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Turkish Football Fans Accused of Attempting to Bring Down the Government

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Yesterday the Istanbul public prosecutor’s office for terrorism and organized crime investigations announced the results of a year long investigation of the Beşiktaş Ultra group Çarşı for their role in last summer’s Gezi Park protests. Previously, I had written extensively about the Çarşı group following the events one year ago during the Galatasaray-Beşiktaş derby. The results of the investigation would be humorous if they were not all too real. After all The Onion didn’t announce it, CNN Turk did. The thirty eight-page indictment calls for life sentences for thirty five members of the Çarşı group, including one of the founders, “Sari” Cem Yakışkan and “Deve” Erol Özdil, who makes the groups famous banners. The charge? Attempt to bring down the Government.

The indictment says that “at first the Gezi Park protests started in a democratic fashion before the motives of the protests changed when ‘marginal’ groups joined. These marginal groups then encouraged the protestors in Taksim against the government, aiming to bring it down through non-democratic means.” It continues, saying that Çarşı brought foreign press officers to the protests “in order to show the world media scenes that would create an image similar to that of the ‘Arab Spring’, calling for leadership change and bringing down the Turkish Republic’s legally founded government by illegal means”.

Apparently proof of this attempt to bring down the government comes from telephone conversations and Tweets. Allegedly, some such telephone conversations contained statements such as “I don’t care about the park”, “We will bring down this government” and “This could turn into a civil war,” among other things. To me, such words seem to hardly be the makings of a plan to bring down the Turkish Republic but apparently the prosecutor’s office sees things differently.

 

Today an MP from the opposition CHP, Umut Oran (himself an ex-footballer, according to the story) brought the issue before the Turkish Parliament in order to get a response from the new Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu. Mr. Oran asked many questions that I myself would like to hear the answers to:

–“If Çarşı encouraged a coup during the Gezi events, then why did you [your party, the AKP] allow Çarşı signs to be opened at the [pro-government] rallies in Kazlıçeşme at that time? Are there no AKP members within the ‘pro-coup’ Çarşı Group, and will anything be done to them if there are found to be any?”

–“Does the Istanbul Police department not have pictures and audio of the Çarşı group when they yelled ‘Çarşı Darbeye Karşı’ (Carsi against coups) and carried signs to the same effect?”

carsi_bildiri_yayinladi_carsi_12_eylule_karsi_h2992

(Image courtesy of: http://www.sonkulis.com/gundem/carsi-bildiri-yayinladi-carsi-12-eylule-karsi-h2992.html. Author’s Note: Indeed, the proof Mr. Oran asked for does exist–this refers to Carsi’s stance against the military coup of September 12, 1980).

–Is it not our [the Turkish] government that does not designate ISIS as a terrorist group, the same group that the United Nations and the United States have designated as a terrorist group for their savage actions? Is it not contradictory that our government, that calls ISIS ‘Angry Youths’, should take such a harsh stance when it comes to the Çarşı Group?”

–Members of the AKP cabinet of ministers and party leaders said the Gezi events were ‘just the work of a few ‘çapulcus’ (looters) and that it is nothing to be blown out of proportion’. Then how is it possible that today it has come to the point of ‘attempted coup?’

–“When Mr. Davutoğlu was Minister of Foreign affairs he stated to foreign leaders that ‘we are proud that these protests in Turkey are taking place in a similar fashion to those in Europe’. How is it then possible to indict these protests as an attempted coup?’

 

Later Çarşı’s lawyer, Mehmet Derviş Yıldız, made a press announcement in the middle of Istanbul’s Beşiktaş district:

“We have always existed in the name of this country’s conscience. We were created in 1982 in the period following the [1980] military coup amidst martial law, and continued in periods of coalition governments and with our conscience stood in society alongside everyone who saw no preferential treatment from any group. There were times that we donated our blood to blood drives, there were times that we gave the clothes off our backs to those living in tents amidst the rubble of their destroyed homes. In the Gezi protests—that our whole society reacted to with a mix of sadness and surprise—we drew attention to the disproportional use of force and uncontrollable violence being used. We called for this violence not to escalate. And in return for this, immediately after the first arrests, some people—with hate and jealousy—had the face to label us as mercenary protestors. And now we see this label on the pages of the investigation.” He went on to explain that it was Civil servants who first called on Çarşı to de-escalate the tension, to use their influence on the neighborhood as football fans—in a way, a civil society group—in order to stop people from entering Taksim Square during the protests. But, in the end, they are the ones who are blamed in a blatant attempt to further make every segment of Turkish society political.

