With the country remaining submerged in state of emergency darkness, Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça started a protest four months ago in front of Ankara’s Yüksel Street in the endeavour to return to their jobs. Veli Saçılık, who lost his arm seventeen years ago in a prison operation, then joined them. Society has remained indifferent to the public workers’ protest, with them having been arrested tens of times in harsh police interventions. The protests only managed to court public attention when Gülmen and Özakça’s hunger strike reached a critical stage. In the immediate aftermath, Gülmen and Özakça were detained on charges of ‘organisation membership’ on the 75th day of their hunger strike. The police have tried to put an end to the protests in harsh interventions, resulting in memorable footage of Veli Saçılık’s mother being dragged along the ground. For his part, Saçılık, with his friends in detention, is attempting to continue his protest every day in front of the Human Rights Memorial in Yüksel Street. The police’s response to Saçılık’s persistence is to arrest him in harsh interventions. I spoke to Veli Saçılık, whose arm that was torn off in a prison operation years ago turned up on a rubbish heap and who was dismissed from his post as a sociologist at the Ministry of Family and Social Policies, about his ‘resistance’.
-How did the resistance in Yüksel Street start?
First, Nuriye started. Ten days later, Semih started. I went two days after Semih, having been expelled, and sat down next to them. We have suffered very bad beatings and we have been arrested a lot. Then Acun Karadağ moved the protest he was staging at his own school to our side. Then the protest produced a result – we put up a fair resistance. They also expelled Semih’s wife Esra. (Laughs) She came, too. With the arrival of Ahmet Atakan’s cousin Mehmet Ersulu, there were six of us. Basically, we just took a drubbing. We were unable even to hit the news in a decent way. We even implored people passing in the street to take photographs.
-Why did you remain alone?
Under the state of emergency, the AKP comes down really hard on anybody who opens their mouth. There is a prevailing state of fearfulness. Everybody’s attitude is, ‘Come what may, we will return to our jobs. Let the state of emergency end.’ But we have realised that the state of emergency will not end and will be installed in Turkey as a system. We said, ‘Our hands are empty, anyway. Here you are, we have our bodies and if you are going to detain us we will come in front of you one by one.’ We turned it into a war of wills. They did not understand this war of wills. They thought that, having a sledgehammer in their hands, they would crush everything, but, as we had previously grown accustomed to the violence of that sledgehammer, we did not care much. The more they beat us, the louder our voices became.
The aim is to hand the public sector to one party
-Did you have a sense of anger against society in those days?
Had Confederation of Public Workers' Unions Chair Lami Özgen stood at our sides one time our voice would have been much louder. I look out for number one. I am forty and the father of a daughter. I have a family I have to support. If I can risk detention and beatings, those at the head of these bodies should have done so, too. They were found wanting. They thought they could solve it through bureaucratic parleying. They did not realise that the strategy was to hand the public sector to one party through the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people. I was chucked out, not because I am on the left, but because I am not in the AKP. The AKP said, ‘We will chuck Veli, Semih and Nuriye out and create social fear. Everyone will consent to this and then all civil servants will be the AKP’s militia.’ I refused to be a party’s or religious brotherhood’s civil servant. I am the people’s civil servant. I was making welfare payments to the disabled. I was thrown out when they said, ‘May God bless the AKP,’ and I said, ‘The AKP is not giving this. The state is giving it because it is yours by right.’
-In common with society, the expelled did not join your protest.
Everyone thought that expulsion was connected to the Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation (FETO). This is precisely what is important about our protest. We managed to get across that this has nothing to do with Gulenism and was about purging and restructuring the public sector and removing civil servants’ security of tenure. This, in fact, is the reason why the AKP is bearing down on us. The academics are actually the most lively of those who have been expelled. You have to hand it to them. They are engaging in social solidarity through such means as street academies and cooperatives. The rest are inactive and unorganised. They have set out in search of individual salvation. But the academics’ attitude is to look at things saying ‘We are academics. We have a certain standing,’ and the like. But that is not how things stack up any more.
-You mean, they said, ‘We cannot be arrested and dragged along the ground like that?’
