“It has been a year since the death of transgender sex worker Hande Kader and not a single suspect has been found and brought before the law,” reads a petition on Change.org, one of Turkey’s most widely used protest websites.
The petition is the latest in a year-long campaign launched by transgender activist Deniz Sapka, who has been trying to keep up the pressure to bring Kader's killers to justice. The tone of this last petition reflects the frustration of Turkey’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community with the justice system regarding the death of 22-year-old Kader, who was burned, mutilated and killed a year ago after she was seen getting in a car with one or more clients in downtown Istanbul. Her body was found 10 days later.
Aug. 18 marks the first anniversary of a major mobilization in 2016, when hundreds of people took to the streets of Istanbul, Ankara and other cities to urge members of the parliament to protect the rights of the LGBTI, ensure their security and find and prosecute those who brutally killed Kader.
“I am angry, angry that the mobilization we have realized has died down, angry that no steps were taken to bring the responsible to justice, angry that even Kader’s family just wants to hush the whole thing up,” Sapka told Al-Monitor in a phone interview. “We had thought back then that the public interest in the tragedy of Hande Kader would be a turning point. It was not. If anything, it is worse than before,” she added, in a thinly-veiled reference to the banned gay pride parade this year.
The hashtag #speakoutforhandekader, which trended for several days last year and was revived this week, is a reference to the activism of Kader, a feisty sex worker who had told friends that she dreamed of becoming a translator. The Turkish public became familiar with her in 2015, during pride in Istanbul. She and her friends had gone to Taksim Park, where the parade was held every year until it was not authorized in 2015. The police had dispersed it with firehoses and pepper spray. When Kader and some of her friends continued marching, police officers moved to stop her. Her face in tears, Kader shouted not at the police but at the journalists who were snapping photos: “You keep taking pictures but you never print what we say. Nobody hears our voice.”
Ironically, Kader's mutilated body inspired for a brief period both the public and the policymakers as they listened to the demands of the LGBTI and walked along with them, expressing empathy for the risks they faced, the harassment and the lack of protection. Between Aug. 18 and Aug 21, 2016, hundreds of people walked in Istanbul’s Tunel area and other cities of Turkey, shouting the slogan “Trans exist.” Members of the Turkish Parliament, mostly quiet on LGBTI rights, joined the activist groups in a press conference at the parliament. A joint statement read there said LGBTI groups should have better access to the justice system and firm punishments should be given to those who hurt them.
“So far, most aggressors charged with violence against transgender sex workers have been able to get off scot free,” it said. Several deputies from the opposition Republican People’s Party were present, but none from the ruling Justice and Development Party. This was hardly surprising, as the conservative party’s deputies, including its former minister of social and family affairs, Selma Aliye Kavaf, refers to homosexuality as an “illness” and considers transsexuality “against nature.”
Several months after Kader's murder, Athena, one of Turkey's most famous music groups, released a music video expressing solidarity with trans sex workers. The song, called "Don't Say Anything," shows a group of trans women prettying up for a night out, only to be abused at the end of the evening by some men in a car. At the end, one of the victims, face smashed up, is accompanied home by her veiled mother. Conservative media outlets blasted the group for "making a clip that disrespected Turkish mores" and "placing dynamite at the foundations of the Turkish society."
Unlike many Muslim countries, homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, but homophobia remains widespread despite the success of many famous gay or trans individuals. Aside from flashy icon Bulent Ersoy, a sharp-tongued and attention-craving diva who had a sex-change operation in the 1980s, most try to keep a low profile. Many of them, despite being household names, have been publicly humiliated, attacked or beaten.
Turkey is one of the worst places in terms of LGBT rights in Europe, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA). The association, says Turkey — the fourth from the bottom on the list — has a “claustrophobic atmosphere, increased by the state of emergency” declared in the wake of last summer's attempted coup. Its 2016 report underlined the banning of the march in Ankara and others in both Istanbul and Izmir. It added that the office of a prominent LGBTI organization was also forced to close due to security threats. In advance of this year's pride celebrations, a series of ominous threats were made by several extremist groups.
The report added that LGBTI people, particularly trans women, are frequently the victims of violent bias-motivated attacks, many of them fatal. Activists say that the culprits are seldom found. Witnesses are reluctant to testify and families, ashamed of their child, want the crime buried. There are no public prosecutors or lawyers who put pressure on the justice system.
This is the case for Kader, whose story seems to be forgotten outside a handful of activists and her lawyer, Firat Soyle. Soyle, who talked to journalist Burcu Karakas, that the case of Kader was not dismissed with a simple "murderers unknown” finding, as so many transsexual murder cases are, though not a single suspect had been identified in the ongoing investigation. “The prosecutor’s office is looking at her phone calls before the murder and at the security footage in which she was last seen before she reportedly got in the car with one or several men.”
Soyle pleaded, “It is important that Hande Kader’s friends come forward and tell the investigators what they know.”
But Turkey’s transgender population is often reluctant to appear before the police. According to Kemal Ordek, a former sex worker who wrote “Being Trans in Turkey,” the police, far from protecting transgender Turks, covers up crimes against them, harasses them and shakes them down for bribes.
Ordek has been battling the police and justice system for two years, ever since two men who pretended to be clients raped them. (Ordek is a non-binary and prefers “they” to “he” or “she”). When the attackers dragged them to a cash machine to steal money from their bank account, Ordek ran toward a nearby police car. But the police sided with the attackers and tried to persuade Ordek against making a criminal complaint before allowing the attackers to go free. One of them told Ordek: “There is nothing you can do, they will let us go anyway.” The case is still ongoing, with the attackers charged with theft, not sexual assault. “The court decided that there was not enough evidence for the rape case, which is a scandal," Ordek told Al-Monitor.
“The murder case of Hande Kader is very symbolic for the LGBTI,” said Ordek. “It was a brutal attack on the gay community. People need to testify; justice needs to be carried out. Many people think that it is normal for a trans sex worker to be harassed by clients or even murdered. Sadly, often it is true — there are many murders and few trans people die a natural death.”
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