But such attempts to make everything political can also have the side effect of waking people up, and banding them together. This became evident when fans of Besiktas’s rivals—Fenerbahce—also voiced their support. Sol Acik wrote:

 “Faşizme karşı kardeşimsin çArşı”

“You’re my brother against fascism çArşı”

 

Sadly, these events have not seen much coverage in English language press but they are a very real sign of regression in the Turkish justice system. That life sentences should be sought for a group of football fans is, quite truly, unbelievable. As one of those named in the indictment, founding member of Çarşı Cem Yakışkan said today:

 “Dünyada herhalde bir ilktir. Darbe ile suçlanan taraftar grubu. Gülelim mi, ağlayalım mı bilmiyorum.”

“This is probably a first in the entire world. A fan group charged with a coup attempt. I don’t know if we should laugh or cry”.

Indeed, it probably is a first. That it comes in a country that knows all too well about coups—three to be exact—only makes it more shocking.

 

To pull this topic out of football, I will close with a some words that come from a few members of Çarşı who sat down with journalist Erk Acarer for the Turkish paper Cumhuriyet since they are worth hearing. For me, they truly show the gravity of the situation:

“Türkiye isyan etti ihale bize kaldı. Bu kitlesel bir hareketti. çArşı vicdan sahibi bir gruptur. Biz büyük iş yapmadık aslında. Toplum ‘mute’ tuşunda olduğu zamanlarda da biz ‘titreşimdeydik’. Üşüyen çocuklara atkı gönderdiğimiz, haksıza karşı haklının yanında olduğumuz ağaçlara dokunma dediğimiz için zaten yıllarca çıban başı olarak görüldük. Söylemlerimiz sistemi rahatsız etti. Hiçbir demokratik ülkede protestocular darbe girişimiye yargılanmazlar. Kasti yapıyorlar. Esma’ya ağlayıp Berkin’e ağlamayanlardan değiliz. Çifte standarta karşıyız.”

“Turkey protested and we got stuck with the bill. This was a mass action. Çarşı is a group with a conscious. Really, we didn’t do much. When society was on “mute” we were on “vibrate”. Because we sent scarves to freezing children, because we were on the side of right in the face of wrong, because we said don’t touch the trees we have for years been seen as a delicate problem. What we said made the system uncomfortable. In no democratic country can protesters be tried for attempting a coup. They’re doing it on purpose. We are not among those who cried for Esma and not for Berkin. We’re against double standards.”

The gravity of the situation lies in a strange confluence of football fans, morality, and a very delicate time in world politics. These football fans—Ultras—are talking about standing up for the righteous, the voiceless, the oppressed, in the face of persecution and oppression. Think of anyone you’d like. Martin Luther King comes to my mind due to recent events in the United States but that is a topic for a different time.

Here the name “Esma” is invoked. It is the Turkish name for Asmaa el Beltagi, who became a symbol of the Egyptian revolution when she was shot and killed in Rabia Square by snipers. Out of her death the “Rabia” symbol was born, one that Turkey’s newly-elected president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (and more than a few footballers) has not shied away from flashing. The other name, “Berkin”, refers to Berkin Elvan, a fifteen year old boy shot by police in Istanbul while on his way to buy bread who I wrote about previously.

In this globalized world protests are occurring in more and more spots all over the world, tying us all together—wherever we live—in a web characterized by a battle between right and wrong, the oppressed against the oppressors, the strong against the weak. Yet depending on one’s politics—as Çarşı’s members imply in the above quote—some people choose who to cry for.

We can only hope that cooler heads prevail and that these life sentences are not upheld, since life in prison—not to mention death—as a result of one’s beliefs is truly a sad fate. Football fan or not that is something I hope we can all sympathize with, whether we are Turkish, Egyptian, American or anything else.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: All translations are my own. Some of the lengthier ones have been paraphrased, while others are more literal. I apologize in advance for any issues in comprehension arising from my translations, and I have attached links to the original Turkish news stories in all cases. Thank you for your understanding.

