A trial into a massacre: The Oct 10 case

5 February 2019
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Çınar Özer

The families of the victims sought to stand stronger with every hearing – even as the number of observers and spectators dropped with each passing court date. Soon, too, the reporters following the case began to forget the dates of upcoming hearings. And, amid all that, the lawmakers who said, “We will never abandon this trial,” started becoming no-shows.

The Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) 13-year period of one-party rule ended with the June 7, 2015; immediately thereafter, however, an environment marked by violence and clashes began.

A few months later, thousands of people heeded a call from politicians, trade unionists and civil society organizations to go to Ankara for the “Labor, Peace and Democracy Rally” to demand an end to the environment of violence.

People gathered in front of the main train station on Oct. 10, getting ready to march to Sıhhiye Square, from which they would make a call for peace.

As people gathered, a huge blast ripped through the crowd at 10:04 a.m., followed quickly by another. A total of 103 people died in the simultaneous bomb attacks committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), while around 500 others were injured.

By the end of the day, the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor's Office had launched a probe into the largest suicide attack in Turkish history. In all, the investigation continued for nine months under a gag order.

In July 2016, prosecutors opened proceedings against 36 people, 15 of whom were under arrest. As the trial proceeded, the number of arrested suspects increased to 18.

The hearings were held at the 4th Court of Serious Crimes, which was built for the trials into the Feb. 28, 1997, coup attempt.

The courtroom was one of the biggest in Ankara, but it was not easy to gain access. First, you had to pass through police barriers in front of the courthouse and then a police search and another body search in front of the hearing hall. A final criterion for the journalists was to possess an official “yellow press card.” Those who held the card were the first to enter the hall. Everyone else was only permitted to follow the hearing from the gallery.

The families that entered the hall were subjected to body searches and even the caps of their plastic water bottles were confiscated. The reason? “You might throw them at the suspects.”

Even though the hall was large, many people still had to follow the proceedings while standing. The hearing, scheduled for 10 a.m., began with a one-hour delay due to problems with the audio and visual systems – something that irked the families. As complaints grew louder from the hall, police responded, saying, “You’re making a show,” raising tensions. Police were subsequently removed from the hall on the order of the judges’ panel following an objection from the families of the victims.

The first hearings in such cases are always difficult, as the families of the victims were seeing the suspects for the first time. As the defendants were being led into the hall, the victims’ families cried out the words that had welled up inside them for nine months:

“Murderers!”

“Look us in the face! Are you comfortable with your conscience?”

“You killed my son!”

“Your honor, you know who the murderers are; you are protecting them.”

The gendarmerie and the police formed a wall two people deep between the gallery and the lawyers and the suspects. The victims’ lawyers objected to this, saying they were unable to see the suspects, but their demands to observe the defendants were rejected.

The families strained to hear every word, as reporters sought to keep track of every moment.

Some 53 sessions were held in all, each of which lasted around 10 hours. The hearings in which the suspects accused each other were held one after another; meanwhile, some of them had begun changing their initial testimonies. All of them, however, shared one thing in common: They pleaded “not guilty.”

“I was tortured at the police station. We made up the testimony with the police. They did so because they could not find the perpetrators,” said Yakup Şahin.

“Some people who claimed that they were sent by the ministry came to the prison. They told me what I should say at the prosecutor’s office before I gave my testimony,” said Hakan Şahin.

“This incident occurred before July 15. Maybe FETÖ had a hand in it,” said Suphi Alpfidan, referring to the July 15, 2016, coup attempt and the network of Fethullah Gülen, the alleged mastermind of the attempted putsch.

“The state of the Turkish Republic will have to apologize to me and set me free. If you do the opposite of [President] Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s maxim of “Let people live their lives so that the state may live,” it would mean stealing my whole life,” said Resül Demir.

“The evidence used to show that I was a member of ISIL was a picnic organized before the foundation of ISIL. Gülen, Erdoğan and [former President] Abdullah Gül were at the opening ceremony for Bank Asya. But now, people who deposited funds in that bank are seen as criminals. Since those who attended that ceremony cannot be accused, we cannot be accused either,” said Yakup Karaoğlu.

The court sent instructions to several provinces, mainly the chief prosecutor’s offices in Gaziantep and Ankara. The various prosecutor’s offices and courts failed to respond to these instructions for a long time. For their part, the panel of judges failed to denounce the prosecutor’s offices and courts for not sharing information linked to the file. The victims’ lawyers were trying to expand the case with files they managed to access through their own efforts, demanding that criminal complaints be lodged against public servants due to negligence and that the attack be declared a “crime against humanity.”

With every new document, it became even more obvious that the incident was not limited to 18 suspects, yet none of the demands were accepted. Eventually, the head of the panel of judges told the families – who frequently opposed the suspects’ statements – “Don’t come to the hearing if you can’t stand it. Get out.”

The families of the victims sought to stand stronger with every hearing – even as the number of observers and spectators dropped with each passing court date. Soon, too, the reporters following the case began to forget the dates of upcoming hearings. And, amid all that, the lawmakers who said, “We will never abandon this trial,” started becoming no-shows.

In long judicial processes, the judges and prosecutors usually look as if they are not listening.

You can feel that way looking at the way they sit and the moments they rest their eyes. Some even say that prosecutors play video games on the computers in front of them. Even if this is not true, the outlook was like that in the Oct. 10 case. The most concrete example of the court’s insensitivity was that it handed down no sentences in the deaths of people who initially survived the attack, only to succumb to their wounds later.

In the end, authorities moved the final hearing to a hall built for the 2016 coup plot case at the Sincan Prison Complex, arguing that the former hall was insufficient.

Sincan Prison has to be the only place that’s difficult to reach in Ankara, where transportation is usually easy. It’s a full 40 kilometers from Kızılay in the heart of Ankara, and just a few public transport vehicles go there. And if you don’t possess a press card and you’re not a lawyer, you have to stop a few kilometers before the prison and wait to be taken there with a prison vehicle.

Families went to that prison on the outskirts of Ankara once last time in the hope of finding “justice.” In doing so, they passed through four different checkpoints, six ID checks and an X-Ray. Meanwhile, reporters who didn’t have a yellow press card weren’t even allowed to sit in the gallery this time.

“I’ve come here from a village in Şavşat in the Black Sea province of Arvin, and I am 45 percent disabled. I would come even if you took the hearing to the end of the world. Following the attack, I started receiving psychological treatment and I am on medication. But today, they did not let me take my medicine inside,” said Ayşegül Duman, one of the plaintiffs, while commenting on the tight security.

At the end of the trial, the suspects were sentenced to hundreds of years in prison.

Evaluating the sentences, however, lawyers said: “This is not judicial heroism, this is a judicial obligation. The responsibility of the state [in the incident] has been covered up.”

Now there is a file at the Ankara 4th Court of Serious Crimes involving 16 suspects on the run. The first hearing was on Nov. 8, 2018. The families were at the courthouse as usual, but the seats for the 16 suspects were empty. The next hearing is on April 18.

The Oct. 10 Ankara Massacre case continues on in the absence of the fugitive suspects. Meanwhile, there’s a standing demand from the victims’ lawyers to try the public servants – just like there’s a standing question from lawyer İlke Işık at the final hearing:

“The trial into the murder of [journalist] Hrant Dink turned into a case in which public servants stood trial after eight years. When the suspects said, ‘I don’t know [about what happened],’ the head of the panel asked, ‘Then how did this person die?’ Now we are asking: How did these 103 people die?”

This article was published as part of “Stories of Justice,” a project supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.