Yes. They said, ‘Veli can do this but we cannot. We are professors and we are doctors.’ If a doctor gets dragged for sitting on the ground this would have had a far greater impact in the eyes of society, but this was beyond their comprehension. They saw themselves as being a bit above this. For example, I was expecting a protest by Kaboğlu, but he withdrew into his own shell. Silence of this kind has a compound effect. It is we who take the drubbing and pay the price because we are few. Then the atmosphere is created that this is just the way we are inclined.
Who is not a terrorist in this country, anyway?
-It is a long time since we have seen hunger strikes, isn’t it?
The hunger strike started on the 120th day of our sit-down protest. Nuriye and Semih said, ‘We have been getting hammered for four months but we have been unable to do anything that has shaken up and aroused the public. We are taking the decision to go on an indefinite hunger strike.’
-What do you say about detention for organisation membership?
Why did you throw these people out of their jobs? You speak of organisation members. They had been resisting there for 198 days, so why does being an organisation member suddenly come about when you make your voice heard? Ten years as a civil servant and there is no investigation or prosecution against them, there is not even a reprimand. With there being nothing until that day, did they decide all of a sudden to become a terrorist after 15 July? Both friends are on the left, that’s for sure, but Nuriye’s family is a conservative family. These friends are not organisation members. Also, were you to suppose them to be organisation members, these friends never said, ‘Do not prosecute us’ when they came out into that space. If you are going to prosecute us under normal conditions, do so, otherwise give us our jobs back. You have removed all means of legal recourse and we want our jobs back. You cannot chuck us out of our jobs by associating us with the likes of the Gulenists or the coupists and raising a hue and cry. The slogans we have been shouting for 198 days are, ‘We want our jobs back. We are workers, in the right and will win.’ If you support me, you are just adding your signature beneath the demand. Additionally, who is not a terrorist in this country, anyway? Has the Chief of the General Staff not been a terrorist? Did they not accuse Kuddusi Okkır of being the organisation’s safe? Have Ahmet Şık and the Cumhuriyet and Sözcü newspapers not become FETOists? Are the fifty per cent that voted ‘no’ not terrorists? Viewed in these terms, does it not appear perfectly normal for Veli, Nuriye and Semih to be called terrorists?
They are afraid because they are in the wrong
-What aim lies behind Nuriye and Semih’s detention?
They want to emasculate the protest. There is not a single document in the file having to do with an organisation. There is constant mention of possibilities. The government’s people and ministers speak of a ‘terrorist organisation’ and the like. They need to give up this nonsense and this obstinacy. We want our jobs back. We say if you want to prosecute us, apply the law. In the order to detain Nuriye and Semih there is talk of possibilities like the Gezi protests and the Tekel resistance. The reason for their fear is their knowledge that they have committed great injustice. We say that if they do not want to fear these things so much they need to eliminate these injustices.
-What do you say to the Interior Minister’s comment about Nuriye and Semih that, ‘They are eating?’
Semih has lost 19 kilos. Nuriye has lost 9 kilos. Remember, in the Return to Life operation 28 convicts died, as did nearly one hundred people in the subsequent death fasts. At that time, a newspaper ran the headline, ‘Bogus fast, bloody breaking of the fast.’ The source was the Interior Minister of the day, Sadettin Tantan. In the death fast in which they were supposedly eating, 122 people died.
-With even hunger strikes in prisons courting controversy, are problems not entailed when people on the outside seek their rights with a hunger strike?
In fact, the protest we were staging before the hunger strike was a protest in which we were harming our own bodies. We came out onto the street knowing that the police would attack with bone-breaking force. It was actually the government that gave the order for the hunger strike protest. Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdağ said, ‘Let them eat the roots of trees.’ Another minister said, ‘We have turned them into the social dead.’ By social dead is meant: You cannot work in another job. Your passport is cancelled for the whole family so you cannot go abroad. Your relatives, wife and friends are isolated. They leave you to commit suicide or sink into oblivion. The moment they talk of eating the roots of trees or having turned them into the social dead, they actually gave the order for the hunger strike themselves.
-Is there no solidarity with the expelled in the face of social death?
