Artists standing up for Turkish lawyers
5 April 2019

Artists standing up for Turkish lawyers

They may burn your robes…

Text: Johan van Uffelen

they may put your hands in chains but they can’t lock your heart
they may set fire to your robes but they fear your angels

These are two lines from a poem by Anne Vegter, the former Dutch national poet, written in support of three persecuted Turkish Lawyers. Last year, together with photographer Bianca Sistermans she attended a trial in Istanbul as a member of a group of international trial observers invited by Lawyers for Lawyers. “At the start of the trial, after the first words have been spoken you immediately wonder: Who is really speaking? You can instantly feel that it’s not a fair and independent trial.”

Both artists were deeply affected and inspired by this experience, which resulted in their collaboration and the creation of artwork concerning the harrowing reality of the justice system in Turkey. Bianca shot portraits in black-and white of three threatened female lawyers. Brave women who symbolize the fate of numerous Turkish lawyers. Anne wrote a moving poem. Together the artists created an image where Turkish court robes formed the  background to a few lines taken from Anne’s  poem. (‘they may burn your robes but they fear your angels’). During the Day of the Endangered Lawyer the artists presented their work in the Palace of Justice in The Hague. April 5, which is Lawyers Day in Turkey, seemed like a good occasion to have a chat with both of them.

A play
The trials in Istanbul are still seared into Anne’s memory. She was especially affected by the trial of  three defendants- among them one journalist -, who were prosecuted because they were alleged to have attended the funeral of three Kurdish fighters. An act of terrorism in the eyes of the Turkish authorities. “The trial was a surreal spectacle with the leading role being played by an invisible, anonymous witness, who made flagrant accusations against the suspects. You could neither see nor hear him. Nothing he said was verified, but all his words were immediately taken seriously. To me it felt like it could have basically been anyone sitting in one of the other rooms of the court building”. The poet/writer was very much impressed by the way the defendants behaved. “They are extremely strong people. There was a remarkable lightness about them. Which is very striking if you know the hardships they will most surely be confronted with in prison, especially in Turkey. They showed an unlikely resilience, which strongly contrasted with the judge who was sitting underneath a large picture of Erdogan. After the first words were spoken you already start thinking: Who is really speaking? You can immediately feel that it’s not a fair and independent trial, that the separation between the executive and judicial powers is a non-existent one”.

they may conceal the witnesses but they cant settle lies
they may chop down the trees but they cant see the shadows

Anne left the court building feeling quite distressed. “This was caused by the discrepancy between, on the one hand, the course of events during the trial and, on the other hand, the powerful way the defendants were facing their terrible situation. Like, for example, the journalist who, as a Jeanne d’Arc fighting for freedom of expression with a raised fist, declared she would never stop writing”. 

Bianca Sistermans’s experiences were similar to Anne’s. “The total lack of humanity was shocking. During the trial, no genuine attention was paid to the matter at hand. There was a total lack of respect for the defendants.” She is still struggling to express her feeling ofpowerlessness. “It’s impossible to find the right words to express how this complete arbitrariness rules the fate of people”. It was also very difficult for her to leave. “Knowing that you are leaving people behind who have no idea when or even if they will ever be released. Total uncertainty and elusiveness.” These emotions are very connected to the themes that characterize Bianca’s photographical work in general.Social involvement, or rather human involvement. She likes to collaborate with writers and poets and has made several books/series about people who are dying in loneliness, who have lost their mothers as well as day to day annoyances. ”I keep on being surprised about what defines us as people and the way we live together. People can live in the same time and age, but their lives can be so radically different.” She describes a scene she saw in Egypt, where she lived for some time: “In a souk some men were grinding chili peppers. They had covered up their mouths and noses and were working with tears in their red eyes. At the same time I was walking around with my little backpack having a look. They are probably still doing the same work.”

After attending the trial Anne and Bianca met up with three threatened female lawyersat the Dutch Consulate: Sezin Uçar, Özlem Gümüştaş and Gülhan Kaya. Three women that Lawyers for Lawyers has been campaigning for, for some time already. Two of them had been released not long before their meeting, after spending 14 months in pre-trial detention. Recently, in February, their trials resumed and a travel ban was imposed on them. During their meeting Bianca took very striking portraits. Anne: They are extremely strong women. They have this talent to stick together in order to help each other through the situation. You could really see this kind of sisterhood binding them together. It’s almost impossible to imagine what they had to face; living together with forty women in one prison cell that was meant for only fourteen people. One of them told me that she watched the seagulls flying over the prison yard every day”. This image served as the inspiration for one of the sentences in Anne’s poem:

they may reign over Istanbul but not the seagulls above the Marmara
they may burn your robes but they fear your angels

The angels in the poem symbolize the powers no one in this world can control, Anne explained. “They stand for our conscience and the moral condemnation that befalls wrongdoings. The angels  are like warriors of justice, conveyers of truth. In the poem they possess this power that an autocratic government eventually has to yield to. No matter the degree of repression, in the end resistance, justice and love will conquer all.”

When asked about the usefulness of their trip, both Anne and Bianca have no doubts about the answer. Anne: “In the courtroom they were definitely aware of the presence of international observers. At the beginning of the trial they even mentioned our presence.” She is very surprised by the fact that the situation in Turkey seems to be gaining less and less attention. “The media of course regret the state of affairs in Turkey, but do not consider it a ‘hot topic’ anymore. Politicians are avoiding the issue: if they interfere too much in the human rights situation in Turkey, this might put pressure on the deal with Turkey concerning refugees”. Bianca emphasizes the importance of the work of Lawyers for Lawyers. “For the lawyers involved, but also for the awareness of people outside of Turkey. It’s a privilege to live in a society where the law protects everybody and treats people equally.”


Anne Vegter

Anne Vegter (Delfzijl, 31 December 1958) is a poet, prose-, drama- and children’s book writer.

Her work was awarded with the Woutertje Pieterse Prize, she was nominated for the AKO literature prize and in 2004 she received the Anna Blaman Prize for her entire oeuvre. The following year, together with Antoine Uitdehaag and Anna Enquist, Ane Vegter was awarded with the Taalunie Toneelschrijfprijs. In January 2012, Anne Vegter won the Awater Poetry Prize. From 2013 to 2017 she was National Poet. In 2015 Anne was appointed member of the Academy of Arts.


Bianca Sistermans

Bianca Sistermans (Heerlen, 3 April 1969) obtained her Master of Fine Arts at the Academy for Art and Design St. Joost in Breda. Her work was shown during many art events. Publications of her projects appeared in national newspapers. She was (co)author of many books, often as a co-production with writers or poets. Such as Dichter van Dienst, De eenzame uitvaart, Alledaagse Ergernissen, Hier besta ik and Mijn moeder zei nog, pas je wel op!

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