stories that need to be heard

Can Atalay

Can Atalay

Despite the looming life sentences, Can Atalay and his colleagues remain defiant. His colleague tweeted a picture of herself being hugged by Atalay, both laughing out loud with a caption that read, “While reading our indictment.”

Story written by Tan Tunali
Portrait by Marco Lambooij

Can Atalay, along with Yiğit Aksakoğlu, are civil society leaders currently being prosecuted by Turkish authorities. Both are accused of organising the Gezi Park protests in 2013 in an attempt to overthrow the government. They, along with 14 others, are standing trial on trumped-up charges on June 24, 2019. Their freedom and their legitimate work, in fighting for and defending rights, are under threat.

“These families will enter this courthouse! These families will enter this courthouse!” Atalay shouted at the top of his lungs, crushed between a metal fence and dozens of policemen who block the entry to the wedding salon-turned-tribunal. It’s a sunny day in April 2015 in the Aegean town of Akhisar. The families Atalay is referring to are the families of the 301 miners who were killed in the Soma mine disaster a year earlier.

Thanks to Atalay’s intervention, the families are allowed to attend the trial. Together with the currently imprisoned lawyer Selçuk Kozağaclı, head of the lawyer’s union Progressive Lawyers Association (Çağdas Hukukçular Derneği- ÇHD), Atalay is the driving force behind the families’ quest for justice. The above scene aptly illustrates the tireless energy and involvement that characterise Atalay, who divides most of his time between courthouses and street protests. And if necessary, he takes the protest to the courthouse themselves, like on that April day in Akhisar.

Atalay also serves as a board member of the Social Justice Foundation (Sosyal Haklar Derneği). In Soma, the organisation helps victims’ families to pursue justice by bringing them together and providing support in the face of intimidation by the Turkish state and the responsible mining company, Soma Holding. In Aladağ, a small town near Adana, a similar process took place. After 11 children died in November 2016, when a girl’s dormitory caught fire due to negligence, the Foundation set up a branch in the town. Atalay represented the families of the victims in court and helped to bring them together by organising social activities in the Foundation’s centre.

“Many people with different concerns came together [during the protests]. We tried to voice their concerns as well as we could.”

Atalay grew up in a politically active family. After finishing his law degree in 2003, he began working as lawyer with a focus on freedom of expression and social rights. In 2007, he began working with Union of the Chamber of Architects (Türk Mühendis ve Mimar Odaları Birliği TMMOB) — an umbrella organization which advises on urban development proposals. There, he focused increasingly on cases concerning numerous urban renewal projects in Istanbul. The projects were an important cornerstone of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) economic policy. Comprised of massive demolitions and state-led gentrification, they forced many people out of their homes and led to the destruction of countless neighbourhoods. Atalay worked on cases like the Chamber’s appeal against the third bridge across the Bosphorus, the recently opened Istanbul Airport and other contentious urban renewal projects in historic areas such as Sulukule, Tarlabaşı and Fener/Balat.

In 2012 Atalay, TMMOB and other unions took on the case of the transformation plans of Taksim Square. They argued that the plans were illegal due to the lack of transparency in the top-down imposed decision-making process. The plans included a tunnel beneath the square and the construction of an Ottoman-style shopping centre in Gezi Park — one of the last remaining green spaces in the centre of the city. The Gezi Park protests started in May 2013 over the same matter, when activists tried to block the cutting of trees in the park. The protest evolved into the biggest anti-government protests in Turkey’s recent history, not the least because of the violent police crackdown ordered by the government. During the protests Atalay, together with his TMMOB-colleagues, architect Mücella Yapıcı and urban planner Tayfun Kahraman, assumed the role of spokespersons for Taksim Solidarity (Taksim Dayanışması) — a platform they had founded a year earlier. In the aftermath of the protests, TMMOB was stripped of its constitutional right of approval for urban development projects. This was widely perceived as a retaliatory act by the government in response to the role TMMOB played in the protests.

“It’s my honourable responsibility to defend myself against these infamous accusations.”

“Many people with different concerns came together [during the protests]. We tried to voice their concerns as well as we could,” Atalay said. On several occasions, due to his prominence during the Gezi Park protests, Atalay was thrown into police custody for short periods. In the recently opened Gezi Park case, the state prosecution threatens to imprison him up for much longer. Along with 15 others, amongst them his TMMOB-colleagues Mücella Yapıcı and Tayfun Kahraman, he is accused of financing and organising the protests in an attempt to overthrow the government. They face a possible life sentence without parole. Of the sixteen, philanthropist Osman Kavala and Yiğit Aksakoğlu, an NGO-worker for the Bernard van Leer Foundation, are amongst those awaiting the case in pre-trial detention.

Despite the looming life sentences, Atalay, his TMMOB-colleagues Mücella Yapıcı and Tayfun Kahraman and their fellow human rights defenders remain defiant. Following the March 5 publication of the 657-page indictment, Yapıcı tweeted a picture of herself being hugged by Atalay, both laughing out loud, “While reading our indictment,” the caption read.

On June 24 and 25, Atalay and the others will stand trial in Istanbul. This time the human rights lawyer, who has dedicated his career to defending the rights of others, will have to defend himself. “It’s my honourable responsibility to defend myself against these infamous accusations,” Atalay told the German/Turkish web portal taz.gazete on February 27 this year.

Current Status

On February 18, 2020, Can Atalay and the other defendants present at the Gezi trial were acquitted. The judges who ruled on the acquittal of the Gezi defendants are being investigated for this ruling. The acquittal of the group of human rights defenders was appealed by the prosecutor.

(Last updated December 2020).

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