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“We know that this time will pass, but we hope that it will not last much longer because it damages us and it is a grave injustice. I’m anxiously asking myself: how can you prove something so absurd?”
Yiğit Aksakoğlu, along with Can Atalay, 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.
“It happened on a Friday morning, these ‘operations,’ as they call them, always happen on Fridays apparently,” recalled Ünzile Aksakoğlu. Ünzile describes when the police came to her house to take her husband, Yiğit Aksakoğlu, to the police station for a “secret investigation” last year (2018) on November 16. Since that day, Ünzile and her two daughters Deniz (7) and Leyla (3) have been separated from Yiğit. Since then, they have been wondering why they have to miss him at home.
Yiğit Aksakoğlu is amongst 13 civil society workers, rights defenders and academics who were called in for questioning in relation to the case of Osman Kavala, a prominent businessman and leading civil society figure in Turkey (Read more about the 13 civil society workers in Meltem Aslan’s story). Since November 2018, Kavala has been held in pre-trial detention in Silivri prison on charges of “attempting to overthrow the government.” Of the 13 taken in for questioning in relation to Kavala’s case, 12 were released after giving their testimony; Aksakoğlu was arrested and has remained separated from his family ever since. Ünzile received the news while waiting outside the courthouse in Istanbul. “We were trying to understand what was going on, but by now I know that I won’t understand,” she said.
Aksakoğlu’s interest in civil society work began in the 1990’s when he was active in the European Students’ Forum AEGEE. After studying abroad for a period, he returned to Turkey and helped set up Istanbul Bilgi University’s Civil Society Research and Training Centre, where he worked as an instructor between 2003 and 2008. “Because it was the only place for such an education, Yiğit taught many people who are now working in civil society,” Ünzile said during a phone interview. After working as a freelance consultant and completing his military service, Aksakoğlu started working for the Bernard van Leer Foundation in 2011. The NGO focuses on early childhood development. His latest project for the foundation, “Istanbul95,” seeks to see the city through the eyes of children, and make urban life safer and more enjoyable for them. Thus far four district municipalities in Istanbul have implemented the project.
“At first Yiğit told me that he did not want to know how the girls are feeling. It upset him too much.”
Each week Ünzile goes to see her husband in the Silivri prison just outside Istanbul. On Wednesdays, she has exactly one hour, between 9am and 10am, to visit him there. Once a month Deniz and Leyla join her to see their father. There are often long lines leading to long waiting times for visitors of the prison; in order to get there on time the family must leave around 6 o’clock in the morning or even earlier, in order to spend one hour with Aksakoğlu.
It has been difficult for the family to adjust to this situation. Ünzile recalled that she was unable to even leave the house in the two weeks following her husband’s arrest. Yiğit, too, struggled, she said, “At first Yiğit told me that he did not want to know how the girls are feeling. It upset him too much.” But soon afterwards, they began to talk about everything openly. The family has the right for a 10-minute phone conversation. This precious window of time is now exclusively reserved for Deniz and Leyla. The two are rushed out of school every Thursday, so they do not to miss the brief opportunity to speak with their father.
For more than four months, Yiğit has been in isolation, staying in a 13m2 prison cell. He spends most of his time reading novels, poetry, and non-fiction — much of it work-related. Since he is only allowed 15 publications at a time, including newspapers and magazines, and since many people send him books in addition to the ones his wife brings him, he must read fast. “He has a morning book and an evening book and he prefers to read the books while walking. In between he works, takes notes on his case,” Ünzile described.
“Why can’t daddy come home? He is not that far away.“
Her husband tells her to be positive and not to worry, to look after herself and their girls. But that is not always easy. It helps Ünzile to focus on daily activities such as work at family business and her children. “We speak about everything openly, so we cry together and we laugh together. Recently Deniz asked: ‘Why can’t daddy come home? He is not that far away.’ Then I tell her that he is indeed not that far but that they want to keep him there,” she said.
Early March, an Istanbul judge accepted the indictment in the Gezi Park case. In the 657-page document, Aksakoğlu and Kavala, along with 14 others, are accused of organising the Gezi Park protests in 2013 in an attempt to overthrow the government. Various human rights organisations have called on Turkish authorities to drop the “baseless” charges and release both men. The first hearing of the case will take place June 24-25. Ünzile described Yiğit’s reaction when he saw the indictment, reacting with the same incredulity as many fellow human rights defenders in Turkey. Aksakoğlu asked, “Is this what they are keeping me for?”
The support Ünzile and her daughters are receiving from friends and colleagues of Yiğit — often people she had never met before — is massive and heart-warming. They have set up a website, www.yigitaksakoglu.com, containing information about Yiğit and the case, and campaigning for his release. They also help with researching evidence against the charges and spend time with Deniz and Leyla. “I’m probably going to miss this when Yiğit is free,” she laughed.
Aksakoğlu, Kavala and the others will stand trial on June 24. Ünzile is convinced that the judge will not keep her husband in prison. “We know that this time will pass, but we hope that it will not last much longer because it damages us and it is a grave injustice,” she said. Yet there is also a creeping doubt in her head, “I’m anxiously asking myself: how can you prove something so absurd?”
On June 25, 2019, Yiğit Aksakoğlu was released from pre-trial detention. On February 18, 2020, Aksakoğlu, 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).