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Turkey: 22 teachers unionists released after 6 months of unjustified detention

published 24 November 2009 updated 24 November 2009

“They are free. Egitim-Sen would like to thank you for your strong support. This is the success of international solidarity,” wrote Mehmet Bozgeyik, General Secretary of the Turkish teacher union to EI.

After two days of court hearing on 19-20 Nov, the High Penalty Court in Izmir decided to release all the 31 public sector unionists who were tried for belonging to an illegal Kurdish organisation. Out of the 31 trade unionists (of whom 27 are teachers and members of Egitim-Sen), 9 had already been released in July. The 22 others, including 10 women, had been locked up in prison since May. All defendants were either Kurdish or have links with the Kurdish community.

All the defendants and national observers concurred that the trial was targeting both Egitim-Sen and the public sector union KESK who were gaining new members and strength in the context of the economic crisis.

“The purpose of the trial was to isolate us from other labour and democratic mass organisations and to marginalize our confederation in its struggle of labour and democracy,” said Sami EVREN, President of KESK.

Apart from the protest messages from EI and its members sent through the web or by mail, the large union delegation present at the trial, composed of EI and other Global Union Federations as well as respresentatives of other EI member organisations, sent a strong signal to the Turkish authorities that the international community is denouncing the crackdown on unions.

The international trade union delegation (including representatives of EI member organisations in Denmark, Germany, Greece, France and the UK) and a representative from the European Union remarked that the trial did not meet international or national legal requirements.

First of all, the defendants were all arrested on 28 May following months of surveillance of individual phones and emails. Their homes and workplaces were searched and their computers were confiscated. The arrests occurred in a very brutal way which caused psychological trouble for some family members, especially the children of the defendants.

Furthermore, the defendants, who denied all the charges, claimed that the security agents who scanned their conversations lack training and thus associated the trade union jargon to that of a “terrorist organisation”. Many of the email addresses that had been monitored were unknown to the defendants, and most of them do not use email anyway.

Thirdly, until the submission of the indictment on 31 July, the defence lawyers did not have access to their files at all. During the trial, the rights of the defence were violated with the president of the court himself doing the interrogations, the defence lawyers were impeded from speaking with the defendants, and only one female guard being present although ten women were standing trial. The time allocated for the trial (two days for 31 defendants) was also limited. Although the defendants were charged with giving “intellectual support to illegal organisations”, they were handcuffed during the transport to and from the court.

If convicted, the defendants faced up to 5-10 years' imprisonment.

Although the international trade union movement welcomes the court decision to release all 31 defendants, it remains highly concerned about the case because all the accused will have to appear in court again in March.

“This trial clearly indicates that engaging in union activities is still a very risky undertaking in Turkey. The colleagues who spent 5 months and 20 days in detention away from their families paid a very high cost for their commitment to democracy and labour rights. EI will continue to stand by them,” said EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen.