The Woman Vs. The State

The extraordinary case of Pınar Selek.

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11 June 2014, 5:00am

Pınar Selek in Strasbourg, where she now lives in exile. Photo by Vincent Girardot. 

On the afternoon of July 9, 1998, a fatal explosion took place in the Spice Bazaar, one of the largest marketplaces in Istanbul. Minutes before, a sudden downpour had driven a crowd of shoppers to huddle at the heart of the explosion, a doner shop called Unluoglu Bufe at the entrance of the bazaar. The blast claimed seven lives and left 127 people injured. The Istanbul Police Department immediately launched a forensic investigation into the source of the explosion. The question on everyone’s lips was obvious: was this a terrorist attack?

Two days later, a 27-year-old anti-militarist sociology graduate named Pınar Selek was collared by police on the street and taken to the station. She’d been putting together an oral history of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed insurgency group that has fought an armed struggle for self-determination against the Turkish state in the southeast of the country since 1984 (the violence has subsided since the ceasefire in March 2013.) As part of her research, Selek had been talking to members of the PKK to find out why they had chosen this path of radicalism and violence. When the police arrested her, they demanded she reveal the identities of the guerrilla fighters she had been talking to. She did not; she refused to put her interviewees at risk. The police accused her of aiding and abetting the PKK, and kept her in custody. After seven days of torture, she was locked up. She was neither accused of, nor interrogated about, the Spice Bazaar explosion, but one evening, 20 days into her incarceration, she was watching TV in the prison ward when she saw herself on the news and heard the anchorman refer to “the Spice Bazaar bomber, Pınar Selek”.

Pınar Selek was born in Istanbul in 1971 to a human rights lawyer father and a pharmacist mother. Theirs was a modest bourgeois family with a strong socialist lineage. Her grandfather, Cemal Hakkı Selek, was a lawyer and senior leader in the Workers Party of Turkey (TIP), the first socialist party to enter the Turkish parliament, and – mostly by virtue of endorsing a Marxist, pro-Kurdish rights stance – a long-standing arch-enemy of the anti-communist Turkish military. Her father, Alp Selek, followed in the footsteps of his father and became a TIP executive. Selek’s first encounter with prison came at the age of nine when she would visit her father, who, following the military coup of the 12th of September 1980, was jailed for five years for being a TIP member. “I thought of prison as a place to hang out with intellectuals. There was a sense of solidarity in prison as there was in our household,” she says over Skype from her study in Strasbourg, where she now lives in exile. It looks to be a cosy room, with bookshelves crammed with philosophy books. I expected a hardened scholar, but I’m greeted by a soft-featured, motherly woman who welcomes me with a big smile and instantly calls me “my dear Esra”.

Selek grew up among the intelligentsia of the time. Scholars and authors would frequent her family home, which she says was more like a commune, where politics was a natural part of life. “To me, the 12th of September marks the end of that warm and cheerful environment,” she says. The idea of not trusting the official ideology and the mainstream media was instilled in her at a very young age. She witnessed the rise of extreme fascism in her primary school after the 12th of September. “My teacher stopped coming to my mum’s pharmacy after my father was locked up. I’d hear people revering Kenan Evren [the coup leader and then-president] as a pasha, but back home my mum and her friends would watch his televised speeches and say he was lying.”

When she was 11, a senior family friend, Turkish author and translator Adnan Cemgil (also a founding member of TIP), gave her a copy of Denis Diderot’s The Nun. Upon reading it she came to the conclusion that she wanted to see a nun in real life, so she decided to apply to Notre Dame de Sion, a French high school, which was founded by French sisters. Her early antagonism with the military’s ideology began around this time. “After the coup, the Ministry of National Education assigned really fascist teachers to classes like history and literature in these schools [bilingual high schools],” she says. Once, in a national security class, a now-defunct course where a colonel would educate students on the Turkish armed forces and matters of national security, the teacher organised a field trip to a military school. She refused to go along and meet the soldiers and was given her first detention.

But her most formative years came towards the end of high school. One day she met a homeless boy near her school. She asked him for a cigarette and they struck up a friendship. Then, gradually, she met others. “I was a storyteller, so I started telling stories to these kids,” she says. “We maintained a friendship for years, then one day – I was at university at this point – they said: ‘You go home at night and put on your slippers, don’t you? Why don’t you stay with us one night?’ So I started sleeping rough to keep them company.”

Sleeping on the streets of Istanbul, she says, defined her outlook on life. "I trusted the homeless. We were friends. They saw me as their sister." I ask if power politics was involved in the relationship. “It was an organic relationship, not a ‘project’. I never handed them out any money,” she says. According to Selek, the kids were weary of journalists and researchers who capitalised on their story. So she tried not to analyse them, fearing a study would objectify them. Instead, in 1994, she founded an art collective called Street Artists’ Workshop. “I knew lots of different groups in the streets, including sex workers, most of whom were transgender people,” she says. “We all got together, about 50 people, and we squatted in an abandoned building in Taksim and made art. It brought us together. Until 1998.”

Selek and some of her homeless friends outside their squat in Taksim, Istanbul in the mid-90s. Photo courtesy of Pınar Selek.

Just as the camaraderie of her childhood household was ended by the military coup in 1980, when the police apprehended Selek near the Street Artists’ Workshop on the 11th of July 1998, she was taken away from her collective and everything she’d worked towards. “The intelligence department had tapped the phones of the PKK members I talked to – that’s why they started following me,” she explains. The police interrogated her to extract information about her research. She had a few floppy disks containing her work, but she hadn’t used her interviewees’ names, calling them “X”, “Y” and “Z” instead. The police told her they’d release her if she gave them names and they advised her to forget about her research. But Selek refused to disclose the interviewees’ identities, and so the police tortured her. “They applied electric shocks to my temples,” she says. “What’s funny is I’d always been against psychiatry, I’d done research on mental institutions and I’d particularly been against shock therapy. Suddenly I was being given electric shocks to my temples!”

She gives a half-suppressed, ironic laugh, and then goes on to describe her torture in a matter-of-fact, almost clinical manner. “The worst was when they hung me by my arms and dislocated one of them. They put it back shoddily and my shoulder was torn. For the first four months in prison I couldn’t even move my little finger.” After a week in custody, during which her lawyer says no legal assistance was offered, Selek was arrested by the State Security Court (later replaced by Istanbul Heavy Penal Courts) and was subsequently incarcerated. On the 28th of July 1998 she was indicted for membership of an illegal organisation.

While this was going on, an investigation had been launched into the Spice Bazaar explosion. Within the first ten days following the blast, an initial crime scene investigation report, an expert-opinion report of the criminal police laboratory prepared by the police bomb experts, and a final police crime scene investigation report all stated that there were no findings indicating a bomb. But 15 days after Selek’s indictment for “membership of an illegal organisation”, something strange happened.

On the 12th of August, the Turkish police had arrested a young Kurdish man who allegedly had been planning to escape to PKK camps in Greece via Edirne, a province in the Turkish Thrace near the Greek border. Under torture, he had named several alleged guerrilla members, one of whom was Abdulmecit Ozturk, another young Kurd. When the police took Ozturk into custody, he made a surprise confession: he and Selek were the main perpetrators behind the Spice Bazaar explosion, and they had made a bomb together at his aunt’s place.

Ozturk then went to trial, where it transpired that his statement was taken under police torture and he renounced his testimony in front of the State Security Court judge. He told the judge that he was tortured into signing a false testimony and that he didn’t even know Selek. While still in the courthouse, the police reportedly took him aside and once again threatened him with torture. He went back before the judge and returned to the original testimony, which incriminated both himself and Selek.

Following Ozturk’s coerced testimony, the public prosecutor indicted Selek for the Spice Bazaar explosion, in addition to her prior charge and appointed a new team of experts to further investigate the source of the explosion. On the 2nd of November 1998, a new report said that there were findings of nitrocellulose at the crime scene, a chemical substance that is commonly associated with explosives. This was later refuted by Istanbul University’s Analytical Chemical Department, which concluded that nitrocellulose was also commonly found in everyday materials from ink, varnish and leather to meat products.

In a court hearing the following year, the chief inspector and head of the police bomb disposal bureau said that no trace of a bomb was found and that this kind of explosion could have been caused by a gas leak. This statement was further backed by two new reports prepared by the Cerrahpasa Faculty of Medicine, which concluded that the wounds of the Spice Bazaar victims were inconsistent with those of a bomb blast. In addition, another forensic report prepared by a new team of experts commissioned by the court stated that the explosion could be traced back to a gas leak in the doner shop. In light of these findings, on the 22nd of December 2000, the court ordered Selek’s release from prison.

