Week in the Life: Murat Cano, Turkish Lawyer - Man who dares to challenge the Turkish state

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The Independent Online
EVERY OFFICE in the country has a portrait of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, on display. The same picture hangs in Murat Cano's office but there is a twist. Across it is printed a quotation in Ottoman Turkish, in the beautiful Arabic script that Ataturk banned.

Mr Cano is a man of paradox. His great-grandfather fought alongside Ataturk, and Mr Cano is a patriot, yet he has spent his professional life battling the Turkish state and exposing its shortcomings.

The sumptuous offices are the trappings of a successful lawyer. But Mr Cano has not made his fortune by cosying up to the wealthy and powerful. These offices may have hosted the Ecumenical Patriarch, the leader of the world's 300 million orthodox Christians - Mr Cano is his lawyer - but most of his clients are the powerless and dispossessed.

Mr Cano is a minority rights lawyer - but does not represent the country's largest and most vocal minority, the Kurds. "I am a lawyer," he says. "I can only work for those who are recognised as a minority by our law." Turkey may be a melting pot, but only Greeks, Armenians and, to a lesser extent, Jews are recognised as minorities.

IT IS Monday evening, and Mr Cano is attending a press conference for one of the many foundations he runs, the Friends of Hasankeyf. Its aim is to save one of the world's oldest towns, on the banks of the river Tigris, in south-east Turkey. In spite of its beauty and historical significance, Hasankeyf will be destroyed in a few years when a dam is built. "If this piece of world heritage sinks under the waters of the dam, I will be poorer, my children will be poorer, my country and the world will be poorer," Mr Cano says.

The foundation is appealing to the United Nations and the European Union. Mr Cano has persuaded a Swiss firm to pull out of the consortium building the dam. But a German company has replaced it. He is also lobbying London; the British constructor Balfour Beatty is seeking export credit guarantees to join the consortium.

AN ARMENIAN comes to Mr Cano's office for advice on Tuesday. An Armenian school in Istanbul is being forced out of its premises, even though it bought them. This is because of a law which confiscated all property bought by minorities between 1936 and 1974 and returned the deeds to the previous owners. The Armenians do not own a building they paid for, and the owner is evicting them.

Mr Cano says: "It was said it was dangerous for the Turkish state if `foreigners' were too strong. But the people they were calling `foreigners' were citizens of Turkey."

He caused a sensation when he unveiled evidence that the law had been secretly annulled. The government denied it - until Mr Cano threatened to subpoena the Prime Minister. Still, he lost the case.

WEDNESDAY, AND Mr Cano is hard at work with another of his foundations. This time, he is demanding that artworks taken from Istanbul over the centuries should be returned. He is lobbying the British Museum, among others.

Critics say treasures should not be returned when Turkey cannot look after what it has got. But Mr Cano grows heated; this is Istanbul's heritage.

ON THURSDAY, the Patriarch phones from his offices across the Golden Horn in the Phanar. Mr Cano has published an article in the Turkish press calling for the seminary on the island of Heybeli to be reopened, and the Patriarch is delighted. Without the seminary, closed by the authorities, the Greek community cannot train priests in the country. Since the patriarch must be a Turkish citizen, they cannot train a new patriarch: keeping the school closed could force the patriarchate to leave Istanbul after almost 2,000 years.

FRIDAY NIGHT sees Mr Cano out drinking with his friends in an Istanbul bar. With women, he plays Casanova, kissing their hands and being studiously charming. But ask Mr Cano where he was born, and he takes out his photos of Tunceli, or Dersim, the wild region of south-east Turkey. "I am always there," he says gazing at the pictures, rapt.

The region is beautiful, certainly. But it was the scene of a ferociously bloody revolt in 1938, and the mountains of Tunceli are still some of the most lawless in Turkey. Tunceli is Alevi country, and Mr Cano is an Alevi, a member of a Muslim sect so heterodox, many Muslims regard them as infidels. Alevis have a long history of persecution. Could this be the key to Mr Cano's many paradoxes? He does not reply. For a moment, he is lost in the mountains of his childhood.