From the TUC

Trumped up charges for organising a May Day rally in Turkey

11 Feb 2015, By Guest

I’ve just returned from Turkey, where NASUWT joined a global trade union delegation led by the ITUC to observe and report on the 6 February court hearing of five Turkish trade union leaders accused of organising the 2014 May Day rally in Taksim Square, Istanbul. The NASUWT has now attended seven such court hearings since October 2012, including trumped up charges against TUC-equivalent KESK and its affiliated teachers union, Egitim Sen.

The international trade union delegation to Istanbul consisted of 15 European trade union representatives, a colleague from Iran and a Canadian lawyer representing ICTUR. The purpose of the visit is to demonstrate solidarity with Turkish trade union colleagues on trial and to express outrage at the Turkish government’s brutal treatment of ordinary working people seeking to engage in peaceful, legitimate and democratic trade union activities.

As Sean Bamford blogged here recently, Turkish liberal democracy is under assault from those supposed to uphold and protect it. Turkey’s national democratic constitution is being curtailed daily. Freedom of speech and association are constantly being eroded. Ordinary, law-abiding trade unionists are being penalised and violently attacked, simply because they are trying to conduct legitimate and peaceful trade union activities.

The Turkish state accuses the presidents of pro-democracy national trade union centres – like KESK and DISK – of conducting illegal activity on 1 May 2014 that caused ‘societal disturbance’. On that day the KESK and DISK presidents engaged in peaceful negotiation (which the police taped)  to persuade police to allow workers to enter Taksim Square to celebrate. Meanwhile the state security forces were busy cordoning off all the main roads, backed up by thousands of police officers in riot gear and gas masks, preparing to violently attack the trade union gathering. The police had been authorised to disperse people with force.

ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow had attended the 2013 May Day Rally in Istanbul as a guest of DISK and KESK and reported that:

“Today I was witness to the frontline of an attack on workers’ rights in Turkey. I was at the barricades when police and security forces, on the orders of their government, fired tear gas at small groups of workers. From early morning until late in the evening on the first of May workers in Istanbul came under brutal attack. 40,000 police in riot gear and gas masks are thought to have been on the streets of the city. We wanted to go into Taksim Square and sing songs of peace but instead the government unleashed the instruments of war, the president of the Turkish union confederation DISK told me.”

The President of KESK, Lami Ozgen, is defending himself against the charge of daring to organise the 2014 May Day rally. In the witness box, he said the trial was a violation and breach of Turkish constitutional arrangements and that of the European and international human rights charters that guarantee democratic and peaceful trade union representations including assembly. And therefore this trial was a political one. He concluded by saying that if the court found him guilty, KESK was prepared to organise another march this May.

Taksim Square has a deep historical significance for Turkish progressives advocating community cohesion, justice and fairness and international solidarity. It seems, however, that today’s Turkish government is afraid of providing space for a progressive secular political environment to flourish and consolidate, encouraging instead Islamic religious groupings to flourish and consolidate. The Mayor of Istanbul has closed Taksim Square to secular progressive trade union organisations wanting to organise peaceful events, whilst allowing and encouraging Muslim religious festivities to be organised in the square. Can you imagine the Mayor of London banning the TUC from holding legitimate rallies in Trafalgar Square but allowing it to be used by religious groupings?

Jaap Wienen, the ITUC Deputy General Secretary who led the global union delegation to Istanbul, told a press conference before the start of the hearing:

“This is a sad and shameful day for Turkey. Europe already has one dictatorship and certainly it needs no new one.”

The judge decided to postpone judgment until 22 March, saying that she needs time to re-examine the case in the light of what had been reported to the court.