During her two and a half year incarceration she stayed in Umraniye Prison in a three-storey building that held around 300 women, all political prisoners, most of them Kurdish. Each floor housed a communal ward comprised of a kitchen, an activity area and a dormitory housing 80 to 100 women. In Selek’s ward there were elderly Kurdish women who were locked up on charges of being PKK accomplices because they’d sheltered their guerrilla fighter sons. These women massaged her wounded arms and shoulders every day for months. She learned Kurdish to be able to communicate with them. “I am indebted to them for healing me,” she recalls. “I had lovely encounters in prison. Not once in those two and a half years was I bored. I worked hard, I wrote books – they were all confiscated except for one, which I managed to sneak out with the help of a friend,” she says. I did not expect her to talk so fondly of prison. The way she talks about it, it’s almost as if she refuses to acknowledge that her situation had been forcibly imposed upon her. By accentuating the positive in her experience, she seems to turn the punishment on its head.

On the day she was released, she was greeted by a crowd of homeless kids and transgender friends. Selek said she didn’t have the strength to be happy about her own release given the war that was plaguing Turkey and the conditions of the other prisoners she was leaving behind.

Instead of marking her freedom, however, her release was the beginning of a Kafkaesque struggle with the Turkish justice system. In 2001, four months after her release, the Ministry of the Interior and the Istanbul Police Department sent a letter to the court and submitted another expert-opinion report prepared by the criminal laboratory of the gendarmerie, claiming the explosion was, in fact, caused by a bomb. This report was found inconclusive and refuted by four university experts’ reports in the following year, tracing the explosion back to a gas leak. On the 8th of June 2006, The Istanbul 12th Heavy Penal Court acquitted Selek on all counts, citing lack of credible evidence linking her to the explosion. Ozturk, her alleged accomplice, was also acquitted of bombing the Spice Bazaar.

A year later, however, the 9th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court – a higher court – revoked the acquittal on the basis that no verdict had been given. The case went back to the lower court the following year, and Selek and Ozturk were once again acquitted on all counts, again citing a lack of evidence. On the 10th of March 2009, the Supreme Court quashed Selek’s acquittal once again. This time the prosecution confirmed Ozturk’s acquittal, but overturned Selek’s, meaning that his coerced confession was used to incriminate only Selek.

When she found out that the Supreme Court had revoked her second acquittal, she went to visit her father, who is also one of her lawyers. He advised her to leave the country immediately in case the prosecution demanded an emergency detention – she had been tried for life imprisonment. Selek flew to Berlin where she was granted a PEN Writers in Exile scholarship and stayed there until 2011, when she moved to Strasbourg to begin a PhD in political sciences.

In the first few months of her exile, she lived out of her suitcase, staying in different places and continuing to write. In an article describing her years in exile she drew comparisons to the labyrinthine architecture of the Garden of Exile in the Jewish Museum in Berlin to describe the feeling of not being able to grasp the ground below your feet when you’re without a country.

Gradually she carved out a new life for herself and turned her exile to her advantage. “I call it désexil,” she says, resorting to French to describe a feeling she first encountered in another language. “It means I’ve risen up to it. I’ve kept working and got involved in new activist networks,” she says. I ask her if being a thinker in exile grants her a special status in her personal relationships, and whether she sways between feeling like a victim and a hero. Could this lead to a form of narcissism? “I became aware of that [possibility] early on when I was released from prison. I promised myself that I’d never play that game,” she says. “But I never forget that I am a victim. Distancing yourself from your victimhood doesn’t mean you ignore it, but you don’t build an identity upon it. Instead I focus on my work while the solidarity group [Justice for Pınar Selek] takes care of the politics.”

In her absence she was still being tried in Turkey. Two years after her self-imposed exile, the Supreme Court demanded the annulment of her acquittal once more. In 2012, a newly appointed, temporary committee – formed when the case’s original judge was on sick leave – of the Heavy Penal Court annulled its own acquittal decision, and the back and forth ended on the 24th of January 2013, when the same court sentenced Selek to life imprisonment. The following summer, the court issued an international warrant requesting France hand over Selek, which Interpol refused to act on.

“Pınar’s case bears similarities to the Guildford Four case,” says Akın Atalay, one of Selek’s lawyers, referring to the group who were wrongfully convicted of bombings carried out by the IRA in two pubs in Guildford in 1974. He says that Selek’s case is a classical example of judicial miscarriage. “The political climate in Turkey still allows for this,” he says, pointing out that there are so many people who have been incriminated without credible evidence. “Pınar’s luck is that she had the public opinion and the international community behind her.”