This applies to the left, but not at all to the right. There, they strip you of union membership straight away. We make up 3,500 of them. There are 120,000 people in total. Somebody is expelled for depositing money in a bank, but they are expelled by the person who cut the ribbon at the bank. Is this justice?
We are hungry for justice
-What do you think about the purging from the public sector of those who really are FETOists?
We are not struggling for the sacked left-wingers. We are struggling for everyone who has been deprived of justice. Everybody can be punished within the legal framework. This cannot be under a one-night decree with the force of law. They can only be suspended, they will submit the evidence, their defence will be taken, a trial will be held and, if necessary, they will be terminated. We are against all kinds of expulsion that has not passed through this stage. There can be no state governance at one party’s or one person’s whim. There are actually Gulenist soldiers among those who tore off my arm. Two judges who ordered compensation to be refunded are in detention. These judges must also be tried properly. You will gather and present evidence and then do it. The Gulenists may reach an understanding with the AKP and carry on with this lawlessness against us. Nuriye and Semih have said, ‘The hunger we have experienced is the hunger for justice. That is what we are demanding.’ I hate the FETOists. But I defend the constitutional rights of the people I hate, too. The person who was serving at the Buenos Aires consulate has been detained and his assets have been seized. He was even deprived of his final salary and does not even have bread to eat at home. They applied to us for welfare. He has a disabled child at home and I signed for him to get benefits. How can you cause tiny children to be taken out of school and a disabled child to be placed in a position in which it cannot find bread? My conscience does not permit this as a left-winger. The Gulenists greatly oppressed my family, kids and all, I know, but I simply do not find it right for children and spouses to be punished.
My mum has no compunction about resistance
-Footage of your mother being dragged along the ground by the police lead to public pangs of conscience. How is she now?
She is in the village just now. She was crying when I just called. She had been to dad’s grave. But she is well. My mum has always been at my side - when I was in prison and now. She knows that I was thrown out of work in an unjust and unlawful way. When the police told my mum, ‘Take your son and lead him away from here,’ it seems she said, ‘Where shall I take him? The family and kids at home are hungry. Are you going to pay his salary? You have taken both his arm and his job.’ My mum has no compunction about resistance, but of course she has compunctions about taking a beating and getting arrested. (Laughs) They hit her and knocked her to the ground. They dragged her a fair bit. Some say she was kicked. I did not see, because at that time they were beating me and arresting me.
-You lost your arm in the operation staged at Burdur Prison in 2000.
I was sentenced for distributing newspapers, magazines and the 8 March declaration. They staged an operation one morning out of the blue and, since the bulldozer that entered the cell drove right up to me, my arm was trapped between the bulldozer and the wall and tore off. It was found in the mouth of a street dog. Having decided it could not be stitched on, the doctors threw it into the rubbish. At first, they did not want to provide an artificial limb. They said, ‘Why should we give a terrorist an artificial arm?’ They gave me one thanks to public pressure, but I do not use it because it brings back memories of them. Because it reminds me of the Minister of Justice at the time, Hikmet Sami. They also claimed the cost of the demolished wall from me and the lawsuit is ongoing. I obtained compensation from the state because they tore off my arm but the Council of State ordered me to refund the compensation despite the existence of a European Court of Human Rights ruling. The Interior Ministry has brought enforcement proceedings against me. It is currently pending before the enforcement court.
-You met Hikmet Sami Türk in the street.
I ran into him while out walking with my wife and six-month daughter. They were campaigning for the election. They imagined us to be voters. He held out his hand as we approached. I said, ‘Do you remember me?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘You ripped off my arm.’ And my wife said, ‘We have never forgotten you. We remember you every day.’ Then he came while I was working at the civil registry. And I told the citizens there, ‘This person is responsible for the death of 122 people.’ He bowed his head in silence.
-What have you done with your life since prison?
I was acquitted on retrial. I took the Public Personnel Selection Examination and became a civil servant at Çankaya Civil Registry Office. I studied sociology externally and took the Public Personnel Selection Examination. I became a civil servant in the Ministry of Family and Social Policies through my own efforts, not by stealing the questions as some do. When I was expelled, I was working in the unit that deals with the disabled.