Eren Keskin is a lawyer, human/women’s rights defender and former head of the Istanbul Human Rights Association. She is also the co-founder of the Project for Legal Aid to Victims of Rape and Sexual Assault Under Custody providing free legal aid to the victims of violence. For exposing and speaking out against the abuses happening to women, she has been threatened, harassed and arrested many times by the state authorities. She comments on the latest COVID-19 measures of the Turkish government:
L’OBS: There is a global, serious health threat. The whole world is struggling with an epidemic that causes many casualties, unfortunately. We are all invited to stay at home to stop as well as to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. There are many views on the “post-corona days” about where the world will go on…. What do you think about this subject?
Eren Keskin: There is an expectation that everything will change “after Coronavirus pandemic is over”. It is said that the world order will change, there will be a different world, etc. To be honest, I don’t believe it. Especially in our geography, there were so many disasters that they were forgotten. Nothing has changed, especially in terms of the approach of the rulers. I think, Coronavirus pandemic is not managed properly in the world. Every country was late starting from China. In Turkey, I think the real situation is quite different from what is said to us by the government. The governments call for stay home, but sometimes you feel really ashamed to stay home. I am at home, I protect myself, but there is a construction work on my street, just opposite of my house, the workers are working there. Banks are open and employees are commuting. The Turkish government is discriminatory in its call to stay home as well. In fact, it is the same in the world. The rich put themselves under protection, but the workers and laborers do not have the right to be protected. So once again, it turned out how much this class issue is directly related with the way you live, how real it is in life. If you are poor, your ability to protect yourself is limited in such situation. This is one of the most important points that this Coronavirus pandemic shows in my opinion: class difference and struggle is still a big issue.
And of course, the nature showed its power to human beings. There is no power other than the power of nature. Nature is still stronger than human being, human being is a creature that is dependent to the nature. All the capabilities of the world are desperate against such a virus. Many leaders also got this disease. There is no guarantee that our leaders will not be caught tomorrow. Nature has once again shown everyone that no one has absolute power. I think those who have the ability to empathize have grasped it, I do not believe that authoritarian leaders and governments in the world can grasp it. Those who do not want to understand their (lack of) power against nature would become even more authoritative.
L’OBS: There is a global slogan: a national solution to a global problem. Everyone said this in explaining their strategy against COVID-19. Almost all the nation-states closed their borders. It is questioned whether the EU could be able to function as a supra-structure in the near future. For example, Italy is reproaching the European countries in the north because they “left them alone”.
EK: As human rights defenders we have already worried that authoritarianism and nationalism would increase. A trend in this direction has been strengthening for a long time. There are many different approaches and naïve interpretations claiming that nation-states are over. I think, the nation-state is getting more and more protected, and became introverted as response to this COVID-19 threat.
L’OBS: You told the importance of releasing the prisoners for fighting against COVID-19.
EK: The situation in the prisons should be improved and prisoners should be released as soon as possible to fight against COVID-19, in Turkey as well as in abroad. We are trying to protect ourselves as human rights defenders nowadays, but now we spend almost all of our time for improving the conditions of those in prisons. We organize campaigns because there are more than 1500 sick prisoners in prisons of Turkey. Most of them are cardiac patients, asthma patients or cancer patients. Their immunity is extremely weak, and they stay in the wards with the other 20-30 prisoners. The government warns us for being careful about the social distance, but the prisoners do not even have such a choice in a ward with 20-30 people. Many of prisoners are left to die. This is a very striking. Our priority is sick prisoners first and then the elderly, women and children. They must be evacuated as soon as possible.
L’OBS: A law draft was issued yesterday. Prisoners are expected to be released in the following days. Have you had a chance to look at this draft?
EK: Not the all provisions, we are waiting the full draft. There are certain crime categories that cannot benefit from “half the penalty” reduction. One of them is political crimes, as always. Others are murder in the first degree, sexual crimes and drug dealers. For others, those who have already paid half of their sentences will be released and can to their homes. They will release most of the ordinary prisoners by halving their punishment but will exclude political prisoners. We will learn the details soon. As human rights defenders, we think that the prisoners will be emptied by the government to open more room for the new political prisoners.
