In its recent verdict, Turkey’s highest court determined that the rights of a female lawyer incarcerated for over five years mainly due to identity of her clients, were violated.
The Constitutional Court (TCC) ruled that by denying Özge Elif Hendekçi’s requests to attend the hearing in person, her constitutional right, as stipulated in Article 36, had been breached. The court’s decision emphasized, “It was unanimously decided that the right to be present at the trial, which is guaranteed under Article 36 of the Constitution, was violated.” With the verdict, her case is slated for a retrial, set to kick off on November 28.
Who is Özge Elif Hendekçi?
Hendekçi, an aspiring defense lawyer from the Istanbul Bar Association, was one of the hundreds of lawyers who have been incarcerated after the 2016’s coup attempt. This was a move by Turkish political authorities to curb the legal rights of political dissidents and detainees as part of a broader campaign to intimidate the judiciary and the profession of law.
Judicial harassment, pretrial detention and incarceration
Before the penultimate moment of imprisonment and a conviction in what critics believed to be a politically motivated trial, she was detained and released several times in Istanbul during the course of summer in 2017. Before the turn of the new year, she was sentenced to 7 years and 11 months in prison on December 29, 2017. The same day, Hendekci was transported to a notorious correctional facility in the central Turkish province of Tokat, over five hundred miles from the Istanbul court handling her case.
From the outset, the twisted journey to justice has been tainted by political interference, compromised judicial independence, and dubious motives of prosecutors and judges. With a mere signature, these officials largely determined who could access legal defense, often deliberately omitting and withholding exculpatory evidence from court proceedings.
Following her release in 2022, the lawyer, now in self-imposed exile in a European country, finally had the opportunity to offer her side of the story that never got proper coverage in a national paper. Much of what she said supports the view that the prosecution violated the judicial process, infringing on her right to a fair trial. Six years after the ordeal began, the Constitutional Court’s unequivocal verdict affirmed this.
Legal Defense During Terror
Hendekçi’s professional record seemed to be at the root of her ordeals. In the hazy aftermath of the failed coup, a widespread crackdown targeted opponents across political and social spectrums. This period also signified the beginning of the government’s ‘forever war’ against the legal defense, leading to the arrest of hundreds of lawyers. Such aggressive tactics, including vilification and mass detentions, deeply alarmed and intimidated Bar Associations nationwide.
Amid the fierce wave of political terror, a significant number of lawyers sought refuge outside the country. Those who stayed were often too fearful to represent defendants even remotely linked to the Gulen Movement, steering clear of any case that might draw the government’s scrutiny. The movement had been designated as a terrorist outfit by the authorities and was blamed for masterminding the 2016 coup, something the movement has vehemently denied ever since.
Since 2016, in Turkey 551 lawyers have been sentenced to 3356 years in prison over terrorism-related charges, mostly membership in terrorist organisations.
The mass exodus of lawyers also left many defendants without legal representation, exacerbated by some bar associations’ refusal to handle coup-related cases. The Istanbul Bar Association, under President Umit Kocasakal, notably declared that they would not assign legal aid lawyers to represent Gulen Movement affiliates in court.
The idealist lawyer, however, stepped forward, driven by her financial necessity and commitment to justice. Her courage made her a target. “I kept taking on cases. At that time, my father was battling cancer, and I bore the financial responsibilities of our household. I had monetary commitments, so I saw no issue in accepting such cases,” she explained. However, representing those defendants put her in a precarious position. “After July 15th, I was frequently threatened because of the cases I was handling,” she noted. The police sent threatening remarks to her. “But I did not resign from my files and continued to take on new cases.”
Heavy Price: repeated arrests and incarceration
By the time she became the subject of an extensive investigation, Hendekci had established herself in multiple law practices across Istanbul. However, her unwavering commitment to the cases she handled came with a hefty price.
In 2017, while 8 months pregnant, she was taken into custody at the order of then-deputy chief prosecutor, who is now the Deputy Minister of Justice, Hasan Yilmaz. “I was held in police custody for 7 days on his order,” she said. Hasan Yilmaz was notorious for having arrested more than 200 lawyers in Istanbul as well as Osman Kavala, the philantrophist who was sentenced to life in prison in a controversial trial ended last month.
The saga turned even darker when the prosecutor menacingly warned that her fate would be grim if she didn’t cooperate during interrogation. The prosecutor forced her to be a confessor and snitch on other lawyers and friends, something she steadfastly refused.
When her situation worsened and she was about to collapse during interrogation at the prosecutor’s office in Caglayan Courthouse in Istanbul, the prosecutor released her for fear of backlash. She recalled that prosecutor Hasan Yilmaz said: “I’m releasing you only, so they don’t use you as propaganda material”.
But this release was for a brief period until she was summoned for interrogation to the Prosecutor’s Office in the province of Tokat, more than 500 miles from Istanbul, although she was based in Istanbul. She voluntarily flew to Tokat and turned herself in to the authorities. However, she was remanded to pretrial detention there, with prosecutors, without plausible evidence, citing that she might have escaped.
Ordeal and Legal Travesty
The very next day, the case was moved to Istanbul due to lack of jurisdiction. Apparently, Hasan Yilmaz who released her in fear of social media backlash, have her arrested in Tokat and took the case again through the lack of jurisdiction decision given by the Tokat prosecutor. Strikingly, the indictment mirrored the content from a Yeni Safak newspaper article. “So, they first published news about me and then used that same news as evidence in the indictment,” she recalled.
Detained while pregnant; remanded with her new-born baby Bahar
Hendekci’s detention took a severe toll on both her physical and emotional state. On her third day in custody, her health deteriorated to such an extent that she required hospitalization. “I was administered a serum treatment due to the imminent risk of miscarriage,” she said. Distressingly, even after medical professionals explicitly advised against her continued detention due to the danger of premature birth, she was returned to her cell and held for an additional four days.
