BIARRITZ, France, Mar 23 (IPS) — The woman we’re meeting in a house on the outskirts of Biarritz -800 kilometres southwest of Paris- is a university professor, the author of several books and hundreds of articles, and a well-known human rights activist.
According to Turkish courts, she also planted a bomb that killed seven people and injured more than 120 in Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar 25 years ago.
"Up to four scientific reports, including the one from the Turkish police themselves, pointed to a gas explosion, but later they said that it had been a bomb, and that I had planted it," Pinar Selek tells IPS. This 51-year-old Turkish woman is embroiled in one of the strangest trials in the history of the Turkish judiciary.
"It’s Kafkaesque," she blurts. “The case is based on the testimony of a Kurdish man who said that we had planted the bomb together. Later, he claimed to have confessed under torture, and that he didn’t even know me. He is free in Turkey, and I am in exile."
On June 21, 2022, the Turkish public news agency Anadolu announced the annulment by the Supreme Court of Turkey of Pinar Selek’s fourth acquittal. Previously, she had been found innocent in three criminal proceedings.
But the sentence to life imprisonment is already firm and unappealable. On January 6, 2023, the Istanbul Court of First Instance issued an international arrest warrant for her.
Martin Pradel, Selek’s lawyer, talks about a "purely political case”.
“I have never heard of any other case that has gone on for 25 years without legal evidence of any kind. And this is without mentioning that Pinar has been acquitted up to four times,” Pradel told IPS over the phone from Paris.
The lawyer urged the French state to give Selek protection as a French citizen. If not, he added, the next step would be to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
"Where are they?"
Born into an Istanbul family of left militants, Pinar Selek has devoted her life to making visible those "invisible" in her country of origin: women and Kurds, prostitutes, Roma, homosexuals, Armenians...
“Where are they?” has always been her question as a researcher, and also as an activist. It was this vital commitment that brought her to prison in 1998, after refusing to hand the police a list of Kurdish contacts for one of her sociological studies.
“When they started building new prisons, we resisted being transferred. More than 300 died under attacks in which prisons were even bombed,” remembers Selek.
She was released after more than two years of captivity, torture, and a hunger strike in which, she says, dozens died. Back on the street, she was one of the founders of Amargi, a groundbreaking feminist organization in Turkey, and also the first feminist bookstore in the history of her country.
She has added a set of tales and a few books of her own to its shelves, but she has not been back in a long time. She had to leave the country in 2009 and, after getting her French citizenship in 2017, she settled down in Nice, where she teaches at the University Côte d’Azur, a public institution.
Ilya Topper, a Spanish journalist and analyst based in Istanbul for more than ten years, sees the trial opened against Selek in 1998 as “part of that brutal campaign against everything that seemed to treat Kurdish demands as a topic that could be discussed.“
“Until around 2005, anyone within a hundred meters of a protest which held a banner with a slogan that had any remote resemblance to a phrase once said by someone from the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) would be put in jail for many years,” the expert told IPS over the phone from Istanbul.
Until just over a decade ago, he adds, mayors were still sentenced for saying something in Kurdish on charges of "speaking a non-existent language." He illustrates it with a concrete case:
“In 2011, a Kurdish mayor was sentenced to half a year in prison and a fine of 1,500 euros for naming a public park after Ehmedi Xani, an 18th-century Kurdish poet. The controversial issue was not the writer, but the initial letter of his last name: it is written with X, which exists in Kurdish, but not in Turkish.”
The trial against Selek, underlines the analyst, "highlights the deterioration of the Turkish Judiciary in a country where you can go to prison for any reason."
Several human rights watchdogs have consistently denounced Selek’s case. Human Rights Watch describes it as “the perversion of a criminal justice system”; the International PEN Club — a world association of writers with consultative status at the UN- includes Selek in its list of 115 authors who suffer harassment, arrest or violence around the world.
In a telephone conversation with IPS, its president, Burhan Sönmez, mentioned other notorious cases in Turkey, such as that of the publisher and human rights defender Osman Kavala, or the opposition politician Selahattin Demirta?
"Both remain behind bars despite the European Court of Human Rights ruling for their immediate release,” Sönmez stressed from London.
Solidarity goes hand in hand with denunciation. More than a hundred personalities including intellectuals, political leaders and social agents will attend the hearing to be held in Istanbul on March 31. It’s a legal formality to notify Selek of her firm life sentence.
Michele Rubirola, former mayoress of Marseille and today the first deputy of the consistory, is the one chosen to represent the city. In a telephone conversation with IPS, Rubirola spoke of “someone who is a victim of injustice and oppression."
“Selek ‘s academic struggles have turned into political struggles, and the relentlessness of the political and judicial power she is facing consolidates her as a true human rights activist," added the delegate.
A judicial process that has lasted a quarter of a century is reaching a key moment just a few weeks before decisive elections in Turkey, a referendum on the more than two decades in the power for Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdo?an.
"My trial is one of the indicators of the evil rooted in Turkey: it reflects both the continuity of the authoritarian regime and the configurations of the repressive devices," laments Selek.
She also confesses concern about how it may affect her family in Turkey, and herself in her host country.
“I am convicted of a massacre and my movement may be restricted internationally, and even within France. Moreover, Turkey is asking me for millions in compensation for the deaths and the destruction and there´s an international financial convention that could be executed in France,” she recalls.
Today, her only certainty is that she will try to move on with her life. Other than her work at the university, she also gives talks and organizes events and protests. Exile, she says, "may have uprooted me from my country, but not from the street."