Attorney Kemal Aytaç: The Justice Watch is a shepherd’s fire
One of the organisers of the Justice Watch launched by lawyers for the Cumhuriyet detainees, Kemal Aytaç, Attorney-at-Law, says, “The Watch is a train that set out along with the detentions. It is basically a shepherd’s fire.” Aytaç, who classifies the action that has been held for 28 unbroken weeks as “a mass action of jurists,” commented, “The Justice Watch’s sole slogan is: “Justice for all!”
For a full 28 weeks, lawyers have been holding a one-hour Justice Watch every Thursday at the Çağlayan Judicial Palace in Istanbul. The chairs of Istanbul, Diyarbakır, Ankara, Antalya, Hatay, Adana, Bursa and Kocaeli bar associations and large numbers of journalists, jurists and academics have given unmitigated and strong support for the action. In the face of dozens of obstacles, the Justice Watch has preserved its status as a mass action of jurists. Kemal Aytaç, Attorney-at-Law, and one of the activists involved in the protest, Gülendam Şan Karabulut, Attorney-at-Law, replied to our questions.
- Kemal Aytaç, we have put the 28th week of the Justice Watch behind us. My first question will be: Who conceived of this Justice Watch? How did this offbeat action come about?
Let me put it like this: when the Cumhuriyet investigation started and the friends were detained, we lawyers came together. We thought about various actions following on from this. And at just one of those meetings in those days, I proposed that we should hold a Justice Watch because it would be a more effective action. I said, “The Çağlayan Judicial Palace is our workplace. Let us meet and stand in the area where the Themis statue is situated in that building.” Some people laughed.
Well. There’s a state of emergency and permission isn’t even given for a standard press statement. And then when I suggested this watch being held regularly, every week, this didn’t catch on with plenty of the colleagues. It wasn’t possible to reach a decision that day. Later, we had another meeting with the wives of the Cumhuriyet detainees and 25-30 of our lawyer colleagues. I repeated my proposal there and went into a bit more detail. In the end, we decided, issued the call for the first watch and started.
- When was this?
6 April 2017. We said we would assemble in the area in front of the Themis statue in the Judicial Palace every Thursday. In our robes and with our cockades in our collars. There would be no slogans, singing marches or outbursts. The strength of the participation came as a surprise to us all. But, more importantly, our colleagues aged 80 and above were there, as were our youthful colleagues aged 21-22. A lengthy negotiation was held to reach an understanding with the police. The public prosecution issued an instruction. They didn’t want to permit it.
Resistance to being dispersed
- So, these negotiations were before the action?
No, the action had in fact started. The lawyers had assembled. We explained and stressed that our action was legitimate, but the chief prosecution didn’t accept this and the police attacked us. The police have a method known as sweeping. They employed this. They really did sweep us up and broke us up. But, it was not that simple. I must particularly stress that our elderly and experienced brothers put up very serious resistance. They were dragged along the ground, clubbed and knocked to the ground with shields. They broke our Contemporary Lawyers Association branch chair colleague’s nose and they broke attorney Ersan Ünüvar’s leg. But the resistance continued. Despite having been dispersed, the lawyers reassembled at the wide stairs there. We came together the next day. We decided to continue the action, i.e. the Justice Watch, more vigorously, because following that police attack, the Justice Watch acquired the status of an action that was legitimate and needed to be kept going both among lawyers and the general public.
- As a result, you decided to keep up the action? For sure, ...
We decided to stage the next Thursday watch more vigorously. We also hatched a plan in case there was an attack. A plan called “branch and leaf”.
- What does that mean?
This is a model that would not permit the police to use sweeping. Everyone standing spread out over the space. Even if they attempt to grab somebody, no congregating there. Staying away. With everyone standing separately in that huge space, it was impossible for the police to conduct sweeping. Also, objecting, clashing, shouting slogans ... there was to be none of this.
- Well, what was participation like in the second week, that is on 13 April, despite the police attack in the first week?
We were in far greater numbers. Support came from everywhere. Even those who were unable to come dropped everything and rushed to the Judicial Palace. This was a matter of conviction, a matter of taking a stand. If you cannot cloak an action in legitimacy, you have no chance of succeeding. We attained just this legitimacy.
Three symbolic lawyers
- You are speaking of three lawyers, and at the same time three detained lawyers who are on the Cumhuriyet staff. Bülent Utku, Mustafa Kemal Güngör and Akın Atalay. Is this action limited to them?
No. Basically not to our lawyer colleagues or the Cumhuriyet employees as a whole. It is about all injustices, the detained parliamentarians, the dismissed mayors, the municipalities to which curators have been appointed, the sacked academics... But we are lawyers and we are holding the Justice Watch in the judicial complex. So, our three lawyer colleagues are symbols. A symbol of all the injustices, all the unlawfulnesses. Look, the Justice Watch’s sole slogan is: “Justice for all!”
- So, you said there is a watch every Thursday. There is no need for any further action and everyone comes to the watch. Was it like that?
Is that possible? Those who see the Justice Watch as being their duty assemble regularly every Thursday.
A fruit-bearing tree
- Is this a committee? How many people are on this committee?
There are currently around fifty people taking part. We keep in touch through a WhatsUp group. At most twenty people come to the Monday meeting. They’ve got work or they’ve got a hearing. But, even if they can’t make the meeting, colleagues who have duties perform the tasks they have assumed of their own accord. Some of them carry out social media work, some get placards ready and some bring them to the judicial complex building. For example, I along with certain of our colleagues, even if they are small in number, deal with these preparations all week and we are kept so busy that we have no time to devote to other work.
- Who are they?
