In May, Turkish security forces, along with supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, heavily attacked a group of protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington, DC. Among the demonstrators was rights defender Ozlem Yasak, who currently faces prosecution in her country, and is forced to seek asylum.
“The Turkish President takes with him his one-man rules everywhere, even to the soil of the USA,” said Yasak. The incident had taken place while Erdogan was visiting the While House. US President Donald Trump had hailed his Turkish counterpart as an “ally in the battle against Islamic extremism”.
On August 29, 19 people were indicted on accusations of attacking protesters, 15 of whom are Turkish security officials, according to the Associated Press. The Washington Post reported that “all were charged by a D.C. Superior Court grand jury with conspiracy to commit a crime of violence”.
“We, as human right defenders, were there to protest him peacefully,” Yazak asserted. She is an advocate of Turkish women socioeconomic rights, who still suffer domestic violence, as well as exclusion from the labor force. Yasak also defends rights for Turkey’s Kurds, a marginalized, repressed minority which constitutes a fifth of the country’s population.
“[Erdogan’s] guards attacked us brutally. It was very scary,” Yasak narrated, continuing, “I was carrying a friend’s seven-year-old daughter. I tried to run away but I could not. They caught us. They kicked me and stepped on my body”.
The US State Department condemned the attack, calling it an assault on free speech. “We are communicating our concerns to the Turkish government in the strongest possible terms,” said Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman.
However, the Turkish embassy had released a statement accusing the protesters of provocation, and said that the supporters and security forces’ reaction was in self-defense. Back at home, Yasak and others who were put on trial. This was not the first violation she had been subjected to.
By the end of 2016, the Turkish state’s pressure and attacks on Kurdish cities heightened. The government arrested most of the mayors she was working with. Originally from the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, she held the position of the Foreign Relations Coordinator and Project Department Coordinator to the 118 municipalities and mayors in Union of Southeastern Anatolia Region Municipalities.
“The crack down on women and human rights defenders became a daily routine,” Yasak said. “On top of pressure and threats, detention was the main violence against us,” she stated. She and her team tried to prepare reports about the violence they were subjected to. However, 86 of the mayors she was serving as a general advisor for are currently behind bars. Her lawyers advised her to depart from Turkey because one of the case against her was being finalized.
Fortunately, Yazak had managed to leave Turkey on March 23, a few days before a final verdict was reached in one of the ongoing cases against her . As she arrived to New York, she learnt that she has been sentenced to six years and three months in prison. “Traveling was too risky because all passports were being cancelled by the government. I was lucky to be able to come here. I have two more cases going on. Everything is getting worse. Even my lawyer and my organization’s country director are in the jail now,” said Yasak.
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