We advocate equality in execution. Because Article 10 of the Turkish Constitution says that everyone is equal before the law. Again, Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights says that you cannot discriminate people in any way. Political prisoners in Turkey have always been subjected to a discrimination. Judicial prisoners are in the jail for two-thirds of the sentence, while political prisoners are in the jail three-quarters of the sentence. For example, a mafia leader spends two-thirds of his total penalty in prison, while the leader of pro-Kurdish party Selahattin Demirtaş stays in prison more just because his political opinions are different. We demand an equality in this term, but now prisoners are released as part of COVID-19 precaution and the government is already very late in evacuating the them.
L’OBS: People who questions the government’s COVID-19 policies are started to be warned by the law enforcers. A truck driver, who posted video on social media saying he cannot stay at home, because he has to work. We learnt that he was warned by the police, and then he lost his job.
EK: Yes, apparently they open more room for new political prisoners. The practice of trustees in Kurdistan continues even at a time when human health is so threatened. You have to manage cities locally and you have to warn the public strictly as part of CODIV-19 measures. This requires minimum stability in politics. Trustees are appointed to the municipalities led by mayors chosen by the people, and the government detained and arrested the mayors and managers elected by the right. With this COVID-19 threat, there is no change in the political perspective of the state. It was like this before, and then like that. But there is a serious public health threat.
I also add one thing which is very important. The Board of Judges and Prosecutors recently announced its first additional measures against the coronavirus pandemic. The Turkish Criminal Code has a law (no: 6287) on domestic violence. As per this law, women can expel their husbands, fathers and brothers who commit violent against them in the house. But the Judges and Prosecutors Board said that this measure will not be applied in this Coronavirus days. This is a terrible! It is contradictory by nature. You say both stay at home and ignore domestic violence. The women live in the same house with their family members who commit violence against them. The Judges and Prosecutors of this country says that I will not take measures during the corona period when you experience violence. No one is taking about it now; these are extremely important issues. Therefore, I am deeply concerned that militarism, authoritarianism, nationalism and male hegemony will increase in this process. Women are locked in places that are the most dangerous in terms of violence, with men who commit violence against them.
L’OBS: There is no plan B, unfortunately. For example, there are no shelters for such women.
EK: Actually, they must get these men away from the houses and keep them in another place. They can do it by reapplying the already-existed legal measures. The Judges and Prosecutors Board says to the women, if they subject to male violence in these days, they will not help them. Could there be such a social state?
L’OBS: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared on TV 2 days ago, stated that Turkey must continue its production and then announced a “charity race” in his words. Citizens asked for money by the President. We know that resources such as earthquake fund and disaster fund have been emptied due to the economic crisis. But how will the government demand money from the public instead of using its own means? Is this a sustainable situation in this economic crisis environment?
EK: It is not possible. While everyone was waiting for a curfew statement, the President appeared for asking money. This is a curfew for the public health. Because, as everybody says, isolation is the only solution to prevent this disease. The state should pay the wages and should declare a paid leave. However, our president says that production has to continue, but who will continue production? Workers and laborers who cannot work from home. The public already suffers from economic difficulties, unemployment is high, even basic food items are very expensive and they still want money from the public. The state can issue money. They manage the Central Bank as well. All countries have economic problems in these days, many countries are issuing money, at least they consider issuing money as a measure. If they really want to defeat this disease, you can issue money now, and solve the problem, and give people their wages and keep them home, solve this disease problem, and then correct the problems brought about by issuing money with new measures in the future. It was prevented in China and South Korea in this way. In Turkey, the streets are full of people. Some of them have to go out because they are working. As I said, there is construction work on my street and those workers have been working since the very early morning, they have to work. Who will protect these people from this disease? They do not protect such people and they appear to ask money from people. This state asks 10 TL from their citizens, what is this? There is also a public reaction. There is a campaign on social media called “Zırnık yok” (I give you zero penny). It is cool.
L’OBS: It seems the government commissioned mosques and imams instead of declaring curfew. At the moment, all the mosques warn people to enter your home after the adhan and praying to fight to COVID-19. It seems it went beyond its purpose in making religion a part of social problems.
EK: We really did not have any other period in which politics was so dominated by religion. But this COVID-19 thread showed that science is above everything. You can solve the current problem only with science. This COVID-19 proved it. It can be traumatic in this sense. There is a funny expression on social media which reflects the current situation well: during COVUD-19, all the Muslims closed their mosques, all the leftists demand curfew, and all the believers are after alcohol. Let’s see how it will end.