Greek and Turkish Brotherhood in the Stands: Berkin Elvan and Alexandros Grigoropoulos Side by Side, Remembered by AEK Athens Fans

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Football can sometimes warm even the most calloused hearts—this story from Sunday March 16 is no exception. The picture below (courtesy of Ultra Style’s Facebook page) is worth a thousand words and more:

AEL-Triglia Rafina, Greek 3rd Division, 16032014

During a Greek third division match between AEK Athens and Triglia Rafina, AEK’s Ultras—Gate 21—hung a banner commemorating 15 year old Berkin Elvan of Turkey, a boy whose death on March 11th (which resulted from being hit by a tear gas canister in protests last summer: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/11/turkey-protests_n_4942943.html) sparked a new wave of protests across Turkey. AEK’s black and white banner put two faces together: Berkin’s face is alongside Alexandros Grigoropoulos’—another fifteen year old—who was fatally shot by Greek police in 2008 during riots in Athens.

Despite the macabre nature of the banner it is a unique look at football’s ability to bridge historical and political divides that the politicians have yet to succeed in doing. That the two fifteen year old boys lost their lives in conflicts that they were only spectators to is the sad result of modern governments that are perceived—by those living under them—to have failed to uphold the social contract. When governments act with impunity no one wins. These two preventable deaths attest to it in the darkest way.

AEK Athens are mired in the third division—the amateur ranks—after self relegating themselves to escape debt, an economic crisis on the small scale that mirrors the larger economic picture in Greece. Their crest is the double-headed eagle, the symbol of Byzantium. The “K” in AEK stands for “Konstantinoupolis”; the team was founded by Greek refugees who fled Istanbul during and after the Turkish war of independence (for a similar story please see my writing on PAOK Thessaloniki). Triglia Rafina share AEK’s black and yellow colors—the colors of the Byzantine flag. When taking the history of both AEK Athens and Triglia Rafina in question it is not shocking that a Turk, Berkin Elvan, should be remembered at an obscure third division football match in Greece. It may not be shocking, but it is certainly commendable.

Animosity between Turks and Greeks is long standing, stemming from years of Ottoman occupation and culminating in a brutal population exchange after the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. For years Greeks and Turks lived together under the Ottoman flag until the divisive ideologies of nationalism shattered the Balkans at the beginning of the 20th century—indeed, Greek and Turkish cultures are almost indistinguishable (the foods, the coffee, the yoghurts). I myself have written before on the similarities and differences between Greece and Turkey; having grown up seven kilometers from Greece on Turkey’s Aegean coast I know how similar—yet different—these two cultures truly are.

Where the fortunes of both countries began to diverge was during the mid part of the 20th century. While both Greece and Turkey were taken under the West’s security blanket—via NATO—as a bulwark against Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe, Greece (due to the perception of its being the birthplace of Western democracy) became a darling of the West. They were allowed to join the European Community (EC), the precursor to the European Union, in 1981 despite having a mainly agrarian economy. This ushered in unprecedented years of economic growth as European Community funds supported the development of industry and infrastructure throughout the country. In 2001 it culminated in the adoption of the Euro, a disastrous decision that takes us up to where we are today.

Turkey, on the other hand, was continually given small concessions and valued partnerships with both the EC and EU but was never given a truly viable path to membership. Indeed the divided island of Cyprus is one major roadblock—and a thorn in the side of Greco-Turkish relations since the 1960s. It is notable that it was current events that led to Greece’s abandoning their veto on Turkish membership into the EU following two destructive earthquakes that rocked both countries in 1999. It was similarities—this time the fact that both countries share similar geographies—that brought the two back together.

In 2014 it is different earth-shattering events in both countries that are bringing people together, and the AEK ultras are proof of this. It is no longer Greeks and Turks that are divided as nationalities, but Greek and Turkish individuals that are uniting in the face of deteriorating economic conditions and the increasingly reckless hubris of their politicians. Respect to Gate 21 for abandoning the old animosities between Greeks and Turks—if only for 90 minutes—and for bringing to the fore the similarities between these two nations that go beyond their cultures, addressing the real concerns of twenty-first century people on the streets regardless of where they were born or where they live, what passports they hold or what languages they speak.

As protests rage on in Turkey and instability rules in Ukraine it is times like these—more than ever—that humanity needs to unite in the face of chaos and governmental oppression. I commend the football fans for making their voices heard. Fenerbahce fans quoted eminent Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet (http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/football-fans-from-turkey-greece-italy-remember-berkin-elvan-.aspx?pageID=517&nID=63703&NewsCatID=362) over the weekend: “Let no children die, let them play”. It is a sentiment I think we can all agree on, no matter what our politics are or which football team we support.