Bad Theater in Istanbul: Turkish Court Performs Kafka


By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

ISTANBUL — Like any other day in the summer season, on July 31, thousands of tourists were standing in lines in the blistering heat to visit the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace and numerous other sites here.

On the other side of the city, a smaller crowd of foreigners waited outside the grandiose edifice housing the 11th High Criminal Court. They, too, were rightly expecting to experience something of historic significance, albeit more political in nature. The group of 30 people had flown in from Germany as an observer delegation at the trial of Dogan Akhanli, a renowned German-Turkish novelist and playwright, who had been tried for a serious crime and acquitted by this same Istanbul court in 2011. Then, in early 2013 the Supreme Court of Appeals in Ankara surprisingly demanded the case be reopened. It argued that Akhanli had been a member of a terrorist group at the time of the crime (1989) and called for life imprisonment. Faced with this demand, the Istanbul court had to respond: either buckle under the pressure from above or reaffirm its sovereign verdict of acquittal for lack of evidence.

What transpired in the brief, less than one hour hearing can only be described as a piece of Kafkaesque theatre. The defense lawyers presented their case convincingly and with passion: Akhanli had been accused of involvement in the armed robbery of a money exchanger in 1989 and this same court had cleared him of all charges in 2011 for lack of evidence. In fact, there had been no material evidence gathered by the police investigation (they did not look for fingerprints on the bag the assailants had left behind in their flight from the crime scene), and witnesses who had named the accused in interrogations later retracted their testimony in the trial, saying they had been tortured.

This very court in Istanbul had therefore acquitted the defendant two years ago, and it should, the defense lawyers argued, reconfirm that decision. The judge, one of three present and the same one who had ruled two years earlier, summarized the defense lawyers’ statements, to have them entered in the record. Then the prosecuting attorney, who had been looking on apathetically, acknowledged that he had not fully read through the documentation, but nonetheless spoke in favor of reversing the earlier acquittal and called for adjourning to a later date. The judge obliged, declaring that the court would reconvene on October 4. He added that the defendant should appear in person at that hearing, and announced that the court has issued an international arrest warrant for him.

In sum: the court ruled that Akhanli would be put on trial again, although there was no new evidence against him, and that he would be treated like a criminal fugitive, subject to an international arrest warrant!

The fact that a substantial delegation of observers from Germany had travelled to Istanbul made a difference. It was composed of well-known intellectuals such as Günter Wallrath, human rights activists, representatives of political parties (the Green Party, Left Party, Social Democratic Party), trade unions, artists’ and writers’ associations, civil society groups, the German-Armenian Society and myself, as a Mirror-Spectator correspondent.

On the eve of the hearing, the group held a press conference, which was attended by all leading German and Turkish press, as well as international agencies. Ragip Zarakolu, a well-known publisher of books on taboo subjects who has also been prosecuted and jailed, presented the facts of the case, and Wallraff, who has attended previous hearings in the case, said what was at stake here was the nature of the Turkish state. If justice reigned, then Akhanli would be freed; if not, Turkey would appear to be a state of injustice. He criticized the labeling of dissidents as “terrorists” in Turkey, saying people like Akhanli and Pinar Selek, another persecuted intellectual who broke taboos, are committed democrats, sorely needed in civil society.

At the press conference, members of the observer delegation from Germany donned t-shirts with a picture of the defendant and the slogan: “We are all K.A.F.K.A. – Justice for Dogan Akhanli.” Franz Kafka’s classic, The Trial, relates the drama of a man, arrested and tried, who never learns what the charges are up to the point of his execution. Pictures of the group and several articles and interviews appeared in the Turkish and German press, putting a public spotlight on the trial and its Kafkaesque quality.

Following the judges’ ruling, which the support committee characterized in a statement as “cowardly,” the issue exploded in the press. Wallraff told the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper that the entire affair was “a farce.” He said, “If the court accepts so-called evidence which was produced under torture and later retracted, that is an open admission that Turkey is not a state under the rule of law, but a police state.” He pointed to the fact that there are currently 69 journalists and numerous lawyers in prison, a sign that the opposition is being criminalized. More public exposure of such repression is required, he said, especially in Turkey, and “pressure from abroad can be effective.”

Many of the delegation’s personalities interviewed after the hearing compared the proceedings to those against Pinar Selek, who was acquitted four times before being sentenced to life imprisonment, and now lives in exile in France. Like her, Akhanli has broken taboos, especially regarding the Armenian genocide. Visitors to the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide museum may recall that in one of the showcases with books on the atrocities of 1915, there is a volume in Turkish written by Dogan Akhanli. A novel of his, titled The Judges of the Last Judgment, (which has been translated into German) is a literary masterpiece, a profoundly moving account of the Genocide. His most recent work is a monologue written for the stage called “Anne’s Silence,” which dramatizes the discovery a Turkish immigrant in Germany makes of her Armenian roots. In addition to writing, Akhanli has been active in educational work and in promoting dialogue and research among Turks, Armenians, Germans and Kurds about their shared history.

Akhanli followed the Istanbul theatrics from his home in Cologne and was flooded with requests for statements and interviews after the ruling. He compared the trial to a “piece of bad theater, in which the authorities are trying to portray me as a criminal.” Referring to judicial authorities, he said, “I hoped that they would finally stop this nonsense.” Asked about his response to the news the case would be reopened, he said, “I feel like a football they can kick around in different directions. The people doing it think it is okay because it’s only a ball.” As for the court’s issuing a warrant, he quipped, “They know where I live! To put out an international search warrant is as absurd as the fact that they want to put me on trial again.” In fact, the warrant appears to be illegal, considering that the defendant had not been convoked or invited to attend the session – not to mention the fact of the acquittal. This is an issue the defense lawyers are following up. Repeatedly, Akhanli expressed his thanks for the show of solidarity, through the delegation as well as the supportive press coverage. “I don’t feel as if I were in exile here,” he said, “it’s a gift to be able to stay here. Germany has saved me … twice.” As for his concrete reaction to the turn of events, he has decided to start writing new works, both in Turkish and in German.

Where will it go from here? Although German diplomats were on hand at the trial, they of course did not make any public statements. Later, in Berlin, word came from the Foreign Ministry that, in accordance with the Constitution, no German citizen can be extradited to a country outside the EU, so there is no danger of his being sent to Turkey. The Foreign Ministry told the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper that “it would intercede in Akhanli’s behalf also in the future,” and added that, in respect to Turkey, it has repeatedly “pointed to the special character of this case and also to the great concern that the case arouses in Germany.”  Given the ongoing domestic protest movement of the Taksim Platform, associated trials against independent-minded journalists, and growing tensions in the region focused on Syria, the Turkish government is coming under increasing international scrutiny and criticism. The next hearing on October 4 will be a test case for the regime.

(Muriel Mirak-Weissbach has followed closely the case of Dogan Akhanli. Her previous article in the Armenian Mirror-Spectator on the case appeared in the June 22 edition, titled “Turks Demand Democratic Rights — and Justice.”)