The May 2018 murder of 23-year-old Ankara resident Sule Cet is one that has lodged itself particularly deep in Turkey’s collective memory: The young woman was raped in the office by two drunken men, one of them her boss. Afterward, she was tossed out of the window of the high-rise block. The men told police that Cet had taken her own life — even though the coroner had detected a broken neck, tears in the victim’s anal region and sedatives in her blood — evidence hardly consistent with suicide.
The trial lasted six months and was accompanied by demonstrations and expressions of solidarity from women. The case was also followed with great compassion on social media. The public pressure brought results, with the court in Ankara sentencing the perpetrator to life in prison and his accomplice to almost 19 years in jail.
Back then, women’s rights groups hoped the attention the case attracted would prompt a change in society — not just one supported by civil society but by the Turkish judicial system as well.
Was Sule Cet’s case an exception?
Unfortunately, not much seems to have changed since then, with several new cases in which claims of suicide were used in an attempt to cover up femicides. Most recently, the tragic death of 35-year-old Ayten Kaya from the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir has made headlines. Kaya was found strung up in her own home. Investigators concluded that she had committed suicide. The state prosecutor’s office closed the case.
But the woman’s relatives do not accept that version of events. They believe she was murdered and say the case file was full of holes and contradictions.
The autopsy failed to record a time of death, for example. And her entire body was covered with bruises — hardly consistent with death by hanging. The autopsy also showed that the woman had three-day-old hematomata on her body. Her husband, a seasonal farmworker, had been at home exactly three days before. Yet, despite numerous objections, state prosecutors decided against reopening the case.
Women’s rights activists blame judiciary
Lawyer Gurbet Gozde Engin is a member of the Diyarbakir branch of Rosa, an association for women. She reports that four more women died under similar circumstances during the weeks following Ayten Kaya’s death and says prosecutors refused to investigate them. “In cases where women have died under circumstances in which suicide seems very doubtful, then it must be possible to steer investigations in a different direction. It is not just a crime to kill, it is also a crime to declare femicides to be suicides.”
Hatice Coruk from the Kadin Kultur Evi Dernegi women’s association places blame on the entire justice system: “We have to be more mistrustful whenever a femicide is classed as a suicide. It is increasingly a cover for femicide.” Leyla Soydinc from Mor Cati Kadin Siginagi Vakfi, an Istanbul-based women’s association, also sees a structural problem. “In a justice system dominated by men, many of the crimes committed [against women] go unpunished.”
She says that men can feel certain they will be deemed innocent by the justice system as soon as they frame femicide as a suicide. “To make an ostensible suicide seem more plausible, the case file then says things like ‘wasn’t in a good mood, had psychological problems.'”
300 femicides, 171 suspicious deaths
Social media campaigns on the subject and the determined action of women’s rights groups are putting the government and the judiciary under more and more pressure. But both have hushed up this problem for a very long time and until now it has been impossible to discern any real political will to fight violence against women. That, despite the fact that 300 femicides were recorded in 2020, according to figures published by the organization called We Will Stop Femicides. The organization says another 171 women were found dead under suspicious circumstances in Turkey during that same time, some of those cases also included alleged suicides.
Many Turkish women are staking their hopes for change on the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention. The treaty to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence dates back to 2014, with the convention obliging the signatories to create a framework to do so. Turkey ratified the agreement five years ago, underpinning it legally by passing a law to prevent violence against women and protect the family.
But in practice, critics say that the legal norms of the Istanbul Convention have not been adopted and the envisaged measures of support and protection for women not realized. Violence and discrimination against women can only be prevented if Turkey’s judiciary and law enforcement agencies actually implement the convention.