Photo by Eddie Adams
"When prisoners told me of the tortures that they were suffering, I could barely stand it. The prison was far from the city, and when I returned every day from it, I felt like I was going to another life. I felt that I didn’t have the right to hug my husband after hearing all these things that were happening. I had become a mother, but by then I didn’t think I even had the right to hug my children."
Writer and human rights attorney Senal Sarihan received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 1997 and is a Speak Truth To Power Defender.
Sarihan has challenged the status quo her entire life. As a member of the teachers union’s cultural unit, she wrote and directed plays. She joined the Executive Committee of the newly founded Turkish Teachers Association in 1967, where she wrote pro-union articles for their monthly newspaper. Those articles led to her imprisonment in 1971 when the military regime sentenced Sarihan to twenty-two years for her writings. When the newly elected government released her in 1974, Sarihan studied for her law degree and in 1976 began defending intellectuals, union leaders, and human rights defenders. In 1980 she was again arrested and held for thirty-five days for her articles "espousing antistate views." She founded the Contemporary Lawyers Association in 1986 and served as its president, advocating legal reform and the defense of human rights. As the editor of the CLA’s monthly magazine, she became the most influential critic of Turkey’s antiterrorism law and violations of the rights of free expression. Sarihan is known for her dogged defense of prisoners, women, and children. In the course of her work, fundamentalists and supporters of the status quo alike have threatened her life. In spite of ever-present danger, Sarihan marches on. Forming an alliance of women’s groups called the Contemporary Women’s Association she organized thirty-five thousand women to rally for their rights in 1996, the largest such demonstration in the history of Turkey. The dispossessed are well represented by Senal Sarihan. She later became head of Turkey’s Republican Women’s Association. In 1997, she was named a Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Laureate.
I began as a teacher in the 1970s, working in a very poor section of Istanbul. There was a cholera epidemic and a lot of my students died and around the same time we had our first military coup. They started to imprison a lot of intellectuals, and I thought I would be imprisoned as well. I was expecting it, actually. At that point I was helping a professor who had been tortured in prison. They released her, and I was helping her to recover. The government claimed that she was in league with an organization (she was not) and I really didn’t have anything to do with any illegal organization. But nevertheless I was detained and tortured for forty days.
Obviously I didn’t know anything. They thought I was being silent. They used electrical shock on my ears, tongue, and sexual organs. At the time I was very thin, with long hair separated in the middle, and I had pimples. I learned that they were looking for a woman who was the daughter of a colonel and I looked very much like her. That’s why they imprisoned me and tortured me—mistaken identity.
I always heard about violence and torture in the prisons but never dreamed it would be so bad. They transferred me from Istanbul to Ankara—ten hours of transport. And said in Istanbul that I was lost, that I was killed, that I was dead. My parents didn’t have any information—I simply disappeared for three months. Then another prisoner who had just been transferred from Istanbul to Ankara saw me as she was led in, and was shocked because everybody thought that I was dead. That’s how people finally learned I was alive.
On October 3, 1971, I was put on trial with a group of intellectuals. I had never seen these people before, but officials claimed that we were part of underground organizations. We decided together that we weren’t going to say anything during this trial, to protest that they were not prosecuting the people who tortured us. The court then said this was "a movement decision," proving we were in league with each other, and gave me twenty years of imprisonment, claiming I was the leader of the group. Today I’m laughing, but at the time I was dumbfounded—I really had nothing to do with that group.
I was twenty-three and had been a leader in student organizations. Just before I was seized I had taken the exams for law school, though I was more inclined towards studying sociology. But after prison, I decided that I actually needed to be a lawyer, to be prepared to defend other people’s rights so they didn’t have to go through what I did. In 1974 the new government passed an amnesty law, and all of us in the Ankara jails were freed three years after. It was a lucky period.
The government and all society accepted that what they’d done to us was unfair, so we were able to go back to our professions. I became a teacher again and got married. I decided to get married really fast because I was trying to get out of the house. Even though my father was very democratic, after all that had happened he started to be very careful about me. But I knew that I wanted to get married with somebody who would understand, who had the same point of view as I had. I met my husband in prison; he was also a teacher and the head of a student organization.
While in prison, my students went on a series of strikes to call attention to my situation. That was really important and very moving for me—they were putting themselves in danger and could have been imprisoned as well. So I wanted to return to work as a teacher to support them as they had me. After my husband and I got married we were both sent by the government to teach in a small village by the Black Sea. The day after we arrived, the government decided to send my husband to another city, hundreds of miles away. Our life became work. There were many ultranationalist, almost fascist groups spread throughout Turkey who made a point of finding out where people like me (who had been imprisoned) were, and leading propaganda campaigns against us. In the village where I was teaching, I started to receive death threats. We were publishing a magazine on education and teaching, and I was continuing to do plays, folkloric dances, and discussion sessions with the parents of the students. We had excellent relations with teachers, students, and parents, but nevertheless the fascist groups did everything they could to destroy this. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I contacted my husband and said that we just had to go to the same city and live together. We found a way; but again they didn’t leave us alone. They said I only had a special amnesty and therefore had to go to a city called Tocat to teach, but would be under detention there. After that the police officers were after me all the time—I couldn’t work. So I decided to come to Ankara and sue them in court—and I won. Meanwhile I had finished law school. One of the cities nearby where I was trying to do an internship wouldn’t accept me, saying I was a Communist. My husband and I moved again to Ankara, working as teachers while I applied to an Ankara law office for my internship; this time I was accepted, although at that time there were very few lawyers who were interested in cases involving freedom of expression.
