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Turkey is putting 19 people on trial tomorrow for organizing a Pride

Turkey is putting 19 people on trial tomorrow for organizing a Pride

  • Police used tear gas and plastic bullets to break up the peaceful LGBT+ crowd.
Crowd at METU Pride 2019.

18 students and an academic are to go on trial tomorrow in Turkey because they organized a Pride march on their university campus.

They were at the event on 10 May 2019 and authorities charged them in August. But the courts have delayed the trial under international pressure.

Campaigners say the event at Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, happened after authorities lifted a ban on Prides.

Despite this, they say 50 police broke up the event and even fired tear gas and plastic bullets. 

Ban on Prides in Ankara

Turkey was living under a state of emergency until July 2018. And the governor of Ankara used this to announce an indefinite ban on LGBT+ events in the city.

However, LGBT+ organizations brought a court case to appeal the ban on 19 April 2019. As a result, the authorities lifted the ban. Moreover, the court ruled events cannot be banned indefinitely, even during a state of emergency.

METU has a long-running LGBT+ organization, The Solidarity Club, which formed in 1996. It has held Prides on campus since 2011. The events have been among the largest campus marches in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Despite this, and despite the club making repeated applications, the university authorities have never recognized the group. And, since 2017, the METU administration has been trying to ban all LGBT+ activities on its campus.

It was against this backdrop that The Solidarity Club started organizing its 2019 march. The 9th METU Pride March took place on 10 May. That is after Ankara’s authorities had lifted the ban. But the university still did not want it to go ahead.

What happened at the METU Pride March?

Crowd at METU Pride 2019.
METU Pride 2019: The event is one of the largest campus marches in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The Solidarity Club

Melike Balkan, from METU LGBTI+ Solidarity, explains:

‘Because it was a rainy day, we gathered under a sunshade at 14:00 and put up a rainbow flag.

‘After a while more than 50 police officers in riot gear surrounded us to form a barricade, forcing students to take down the sunshade and evacuate the area.

‘The Ankara Bar Association lawyers for the LGBTIQ+ Centre and Amnesty International observers were not allowed to enter the campus.’

The LGBT+ campaigners removed their materials and the police withdrew. By 3pm, students were sitting around but not holding flags or banners.

Balkan says: ‘Despite that fact, hundreds of police officers surrounded the students again. Two student activists talked to the police chief and stated that any crowd could sit around that area and the things that were being done to them were unlawful.

‘The police again threatened. [They] said: “You two will be taken into custody first, and then the others will be taken no matter what they are doing.” The crowd dispersed.’

But the LGBT+ students and supporters gathered again at 4.30pm at the highest building on campus. This time, the police attacked without warning, giving them no time to disperse.

Balkan says: ‘The police used tear gas and plastic bullets on the crowd. 21 students and one academic were taken into custody. All of them were released after midnight.’

Police told those they arrested that university authorities had banned their event, not Ankara’s governor.

Moreover Balkan says: ‘None of the police officers who committed police violence were charged.’

Crowd at METU Pride 2019.
Young people supporting METU Pride 2019. The Solidarity Club

‘A dangerous precedent’

The authorities eventually charged 18 students and one academic with violating the law on meetings and demonstrations. Moreover, they charged one student with insulting a police officer. And prosecutors claimed the police had used ‘proportional force’.

The court first heard the case on 12 November 2019 but postponed judgment until tomorrow (12 March 2020).

Activists expect that court will postpone again. And it won’t be until a third trial date, in April, when it will hand out sentences.

The case is particularly important. It is the first time Turkish authorities have charged people for running a Pride. But further trials are coming up. So what happens to the METU LGBT+ advocates could set a precedent.

LGBT+ organization ILGA Europe says: ‘While a victory in this case would mean a victory in favour of freedom of assembly in Turkey and against the controversial bans, a negative outcome would set a dangerous precedent.’

Crowd at METU Pride 2019.
METU’s Solidarity Club campaigns for a safer LGBT+ campus. The Solidarity Club

Meanwhile the Pride organizers want international support during the trial.

At the November court date, an EU delegation, European Pride Organisers Association, Amnesty International, other LGBT+ groups and five bar associations were present to monitor the trial.

Activists believe the court postponed because of the observers being there. So they want the same people to observe again and at an April court date.

Moreover, they want people to post on social media using #DefendMETUPride and #ODTÜnünOnurunaSahipÇık in Turkish. In particular, they want social media posts to demand a fair trial.

When the trial goes ahead, the defendants are likely to argue that they have a constitutional right to freedom of assembly. They will also say there is no legal basis for their detention. And they will point to the police using excessive force against them.