The following article was published in the December 2020 issue of the International Review of Contemporary Law, the journal of the IADL.
by Serife Ceren Uysal
“Recovering collective memory is itself an act of struggle. It allows the generational currents of the white-capped river of our movement to flow together.”
I don’t know how people in other countries decide to become lawyers, but those who decide to be a lawyer in Turkey are divided into two groups. The first group actually chooses a profession, they are looking for a job, just like people everywhere else probably needs to do and chose this profession. This choice does make them neither good nor bad, it is simply a decision about their career. What makes them good or bad is the choices they will make in their future career as a lawyer, who they will support, who they will work for, who they will defend.
However, another group chooses this profession because of the injustices they have witnessed throughout their lives and their anger over the pain they have observed. These people say, “I will become a lawyer, and I will defend those who are suffering under the ongoing injustice”. “I will fight so that the same does not happen again,” they say:
What have these people been through?
Of course, each country has its own collective memory of pain and trauma.
Those who were persecuted by Nazi fascism…
Those who witnessed the conditions of a civil war…
This list goes on and on, because the world is never a safe place for oppressed people, for the poor ones or for anyone oppressed by patriarchal structures or violence.
Therefore, I can claim that, at least for my generation in Turkey, that which we had to witness during our childhood and our youth determined the position we took in our professional life.
Imagine a Kurdish child who was subjected to forced migration, who saw its father, its uncle or other people in its village being executed by a gunfire. That Kurdish child needed to hide under the bed during the nights to be protected from falling bullets… How many nights? I do not know because this is not my story, I have never experienced this. I can only imagine how painful it is, and I can only imagine this through the eyes of my colleagues who have lived through these situations.
For example, think of another child . , this child could have been me or thousands of other lawyers from Turkey. Her uncle, who was a teacher, was kidnapped from home at night by armed and masked men. The whole family searched for him in the police stations for 10 days. Official information was obtained after 10 days. When they visited him after 10 days, the tall, strong uncle could not stand on his feet because of the torture to which he had been subjected. Your uncle, who caresses your hair and hugs you every time he sees you, has no ability to raise his hand. Months have passed… Your uncle is still in prison. Everyone in the family is unhappy. Your cousin who is younger than you does not understand. Furious… Months later, the uncle was acquitted.
What remains in that little child’s memory? Maybe fear remains. as well as the desire to do something against injustice. This child will become a lawyer and will try to prevent other uncles from being tortured. Let us give a name to this child and call her Ebru Timtik!
These are small and short stories, maybe not that significant. A young person graduates from university… The family is full of pride!
My family always said to me, become a lawyer! you can help people, and you’ll be “safe“. To help people you need to be safe. This was the determination of my parents. But those cold walls of the courthouses hit us like a slap in the face. You want to submit a petition for your client. You get beaten.
You try to present a defence in the courtroom, but your words get interrupted.
There comes a moment when you have to occupy the courthouse because you cannot prevent your detained clients from being unlawfully kept at the police station.
Of course you help others, but your mother was not right, you are not at all safe. . On the contrary, your profession is perceived as a threat to the ones in power and you are declared a public enemy.
Your client is at the police station. You go and explain her about her legal rights and then leave the police station because you have done what you need to do. The next day, that beautiful woman, your client is transferred to the courthouse. She’s covered in blood, her nose is broken… You want to scream.
A curfew is announced in Kurdish provinces. You know that there is no legal basis. You decide to travel there to write a report and to observe the situation with your colleagues from abroad. Your only wish is to identify and report about the unlawfulness that has happened there, which takes you three days. You as a lawyer will listen to detect violations of rights. You listen to the mothers who could not take the bodies of their children who were shot to death. You see the doctors who are prevented from entering the region and who are suffering. The meetings last for hours. In the background of conversations, you hear gunshots from only a kilometre away. When you go back to the hotel at night, the gun shots do not stop.
Or you are told that three hundred and one workers died inside a mine, because of clear negligence by the owners. You meet with other lawyers and go to the city where the miners live in order to provide the workers’ families with legal aid. Afterwards you are surrounded in the courtyard of the hotel where you are staying. You ask yourself if you are going to be beaten or burned alive there. You and your colleagues need to get out of there somehow. A few days pass and the lawyers are detained and tortured.
These are very short stories about being a lawyer in Turkey. These are short stories that reflect the life of Ebru. However, it is more than this. It is the story of living in Turkey.
After Ebru’s death, I have difficulty in making proper sentences. My voice trembles as I speak of United Nations principles, Human Rights Conventions, ECHR or other legal applications.
I just want to shout, Ebru died of hunger, for the right to a fair trial!
Yes, we did our best. But those who could fix the problem just watched and let her die.
Who is responsible for her death now?
I still believe there are reasons for hope. But we should start discussing the how we can contribute to change this injustice. Things can change if we can exchange our painful collective memories from land to land.
I am not just talking about solidarity, but I am also talking about a united struggle. Not just for saving the life of other Ebrus, but to protect every other person who is suffering under these injustices. To prevent torture, to prevent the extrajudicial executions, to be sure that no other children will have such memories. To be sure that no one will need to hold a hunger strike for demanding a fair trial.
I will never and ever forget Ebru. She was my lawyer when I was just an intern and was arrested. She was the strong woman there in that cold police station who, smiled at me with her eyes. Later, she was my comrade when I became a lawyer and joined the Progressive Lawyers Association. She was my companion. When I was travelling to a small city where there were a so-called work accidents. She was driving a car with only a three day driving licence. She was a person who was full of life! She loved life too much. I know this especially from the trip we made. She was full of anger and sadness, but she stopped in every corner where she saw a villager, who was selling her own products, near the road. I remember that she bought strawberries. The taste and smell of strawberries will always remind me Ebru. She fought like strawberries, modest but full of resistance.
Serife Ceren Uysal is a human rights lawyer from Istanbul. Her practice in Turkey, included several cases of systemic human rights violations. She has been an executive board member of the Progressive Lawyers Association since 2012. She is also an active member of the international relations committee of the association and represents the association in several international organisations. Part of her activities on the committee, involved she and her colleagues organizing numerous fact-finding and trial observation missions. Based in Vienna since December 2016, she took up the position of guest researcher at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for a year. She has participated in several conferences and seminars in different countries to draw attention to the situation in Turkey, particularly in relation to lawyers and human rights defenders. She was awarded the Dr. Georg Lebiszczak-Prize for Freedom of Speech in Austria. She is currently studying at the Gender Studies Masters Program of the University of Vienna, focusing on gender issues within the context of human rights law.
 Feinberg, Leslie, “10th edition 2003 Author Afterword”, Excerpts Stone Butch Blues 10th Anniversary Edition, 2003