Mothers' vigil puts Turkey to shame

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Stroll down Istiklal Street at noon today, and you might be charmed by Istanbul's slightly down-at-heel, Italianate promenade. Reach the prestigious Galatasaray High School, however, and you begin to feel uncomfortable. Roughly 300 Turks sit outside the school gates. Their reproachful silence distinguishes them from the surrounding jollity. Some hold photographs, most of young men. These are the Saturday Mothers.

Entry requirements are simple: the loss of a relative or friend in police custody. New recruits are welcomed; each month, Ankara's Human Rights Association makes additions to the 700-odd Turks they reckon have disappeared while in the hands of the Turkish police.

The relatives of missing Turks have been meeting each Saturday since May 1995, when Emine Ocak, her husband and a few activists, staged the first protest in Istiklal Street. Mr and Mrs Ocak, members of Turkey's Alewite religious minority, had recently traced the body of their missing son to a municipal grave. They say he was arrested after a bloody confrontation between Alewites and police and was not seen since. "We just want to know who killed our son," pleaded Mr Ocak.

Mr and Mrs Ocak have been joined by others awaiting justice; from humble beginnings, their club has grown, acquiring a certain celebrity. Pop stars dedicate songs to them and liberal politicians court their support. Even the authorities pay them backhanded compliments.When Istanbul hosted Habitat II, a big conference on the future of large cities, the governor had the Saturday Mothers cleared with the thoroughness employed to shoo away prostitutes and stray dogs.

Common to many Turks remembered in Istiklal Street is political activism. In the early 1980s, the police targeted extreme leftists. Now, theKurdish minority has most to fear. Some are arrested on suspicion of helping the Kurdish Workers Party, an often brutal nationalist organisation. Others appear to have done little more than refuse to inform on friends and relatives. Typically, as in the case of Hasan Ocak, the police deny arresting the missing person. He is simply never seen again.

Murvet Ozgen, one of the Saturday Mothers' newest recruits, fears her father suffered this fate. On 27 February, Fikri Ozgen, a septuagenarian Kurd, and apparently a politically inactive one, was arrested near his home in the south-eastern town of Diyarbakir. The local military police deny taking in Mr Ozgen, although eye-witnesses reports suggest they did. Ms Ozgen says her father does not have access to the injections and inhaler he needs to control his chronic asthma. "He may be dead already," she said.

The government has begun making concessions, reducing detention without trial. And instead of itchy-fingered riot police, the Interior Ministry has begun sending a minibus to Istiklal Street each Saturday, where the protesters are invited to register the names of the missing.