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Sunday, March 9, 2014
- Pınar Selek, a Turkish sociologist who has on three occasions been tried and acquitted over a fatal explosion in Istanbul more than 14 years ago, is being taken to court again Jan. 24.
On Jul. 9, 1998, seven people were killed and more than 120 injured in an explosion at the historical Spice Bazaar in Istanbul. Selek was implicated as having organised the explosion.
Through the 1990s, Selek studied the armed conflict between the Turkish state and the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). At the height of the conflict, she conducted interviews with numerous PKK members, including its leader Abdullah Öcalan.
“At that time, no one could speak out about the Kurdish problem,” says Erol Katırcıoğlu, professor of economics at Marmara University in Istanbul. “Not only did Pinar Selek speak publicly, she also did research.”
Selek was detained two days after the incident, and following a brief police investigation was indicted on the grounds that she was a PKK member. Additional charges were later brought against her as a primary suspect in the explosion.
Shortly after the case was filed, Abdülmecit Öztürk, a suspect in the case, ‘confessed’ to involvement in the incident, stating he had “placed the bomb in the Spice Bazaar together with Pınar Selek.”
At a hearing on Dec. 22, 1998, however, Öztürk retracted his statement, claiming it was obtained through torture. He said he did not know Pınar Selek and had nothing to do with the explosion.
Three trials and nearly 15 years later, the verdict on Selek’s involvement in the explosion continues to be tossed between lower and higher courts in Turkey. The Supreme Court of Appeals has refused to acquit her.
Conflicting reports, inconsistent testimonies and lack of evidence have resulted in a protracted and highly disputed case. Initial police reports dated Jul. 13 and 14, 1998, said there were no indications of a bombing. A police report released a week later supported these findings.
Selek remained in police custody until December 2000, after three court-appointed forensic experts concluded that the explosion had in fact been caused by a gas leak and not a bomb.
And while court investigations largely support the case that a bomb was not the cause of the explosion, lack of evidence continues to plague proceedings.
“The critical thing in this case was that the firemen who arrived at the place of the incident cleared all the evidence away,” says Turkish court correspondent Bülent Ceyhan. “They did it after putting out the fire.”
However, the Council of Forensic Medicine reported evidence of material found on victims and at the scene which it said could have been used to make a bomb. This is the report that the Supreme Court has referred to each time it has reversed Selek’s acquittal.
In 2006, the Istanbul High Criminal Court determined that “no certain and believable evidence that requires punishment could be found.” Selek was acquitted of the charges against her and released. But this and subsequent acquittals in 2008 and 2011 were overruled by the Supreme Court of Appeals.
According to Ceyhan, there are many variables that have affected the case, from poor forensic and police procedure to the absence of the Chief Judge at the last hearing.
“The main judge, Vedat Yılmazabdurrahmanoğlu, who previously acquitted Pınar Selek, was away from the court (in December) because of health issues,” he notes. “When he was not there, the court cancelled its last decision to set Pınar Selek free.”
Yılmazabdurrahmanoğlu has since recovered and will be in court on Jan. 24.
As the trial approaches, both domestic and international human rights groups continue to condemn the Turkish judicial system’s treatment of Selek’s case. Last month PEN International, an organisation that promotes freedom of expression, said “Selek is being subjected to a campaign of judicial harassment as a means of penalising her for her longstanding support for and work on minority groups in Turkey.”
Other supporters of Selek’s innocence, including fellow scholars, have also voiced their discontent.
Peter Sluglett, president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America and professor at the National University of Singapore, appealed to Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to drop the charges against Selek in a letter issued by the Committee on Academic Freedom on Dec. 12, 2012.
“The ongoing prosecution of Selek sends a chilling message to the academic community and signifies an ongoing policy of violating the freedom of academic research in Turkey,” Sluglett said.
He also urged Erdoğan to “take note of mounting international condemnation of the erosion of democratic rights and freedoms in Turkey.”
As Turkey continues to pursue European Union membership, Katırcıoğlu says that the verdict may affect its chances of integration.
“If the verdict turns to be ‘guilty’, especially for people who want to see Turkey as a democratic country, they will not be satisfied,” he said. “Pinar Selek’s case is not only a case about a woman searching for justice, it is also a case which indicates a search for justice in a society.”