Her time in police custody became a psychological torment as well as a physical one. “Throughout my detention, their only line of questioning revolved around the clients I had represented,” she shared. The detained lawyer’s ordeal intensified as she found herself confined in a basement room, where she faced intimidation from two male police officers. “One of them menacingly raised a fist towards me,” she remembered.
The withholding of proper nourishment further exacerbated her situation. “I was barely given any food for an entire week, which left me in a semi-conscious state for days,” she added.
Humble 2nd birthday celebration of Bahar in prison
The ordeal also took a toll on her family. “When they detained me in pretrial detention, my daughter was just 86 days old,” she said, emotion evident in her voice. “They denied me the chance to [breastfeed] her, leading to a severe emotional breakdown.”
Total disregard of her right to a fair trial
Hendekçi’s odyssey epitomizes the challenges faced by the country’s judiciary. The judiciary was subdued, terrorized, and compelled to align the government agenda. In her case, however, some members appeared willing to follow the line without any coercion.
During her trial, the lawyer faced a relentless media onslaught, effectively being crucified by the press. Outlets such as Yenisafak, Turkiye, Sozcu, and Karar delved into every detail of her brief yet turbulent marriage and the challenges of her life. “I was subjected to a slander,” she said.
Pro-government media’s news report about Hendekci claiming she had a baby with a fake marriage to evade prison
The prosecutor enlisted pro-government journalists to publish defamatory articles targeting Hendekci in an orchestrated smear campaign. They waged a deliberate public character assassination against her. The Yenisafak daily, notably, claimed that Hendekci intentionally became pregnant (‘under instruction’) to evade imprisonment.
During their conversation, the lawyer recounted, the prosecutor asked if she might have entered a fake marriage just to have a baby and evade detention. She states such questions are deeply inappropriate to direct at a woman. “The prosecutor made assertions completely at odds with my life, upbringing, and beliefs, aiming to wound and offend me.”
“Yet, all the while, my official marriage documents were clearly before him.” she added.
The conversation between the prosecutor and Hendekci was published on the Yenisafak in the following days.
Charges and the Real Reason for Being Targeted
The charges levied against Hendekci were ambiguous and tenuous. When confronted with insinuations that she purposefully became pregnant to evade arrest, she countered in court, “Where is the evidence showing I became pregnant on instruction?” In response, she received a chilling remark from the court president, Chief Judge Akin Gürlek, who menacingly said: “We know whom you represented [in court] before.”
The presiding judge Gurlek is notorious for endorsing numerous legal irregularities and controversial decisions. Gurlek led the cases that sent opposition politicians Selahattin Demirtas, Enis Berberoglu, journalists Mehmet Altan and Sahin Alpay to jail, while he defied binding judgments of the Constitutional Court and the ECHR.
During the trial of Hendekci, the judge made it clear her professional affiliations were on trial rather than her supposed crimes. He also consistently denied Hendekci’s petitions. During the verdict hearing, an exasperated Gurlek proclaimed, “We are not judging you for these reasons. We know whom you represented at the 13th and 22nd Heavy Penal Courts.” Hendekci ensured this statement was duly recorded in the court’s reasoned decision.
Such revelations raise pressing questions about the integrity of the judicial process in Turkey and the impact on individuals, like the attorney, caught in its web. “During my testimony, questions were asked about clients whose cases I handled,” she revealed, pointing out, “They sentenced me based merely on practising my profession.”
The court seemed indifferent to a number of her pleas. She was denied multiple appeals to be present during her trial in Istanbul. Instead, she was relegated to the SEGBIS, an Audio and Video Information System. It was arbitrarily turned off during hearings, depriving Hendekci of her right to defend herself. She was also denied offering her final opinion before and after the verdict.
A Life Turned Upside Down
The trial and its aftermath exacted an immense toll on the life of the young attorney. By her release, she gained her freedom but found herself in an open prison called society. “After my release, I was shunned by society. I spent an unjust five years in prison, and my reputation was tarnished,” she said, clearly distressed.
To amplify her woes, the stain of the trial made it challenging to reintegrate smoothly into society. Job opportunities vanished, landlords turned her away, and she found herself ostracized, a pariah in her own homeland.
Given her story and the pervasive smear campaign led by politicians, who would employ her? Inside prison walls, she battled for her freedom. Beyond them, she fought ceaselessly for her livelihood, not just for herself but also for her daughter. Clearly, the shadow of the allegations has extended beyond the prison bars, seeping into the very fabric of her daily life.
The ramifications of Hendekçi’s legal ordeal extended far beyond the courtroom. She painted a picture of a society that banished her. “After my release from prison, I felt like I was marked. I couldn’t find a job. Even landlords, upon discovering my past, would suddenly refuse to rent to me,” she recalled.
But for the lawyer, it’s not just about personal loss. It’s the palpable manipulation of the justice system and the media campaign as a grim reminder of the challenges that upended her life.
Her ordeal remains unresolved. “Currently, the Constitutional Court ruled that my rights were violated,” she said, concluding, “There is no final judgment against me, and still, baseless accusations are hurled against an innocent person occasionally, violating the presumption of innocence.”
While she faces a new trial, she also struggles to settle in a new country with her girl Bahar. She, however, remains committed fighting for justice and asking for solidarity of international bars and lawyers association. Even after her release, Hendekci pushed for accountability. She lodged a complaint against current Deputy Justice Minister Hasan Yilmaz, citing ill-treatment, insult, blackmail, threats and abuse of his position during prosecution. However, the Board of Judges and Prosecutors did not grant permission for an inquiry.
Categories: Turkey Human Rights Blog