Lawyer colleagues predominate. For example, Gülendam Şan Karabulut, Emek Güven, Gülsün Sop... I cannot list them all. There would be some I’d forget and this would put me to shame. But, it should be known that numerous colleagues of ours are salt in this soup. For example, the Chair of Istanbul Bar Association, who did not consider our action to be legitimate at the outset, lined up as a spokesman, that is a speaker, on the third watch. He was a very important speaker. I recommend that you listen to that speech. I mean, I, for my part, may well not be up to making such powerful pronouncements. In addition, there are other bar association chairs. It is most important for them to be spokespeople and speakers on the watch. For example, the chairs of Diyarbakır, Ankara, Hatay, Adana, Bursa and Kocaeli bar associations have shown a very serious and very sincere interest in this watch action.
- Kemal Aytaç, be objective and reply: Do you think this watch serves any useful purpose? I mean, does it have an effect?
For sure. Look, we planted a tree. Not all trees may bear fruit. But, our Justice Watch tree is bearing fruit.
- What kind of fruit is this?
Look, until now, eight people from among the Cumhuriyet newspaper staffers have been released. We have played a part in this. We stand by this success. This is precisely what I am calling fruit. But, there is other fruit on this tree that we must get down. One of these is Akın Atalay. Without doubt, Murat Sabuncu, Emre İper and, one who is of great value and has a special place for us, Ahmet Şık. We must collect this fruit and secure the release of these friends of ours, too.
- And then?
The Justice Watch is a train that set out along with the Cumhuriyet detentions and the Cumhuriyet trial. The Justice Watch is basically a shepherd’s fire.
- Oh, it’s all getting very poetic.
No. Look, we are on the Justice Watch. Let’s say 200 lawyers and jurists took part in the watch that day. It lasted one hour and ended. We say, “OK, colleagues. Our protest has ended. Let’s disperse now.” Another ten minutes pass and you see that 200 people are still in that space. Half an hour passes and there are still 100-120 people in that space. There are 120, 130 people. They are talking, chatting on their feet. The Justice Watch has brought us closer to one another and formed unbreakable bonds. This is very important indeed. These lawyers have their own work and business, they have hearings, they have briefs to work on. But, they also have a sense of justice, the foundation of our profession, and consciences. This is precisely what underpins the Justice Watch and the earnest participation of those colleagues of ours.
- And did they then come again to the watch?
Of course. Without anyone dropping out.
Lawyer activism is a form of defence
- You have put the 28th week behind you. It’s easy to say it, but that’s more than half a year. Over these 28 weeks, have there been events that have brought Kemal Aytaç to tears and made his heart swell?
Of course. There are many examples. Let me tell you about one. It was a watch attended by our brother Müşir Kaya Canpolat. On that day, we sliced up a birthday cake with our Bar Association Chair in attendance in the bar association section of the judicial complex building and chatted at great length. On just that day, our brother Müşir made a pronouncement. I think it was a very important and very valuable pronouncement.
- So, what did he say?
He said, “Lawyer activism is now a form of defence.” What he said was right and held up a torch for us. I mean, it stressed that it was no longer enough to act as attorneys at hearings and so lawyers staging actions had to be deemed a form of defence. Müşir Kaya Canpolat was defining the Justice Watch. If a ninety-year-old lawyer is defining this watch in these terms, describing it in these terms, is participating, speaking and putting forward proposals at the watch, I don’t think anybody can dispute the value and legitimacy of this action.
Maybe we’ll halt it when the state of emergency ends
- Well, Kemal Aytaç, let’s say the four jailed Cumhuriyet staffers are also released. Will the Justice Watch then have served its purpose and end?
No, no, no. A “yes-no” answer cannot be given to this question. When that time comes, the elements who make up, are organising and participating in the Justice Watch will come together and reach a decision. We are not doing that now. At the moment, we still have friends of ours on the inside. Let’s see them come out and then we’ll sit and talk. I don’t know if the Justice Watch will continue in this form or will evolve into something different.
- I don’t imagine either of us thinks that the quest for justice in this country will end in the short term. So, does this mean you going to hold the watch for your lifetime?
Good grief, no. Is that conceivable? But, we are living under a state of emergency. My thinking is that the state of emergency ends and arbitrary detentions of this kind stop and we’ll halt the watch. But, this is a decision we’ll all take together.
Gülendam Şan Karabulut: It has united lawyers
Look, before this action started, there was a question we asked among ourselves, “Will this be a sustainable action?” This was an important question. It was important, not just for us, but for our jailed friends. It was precisely the presence there of senior members of the profession like Alp Selek and like Müşir Kaya Canpolat that was a very major factor behind this action attaining sustainability and legitimacy. Bonds that we had not previously experienced were created there among colleagues. It was as though it was shameful and a shortcoming not to show up for that action. That, at least, is how I perceive it.
You know, in the bar association elections there are groups differentiated from one another on a political basis. The Justice Watch has a uniting and mediating character in this respect. Apart from groups in which the ruling party and its supporters congregate, there has been and is participation in the Justice Watch from all groups. This is important. Very important.
Alp Selek: A doyen of the profession
It is most significant that different circles of lawyers have been congregating on such an action for a long time. For example, brother Alp, Alp Selek. He is there every week, attending the watch, firmly on his feet. Think, one of the doyens of our profession is there and always there. If our brother Alp is here, there must be ten times as many of us. For us, he has been an authority and source of trust who has influenced us all. See, for example, on the day of the first watch that the police attacked, Alp Selek, who is well past eighty, grabbed two attacking security staff by the collars and turned them round half circle. He asked, “What are you doing?” I would love to see anyone unmoved by that.
The next watch after the first seven people had been released was very different. We were very emotional and very joyous. Of course, it was a half-hearted joy and a half-hearted happiness. Five of our friends remained behind bars. But, even if half-heartedly, we were joyous and happy.