Selek being taken to the court by the Turkish gendarmerie in October 1999. Photo by Oktay Cilesiz/ Anadolu Agency.

Selek believes her incarceration was part of a campaign carried out by the Turkish state under the tutelage of the powerful military elite. In the late 90s, the military monitored the civilian government and suspected anyone who they deemed a threat to national security. Since the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923, the Turkish military has viewed itself as the guardian of the secular state and has guided it on the strict principles of Kemalism, to which Kurdish separatism is one of the main threats. In those days, when the Kurdish-Turkish conflict was at its bloodiest, her research exploring the roots of PKK violence fell under the radar.

Responsible for four coups (in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997), the military has controlled civilian rule in order to fine-tune the security policies in foreign affairs, defend secularism and fight PKK separatism. But the definition of who is considered a PKK member remained largely ambiguous. In a bid to suppress PKK terror, they oppressed anyone who dared to explore the issue, including scholars, journalists and authors.

It’s worth noting that in Turkey the days of military tutelage appear to be over, since the AKP and its leader, Prime Minister Erdogan, assumed power in 2003 and gradually curtailed the military’s influence through new policies and the widely publicised Ergenekon trials. (Though they now replaced it with their own autocratic rule, rather than restoring democracy.) The AKP comes from a conservative, Islamist legacy and now represents the more religious sects of the Turkish society, who, along with minority groups, were alienated by the military elite, in an attempt to protect the secular establishment. Selek says the Supreme Court’s decisions are a hangover from the late 90s.

Selek’s first conscious memory of the Kurdish conflict was in her early 20s when she was at university. A friend from Siverek, a town in the southeast of Turkey with an ethnic Kurd population, told her that he had been taught Turkish in school but that he had learned it by force. In the summer of 1993 he invited Selek to his village. She was overwhelmed by what she saw. “Nobody spoke Turkish. I came across a completely different people, a whole other culture. I was confronted with my own ignorance.”

She ended up staying three weeks and learned about Kurdish folklore. Upon her return to Istanbul she educated herself on the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, and in 1997, after working with the transgender groups in Turkey, she decided to find out why the majority of Kurds, under the PKK, had chosen a path of violence. “It was an analysis of a social movement. I’m an anti- militarist, I’m against violence, but my aim wasn’t to criticise it. As a sociologist, I wanted to explore the motivations behind their radicalisation.

“You know how they’re always labelled as ‘foreign enemies’. They were terrorists but they weren’t ‘ghosts’ or ‘enemies’ – they’ve been living in these lands. The roots of their social movement were inherent in the socialist movements that were led by Mahir Cayan, Deniz Gezmis and the Turkish left of the 70s [modelled] after Latin America. They took Kurdistan as a starting point, and decided to take to the mountains. I wanted to understand the genealogy of this social movement.”

Her desire to understand the different sects of Turkish society cost her 16 years of judicial harassment and, to an extent, her freedom. A month ago, her lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court and she is awaiting its decision on June 11. If the Supreme Court revokes her life sentence, she will be retried in the Heavy Penal Court. On the first interview we conduct after her appeal trial on the 30th of April this year, she looks drained, but keeps up a good-humoured front. “If the life imprisonment is not revoked, the state will have officially slandered me as a terrorist,” she says.

Selek has become one of most discussed women in Turkey, both maligned and championed, and her story has occupied the Turkish conscience for almost two decades – so much so that, ironically enough, the public often forgets the other, Kurdish defendants involved in her trial.

Over the course of our interviews, I found myself deeply preoccupied with her story, trying to work out the motivation behind her perilous journey to the periphery of Turkish society and her constant gravitation towards minority groups and the underprivileged. For a serious scholar who has written numerous books, she comes across as quite a romantic, displaying the kind of self-sacrificing, sometimes naïve, idealism that oppressive societies can often breed. How did this well-meaning, anti-militarist woman end up being accused of such a heinous crime? “In Turkey,” she says, “they’re more scared of people who want peace.”

Today the Supreme Court has overturned Selek's life sentence on the grounds that the lower court (the Heavy Penal Court) cannot object to its own acquittal. The case will once again go back to the Heavy Penal Court. Whether she will be acquitted again remains to be seen.

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