An Izmir court’s decision to re-arrest a school principal who is accused of mass sexual abuse of his students was heralded by women’s groups on Tuesday (June 28).
The arrest decision is regarded as a turning point in the two years old court case, where the accused was on the point of being acquitted because many of the children who initially reported abuse refused to come forward to testify as the case dragged on. The defendant’s lawyer argued that the evidence was “circumstantial.”
At the front of the court-case, a dark, fragile-looking woman, Saadet Ozcan, shed tears of relief as she said “Maybe justice will be late but it will come.” Women’s groups raised banners that said “Saadet has our support” or “We will continue to monitor the case.” Ozcan, who was a teacher in a village school in Menderes, Izmir, noticed three years ago that the school principal A.Ş. repetitively molested the students, followed him to gather evidence and urged the students to speak out and seek justice.
But the court case, which was launched two years ago, went painfully slow, with the accused allowed to be taken out of custody in prison after 1.5 years. With the children and their families, mostly very poor, demoralized and fearful, Saadet Özcan, known as “the courageous teacher” in the media, mobilized the support of women’s groups, bar associations and the media by publicizing the case earlier this month.
Getting the children to speak
“I realized that something strange was going on when I noticed that some students in my class disappeared for lengths of time. I inquired and learned that they had been summoned by the school principal – in a locked room,” Özcan told the CNN-TURK in front of the courthouse. “As the absentees increased, with children failing to meet my eye after they re-appeared, I grew more suspicious. I messed the lock and one day, I just entered the room to take them by surprise. The children were under the table, looking embarrassed. They said they were playing a tickling game with the principal. I told them to leave the room, and requested the principal ‘never to play the game’ again.”
She then gathered the students together to explain to them the difference between “good way of touching and the bad way of touching.”
“If someone touches your underwear areas, it is a bad way of touching,” she explained. “You must report it to your parents, and if they can do nothing, to your teachers. Your teachers will protect you.”
The next day, a girl came forward, saying she was “touched in a bad way” but she was afraid to speak out. “There are many of us,” said the girl. “We are afraid to speak out.” She told her teacher that the principal had threatened to “dig a hole in the ground and put all of them there, along with their teacher” if they uttered a word.
In a long and touching interview with Ayşe Arman of Hürriyet, Saadet Özcan said she kept encouraging them, along with their parents, to speak out. Finally, she reported the case to the local authorities and several students testified, including two sisters who were regularly summoned to the principal’s house.
The first reflex of the local authorities was, not surprisingly, reproach. “You should have told us first and we would have forced the principal to retire,” said one local officer, urging that the issue be settled out of court. The principal, for his part, claimed that the whole case
The court case proved to be painfully slow, particularly after Saadet Ozcan suffered a car accident that left her paralyzed for several months. The court, where A.Ş. was charged with a sentence of 102 years, was released on bail after staying in jail for 1.5 years pending the final sentence. Deprived of their main supporter and demoralized by the release of the principal, the students proved more hesitant to continue with their case and testify further, which lead the defendant’s lawyer to argue that the case against the now-retired principal was “circumstantial.”
As soon as Saadet Ozcan was back on her feet, she sought to give momentum to the stagnating case. She called the help line Turkish Confederation of Women’s Associations, which called on Izmir Bar Association and its activist lawyer Nuriye Kadan to mobilize help. The Bar went to visit the village to talk to the children and provide legal help.
Women’s associations mobilized before court
In the court case on June 28, a wide spectrum of women’s groups, from left-inclined We Will Stop Femicide Platform to Women and Democracy Foundation, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s daughter Sümeyye is vice- chair, gathered with banners of support. Bar Associations, members of parliament and representatives of the Family and Social Affairs Ministry were also there.
Following a closed session, where the 13 years old Ş.Y. testified along with a psychologist and with the court officials removing their robes in order not to scare the child, the court decided to re-arrest the accused. The final verdict will come at a later date, but lawyers familiar with the case claim that new testimonies and new accusations may follow. “The case is graver than what we think,” implied both Saadet Ozcan and Nuriye Kadan.
Sexual abuse of children in Turkey
The reported cases of sexual abuse of children in Turkey have been on steady rise in the last five years – though many interpret the rise to the fact that more cases are reported. The most recent –is of a teacher arrested for the alleged sexual abuse of the eight male students in central Anatolian city of Karaman. What made the case controversial was that the teacher had been teaching private courses for students in apartments rented by the provincial branch of the Ensar Foundation, a foundation with very close links to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Although the official allegations are for eight cases, it is believed that the number of minor victims could be as high as 45.
According to judicial statistics, while the number of complaints filed at criminal courts within the scope of sexual crimes committed against children was 16,135 in 2010, this number rose to 16,957 in 2015, a 5.09 percent increase. Out of those complaints, criminal courts launched 10,041 cases in 2010. Five years later, in 2015, criminal courts launched 18,825 cases, an increase of 87.48 percent when compared with 2010.
In parallel with the increase in the number of complaints filed and cases opened, there was an increase in the number of conviction and acquittal rulings from 2010 to 2015. Accordingly, out of 10,041 cases launched in 2010, 46.32 percent were finalized with conviction rulings while 24 percent were finalized with acquittal rulings.