And also, being a woman biologically is not enough, it is important to have the perspective of a woman.


L’OBS: You have been struggling for human rights in a period that has been ruled by AKP (Justice and Development Party) government for the last 20 years. When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power, he was supported by various segments of the society. They were particularly good at municipal works, they offered service guarantees, he was a civilian leader, and he was a voice of the oppressed people, because Muslims was oppressed a lot during republican period, he also went to jail, etc. They came to power and it created a great expectation. They got votes from every segment. How do you see their journey?

EK: Tayyip Erdoğan and AKP came to power with democratic discourses. At that time, there was the possible European Union membership process for Turkey. The winds of European Union were blowing. This weather continued for a while. The Islamist movement had historical fight with the Kemalists as well. But at that time, Tayyip Erdoğan had another power partner. This structure, now called Fetullahists (Gulenist), was a structure that was made up of better educated, more intellectual people. Relying on that coalition, the AKP handed over almost all structures to these Fetullahists. For example, the Police Department was occupied entirely by Fetullahists. They trusted their coalition partner and left the legal system, the judiciary and even the education system to this group. But when the economic problems arise, then the conflict started and there was a coup attempt of July 15, 2016. There was a big rupture and bloody rupture between them. After that, the AKP cooperated with the Nationalists, the pro-coup mindset, and the deep state, which it had previously fought with. Everything changed after that. There is a big difference between Tayyip Erdogan’s old rhetoric and today’s rhetoric. Tayyip Erdoğan even stepped in and apologized for the Armenian genocide. He apologized for Dersim genocide.

L’OBS: At that time, President Abdullah Gül went to Armenia for the same reason.

EK: Yes, at that time, Tayyip Erdoğan said that ‘I would crush all kinds of nationalism under my feet’ many times. The man who said these words is collaborating with the racist party of this geography today. This is all about changing the partner of power. I always believed that in this geography, a vast majority divided into 2 wings: Islamists and Nationalists. These two sections have no difference in their approach to the official ideology of the State, on the “red lines” of the State.  They do not differ in terms of their approach to Kurds, Armenians, women or trans people. The fight between them is just a power game. I call them enemy brothers. Therefore, I think the AKP has returned to its original form. In reality, they are remarkably close to the nationalists. Therefore, they cooperated with the “deepest” section of the nationalists. For this reason, the process we are experiencing now is very scary. I have been in the human rights movement for 30 years. There was no other time when I felt myself so unprotected. Even in the 1990s, freedom of expression was not under such pressure. But at least, you were on trial, you were being punished, you were going to prison if your sentence became definite. But now you are arrested the moment you go to testify. We are in extremely bad situation in terms of freedom of expression. For example, judicial authority. We used to have access to the judicial authority in the past, there were judges that we could talk to. Yes, the judicial authority was again not independent, but there were judges who at least listen you. Now, as lawyers, we cannot even enter the rooms of judges and prosecutors. Security interrupts us. Apart from that, no judge can decide that Tayyip Erdogan will not like. Because now courts are immediately dismissed. For this reason, we are having a very frightening process. All of those deep state actors of the 1990s are now with Tayyip Erdoğan. Doğu Perinçek, Mehmet Ağar, Tansu Çiller… So, we are back in the 90s. Yes, the methods are different, but the state is the same.

L’OBS: There are also global and of course local economic difficulties brought by COVID-19. Because no country has ever been able to fight with COVID-19.

EK: They cannot tackle the situation properly. Because what is the real situation is unknown. For example, it is said that there are many people who recovered from COVID-19 without any symptoms, but we do not know how we are as an individual because we were not tested. The economy stopped completely. The situation in prisons is extremely dire. COVID-19 deaths have begun now, we learn that the number of contaminants has increased. Therefore, our job will increase when the situation becomes a little normal. Huge violations of rights will occur due to COVID-19. An exceedingly difficult period awaits us all. It is like the whole world. No country could solve it. The health policy of capitalism went bankrupt. This is happening all over the world. Capitalism only investing to promote consumption, not to promote health.

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