News & Events
Posted June 7, 2013

Unsal LL.M. '03 Gives First-Hand Account of Protests in Turkey

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Burcak Unsal LL.M. '03, spoke with UVA Law about the ongoing protests in Turkey.

Burcak Unsal, a lawyer and activist who graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law's LL. M. program in 2003, is taking part in the ongoing protests in Turkey.

Contact: Brian McNeill

Unsal spoke with UVA Law about the demonstrations and what he hopes will happen next in his country.

Please tell us about the protests. What are you seeing?

Over the course of 10-year rule of AKP [the political party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan], we have witnessed gradually increasing erosion in the fundamental human rights, especially freedom of expression and news, women's rights, minority rights and pluralism. [The] number of arrested journalists is higher than any country. 

A minimum 50 percent of the public are deeply concerned about the new legislations changing the education system, legal system, composition of judicial bodies, constitutional amendments concerning secularism of the country and empowering the executive branch to greatly disturb the separation of powers, and with disregard to their personal choices of drinking, sexual orientation, political belief and so on.

In the midst of such distress, when the police brutally cracked down on a peaceful environmental demonstration of a dozen protesters in Taksim, the heart of Istanbul, the people of Turkey stood up to cry out "We will not be oppressed!"

This initial skirmish led to a countrywide riot against oppression. The police have been heavily using tear-gas sprayers, gas bombs, plastic bullets, water cannons and special operation units against unarmed protestors. This so far has claimed four lives (including a [police officer who] fell off a wall during a chase), thousands of injured, and inerasable memories of abuse of state power.

In the very first hour of June 7th, on the 11th day of the protests, Prime Minister Erdogan, who was visiting Northern Africa, returned to Istanbul. Although the government claimed that there was no plan to welcome the PM, the ruling party AKP send out short messages, made phone calls, tweeted everyone to call for a crowded welcome. They organized buses to carry people and kept the subway open until 4 a.m. in the morning. They even brought an election bus on which the PM could address the crowd. Surprisingly enough the PM's plane had a five-hour delay and the PM showed up with a long [speech] which he read to the public.

Unfortunately, despite all the expectations, what the PM read was far from embracing all — he just vowed not to back up from his mall construction project on the only green park in Taksim.

Frighteningly, his crowd chanted together "Give us a sign and we will crush Taksim," referring to the demonstrators gathered by hundreds of thousands in Taksim to protect their civic rights.

What do the protesters want to see happen?

Other than the demands for the fundamental rights as I mentioned earlier, the protesters now want to bring those who could not manage the crisis, abused state power [and] used excessive force to justice. They want [the] resignation of major cities' governors and heads of police and guarantees for respect to their choices.

However, the reaction was most disappointing and the future of liberties and economy of a growing Turkey is now dubious.

As a lawyer, how are you processing what the protests are about? How is your education informing your reaction/beliefs to what is happening in Turkey?

I proudly struggle to represent the legacies of two great figures in history. Ataturk, the founder and liberator of modern, democratic and secular Turkey; and Thomas Jefferson, the great political thinker, writer, lawyer and establisher of our institution. [All] my legal studies and even ongoing relationships and experiences with UVA Law urged me to side with the legitimate and to bring our thoughts and philosophy into action! As [members of the] Istanbul Bar, we are providing every legal aid to those who are arrested and molested. We are trying to promote peaceful demand of civil rights and keep people away from violence.

You helped raise about $100,000 — $50,000 more than you needed — to buy a New York Times ad to spread the word about the situation. What do you want people to know about it?

Yes, this is world's first protection of civil liberties action financed by "crowd-sourced funds" as a reaction to media censorship and use of excessive force on people using their constitutional rights. Both the text and the visual have been determined by participation of thousands of people on Reddit. Again, thousands will decide about how to use the residual amount and how we will further proceed on. This is an attempt to show that we can "agree" on reason with good faith!

You've mentioned that you're planning to help organize and conduct trainings to increase awareness of media censorship, the role of social media, freedom of expression, news, pluralism and respect for choices. Can you elaborate on the role you see these things playing in the situation unfolding in Turkey?

We have witnessed media censorship by law or by economic pressure over and over again everywhere in the world. Today, we have social media! Although one may claim that there is too much disinformation there, one can also confirm the accuracy of news on the web. The social media is now instrumental for freedom of expression, the right to news, the right to organize, [and the ability to] boost creativity and exercise democratic rights. We have an initiative to offer education and seminars on the Internet [on] technology, privacy, freedom of expression and other basic human rights and their relevance to social media to students, as well as judicial bodies. We are also organizing digital literacy sessions and easy use of the Internet for the elderly and those who do not have access to the Internet. We believe this effort will help improve tolerance and better understanding for the nature of the issues we are struggling for.

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