But the lawyer that I was working with was famous, and always helping intellectuals and ordinary people. He was a great teacher and a big influence. The year after I started, another military regime seized the government. So there were more and more political cases and I became a lawyer in the courts where once I was a prisoner. I could actually feel the problems that these prisoners were having. In my body I could feel their emotion because I knew that they were also tortured, and they shouldn’t have been. So even though it was hard, I started to fight back against the torturers. We simply had to put them on trial. That was 1980. A year later, another coup. This time, all the workers’ advocates and teachers unions groups were closed by the government, and the number of lawyers dealing with political cases decreased significantly. There were maybe seven or eight lawyers total in Ankara—that’s it, because they were scared. In that period Turkey had a lot of problems: thousands were killed in prison, torture was common. (And of course people say anything under torture.) For up to two years, many others remained in prison awaiting trial—even though they weren’t guilty. They had to perform hard labor there, could barely see their families. I started to work to improve the situation and was the first to bring a case against the prisons.
Personally, it was very hard. When prisoners told me of the tortures that they were suffering, I could barely stand it. The prison was far from the city, and when I returned every day from it, I felt like I was going to another life. I felt that I didn’t have the right to hug my husband, after hearing all these things that were happening. I had become a mother, but by then I didn’t think I even had the right to hug my children. I gave birth and then forty days later went to work immediately. One judge knew that I had to nurse my baby so he would wait until midnight to start my cases, to help me. I wanted to take flowers from the garden and give them to the children who were in detention. I wanted to make them feel close to nature. While we waited for our trials—long hours—I would write stories about what was happening to these children. And at that point I started to work with mothers to create a human rights organization. There was a lot going on in these prisons we couldn’t do anything about. But we always tried to help. In 1990 we recreated the Contemporary Lawyers Association, which was closed down since 1980 along with all the groups that had been banned then.
All these years of struggle made me well known in the public eye—the press and the media covered me constantly. I was known as a human rights lawyer, not as part of a militant group. I wasn’t afraid of being in prison or any other reprisals, but whereas as an underground group leader I was circumscribed, as a lawyer I knew that I could do a lot. Even though I was in danger most of the time, struggling gave me a lot of strength, and made me stronger. The act itself creates a mechanism to allow you to defend yourself even better. In 1985 I had my second child; in 1986 I was in prison again. This time the charge was that eleven years ago (when I was in that little village by the Black Sea) I had been engaging in Communist propaganda by publishing those education magazines. The statute of limitations is normally five years in Turkey, so this certainly had no legal basis, but my activism bothered them to such an extent that they were trying to find any way possible to put me in prison again. My baby was ten months old then and the fact that I couldn’t give him milk was very, very hard for me. Since it was very obvious that what they were doing was illegal, a lot of people supported me, which was really nice. And after thirty-five days we were released.
But I want to make clear that the struggle that I am living today is also my struggle, not just something I do for others. There were elections in our lawyers association recently, and my lawyer friends cautioned me that I was getting too involved with work and not giving enough attention to my children and family (my son had been depressed at this time). And I said to them, "My son is also your son. Anybody’s child could have been sick. I am struggling so that all of our children will benefit."
The work that we’re doing in the Contemporary Lawyers Association has had absolutely good, extremely positive results. There is now solidarity among lawyers and we have grown in numbers. We’ve tried to deal with the legal aspects of all the organizations that are trying to democratize Turkey and the intellectual organizations who are trying to help them. We did significant work to end torture and to improve the conditions in the prisons, to improve freedom of expression. But at the same time, bad things still happened in the nineties. There were fewer cases of torture, but many people were killed by extrajudicial executions, or disappeared. In 1991 they passed another amnesty law, but failed to free people who were imprisoned because of the Kurdish situation—all those intellectuals were still in prison, definitely a double standard. This was part of the antiterrorism statute that we were also against, which allowed the government to fight terror by terror. There were a lot of disappearances at this time of Kurdish lawyers. I am Turkish, and have a Turkish ethnic background, but for years we Turks lived as brothers and sisters with Kurdish people. The Kurdish situation became really incendiary because Ocalan (the leader of the Kurdish terrorist group KPLA) started to get support from outside countries, like Iraq, and then the government blamed terrorist activities in the southeast on civilians living there. Since then there have been a lot of human rights violations against the Kurds and we have fought that. For instance, during a meeting of the Kurdish political party someone lowered the Turkish flag, so they decided to arrest and detain all the deputies for that. But only one stupid person did that—the rest had nothing to do with it—and I wasn’t scared of defending them because I knew that they weren’t against Turkey, the nation, as such. Now they are free.
In 1993 there was a meeting of thirty-five intellectuals in the town of Sirvas and the fundamentalists set the hotel on fire and killed all of them. I represented their families and because of that received a lot of death threats. During that time in Diyarbakir where Sezgin Tanrikulu was living, there was a disappearance of a man called Sherif Afszhar. The family found the person who took him—the first time anyone had. But no lawyer was able to accept the case because they were scared, so they asked me. I went back and forth to Diyarbakir in really difficult conditions. Somebody put a gun to my head and they told me that if I came back again they were going to break my legs. I knew that the secret police were planning to capture me—they told me. Next day I went to the judge and made a complaint. The judge just said that the threat could be from a private underground organization or the fundamentalists—how could he know? He could do nothing.
Courage is a way of life. Working and struggling is how you become happy. When you look back on your life, you should have changed the world somehow. Of course humans are scared; being scared is a very human feeling. But you can’t live being scared. You have to overcome. And you know that those who are against you are really scared of you. You are not doing this because of courage, you’re not ever thinking about courage. It has simply become your way of life. Sometimes I am really scared—for my children. But how nice it will be if they have a mother that they can be proud of. So I struggle, until the end, so that they can be proud of me.
Speak Truth To Power (Umbrage, 2000)