ISTANBUL - Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu is defending the government's crackdown Saturday on a vigil by mothers protesting the forced disappearances and political murders of loved ones during the 1980s and 1990s.
“We wanted to put an end to this abuse [and deceptive use of motherhood],” Soylu said Monday as he went on to accuse the demonstrators of supporting terrorism. Representatives for the women condemned Soylu's remarks at a press conference and vowed to continue their campaign.
Saturday was the 700th time the women known as the Saturday Mothers had gathered to call attention to the disappearances that began after a 1980 military coup and subsequent conflict between the government and the outlawed Kurdish separatist group, the PKK. Turkey considers the PKK a terrorist organization. Local authorities allege that calls for Saturday's rally were made on social media accounts linked to the PKK.
Thousands of people had been expected at Saturday's protest — one of world’s longest civil disobedience demonstrations; however, riot police, backed by armored cars, swiftly moved in before it could start.
Police occupied the square on a street in the heart of Istanbul, where, for nearly two decades, the Saturday Mothers have silently gathered, holding pictures of missing loved ones. Forty-seven people were detained. Some were women in their 70s and 80s. Some were restrained as police swept the street, arresting supporters and using tear gas to disperse the protesters. Local officials said the protest violated public order.
Human rights activists criticized the crackdown.
“This is a shameful and horrifying way to treat people who are participating in a totally peaceful gathering calling for accountability," said Emma Sinclair Webb, senior Turkey researcher with U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
Argentina’s Plaza de Mayo mothers are said to have inspired the weekly Saturday Mothers protests.
Those mothers in Argentina campaigned to find out what happened to children who disappeared during that country's 1976 to 1983 military dictatorship - a period known as the "Dirty War." The Turkish campaign started in 1995 at the height of the war between the Turkish state and the PKK, which is waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey.
According to the Ankara-based Human Rights Association, between 1992 and 1996, nearly 800 state-forced disappearances and murders have been reported in Kurdish regions in Turkey, with many more missing persons remaining unreported.
Among those protesting were mothers whose sons disappeared during the military rule of the 1980s. However, most of those taking part in the weekly vigils had relatives disappear in the 1990s, during what human rights groups claim was a “dirty war” by security forces against Kurdish insurgents.
"Nihat Aydogan, my husband, was taken from our home in the village of Mardin. He has been gone for 24 years,” said Halime Aydogan, wearing a white headscarf to symbolize mourning.
“There are thousands of people like me who come here for their disappeared ones,” she added. “We don’t come here for anything else but asking for their bones. Even a single bone means that we can have a grave and we can go there on Fridays, on religious days, and do our prayer for them. We don’t ask much.”
The Saturday Mothers are also demanding that those responsible for the disappearances be held to account. A number of court cases have been opened against currently serving and former military officers. However, only one conviction has been secured, while other cases have ended in acquittals or are bogged down in legal bureaucracy, human rights lawyers said.
Tayyup Canan, whose father was taken by security forces in 1996, regularly travels across the country to attend the weekly protest. "The reason we are sitting in is for no one else to disappear,” Canan said.
“My father disappeared, but no one else’s father, brother, mother, lover or child should be a victim of enforced disappearances,” he added. “Today, they prevented us from sitting, but we will be back there next Saturday. I think they [government] got scared. ...The reason they are afraid of them is that these mothers ask for justice.”
When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was prime minister, he embraced the Saturday Mothers protests. In 2011, amid widespread publicity, Erdogan met with a delegation of the mothers. A parliamentary human rights commission was set up at Erdogan’s behest.
The commission did cast light on one of the most high-profile cases — that of Cemil Kirbayir — and confirmed he was tortured to death, days after the 1980 military coup. Since there has been little progress, the future of the Saturday Mothers protests is in question.
Opposition parties have sharply criticized the crackdown on the Saturday Mothers. "The lack of tolerance to this gathering is unacceptable. It is utterly heartless,” said Sezgin Tanrikulu, deputy leader of the main opposition CHP, who attended the Saturday protest
"I was the lawyer for many families who suffered enforced disappearances,” he added. “I know very well that pain. This is never-ending mourning with no condolences. The mourning is not possible to end without finding the bones of the missing. The people’s search continues. This square is such a place for the families.”
“For 15 years, I came and sat here. We don’t harm anybody,” Halime Aydogan said. “We are just sitting by ourselves under rain and in the cold in winter, in 40-degree heat in summer. We are not here for anything else but for looking for our disappeared ones. We say, our husbands, brothers, sisters, our sons are missing. We are looking for them.”
WATCH: Vigil interrupted