A Conversation with the Lawyer of Çilem Doğan: Punished for not Dying

Çilem Doğan, was handcuffed and surrounded by two police officers on the day of her arrest. Source: Gaia Dergi

Çilem Doğan’s story is a sad reality. A reality involving violence that goes unnoticed and unpunished. A reality that denies the right of women to protect themselves and condemns them for having the audacity to survive the domestic violence they face on a daily basis. A reality which pushes the oppressed to kill their oppressor out of desperation. Beaten, violated, dispossessed of their bodies and abandoned, this story reflects the tenacity of women towards a system that crushes them. This reality is above all an act of defiance against a society that has stopped listening to its female entities. This is the story of Çilem Doğan and her use of self-defence against her abusive husband who forced her into prostitution. 

The Reality of Domestic Violence

From the first months of her marriage to Hasan Karabulut, Çilem Doğan is suffering his uncontrollable violence.

Indeed, according to Doğan, her husband tried to force her into prostitution a month shortly after they got married in the eastern Mediterranean province of Adana. After refusing, she was locked up at home for three days without food or water. Her mother managed to get her out. Immediately, she tried to escape her husband but soon learned that she was pregnant and thus, had to stay. The battering never stopped! 

As Doğan’s domestic violence escalates, the young woman repeatedly turned to the police in the hope of escaping her husband. During her trial, she indeed explained having lost count of how many times she sought help from the police.

Six different lawsuits were filed against Hasan Karabulut at criminal judgeships of the first instance on charges of “threat” against his spouse and “wounding” her. In addition to the complaints against her husband, the number of protection orders was ultimately revealed to stand at nine. 

In well to seeking police assistance, Çilem tried unsuccessfully to divorce her partner. Indeed, her family, and Hasan’s one, rejected her requests for a divorce, leading to an increase in the violence inflicted upon her.

Çilem Doğan and her daughter Misra Su. Source: Aksam.web

The last straw came on 8 July 2015 in Adana province of Turkey. Doğan explains; “He came home in the morning on the day of the incident. He slept for a short time and then wanted me to prepare his luggage. I asked him why. He said we would go to Antalya together and I would become a prostitute. When I opposed it, he beat me. He pushed me onto the bed and the pistol under the pillow came into my mind. I grabbed it and shot him repeatedly. After that, I took my daughter and left home.” She then immediately surrendered to the police.

The Trials of a Hero for some and a Killer for Other

Following her arrest, Çilem Doğan got first sentenced to an aggravated life sentence on charges of involuntary manslaughter at the Adana 10th High Criminal Court. 

Killing as the Last and Desperate Self-Defence

At the hearing on May 6, 2016, Çilem Doğan’s lawyers presented a report on the “battered woman defence” to the court and demanded acquittal on the grounds of self-defence given the violence to which she had been subjected. The Adana Public Prosecutor, however, demanded 18 to 24 years in prison on the charge of “wilful killing under grave and unjust provocation”. From the very beginning of her trials, Çilem repeatedly claimed to have acted out of self-defence. She stated that she tried to protect herself from violence by all possible means.

Çilem Doğan during her trial in Adana. Credit image: Diken.web

In his final opinion, the prosecutor demanded that the act should not consider self-defence since Çilem Doğan

“did not seek shelter in her family’s place, did not benefit from measures such as changing her identity, plastic surgery etc.”

She was then asked “why” she continued to live under the same roof as her husband, despite her repeatedly having stated that she tried to divorce him.  Afterwards, she was blamed by the court as to why she withdrew some of her criminal complaints against Hasan Karabulut. 

Facing a lifetime in prison at the Adana 10th High Criminal Court, Doğan was then sentenced to 15 years behind bars with sentence reductions on the grounds of “unjust provocation and good conduct.”

Her lawyer appealed against the decision and requested her release under judicial control. The court board released her on 20 June 2016 on bail (stipulated at TL 50,000).

Unfortunately, the case got sent to the Supreme Court located in Ankara which upheld Çilem’s sentence. On November 4th, 2021, the heavy verdict came in and entailed the re-arrestation of Çilem Doğan. Indeed, the Constitutional Court condemned her to stay behind bars for 15 years. 

Right after the decision was heard, Çilem Doğan published the following message on social media ;

A letter written by Çilem Doğan in prison to the attention of the women

“You did not imprison Çilem Doğan by approving the 15-year sentence. You’ve imprisoned an 8-year-old girl and all the women in the world. 

We didn’t expect anything from male justice, we didn’t. It didn’t mislead us again. 

We women will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder so that our eyes lashed don’t fall on the floor. 

My daughter Misra Su is in your care, women. 

The women’s struggle will win. 

I embrace all women with solidarity”. 

The Growing Symbol of the Women’s struggle in Turkey

Immediately after Doğan’s arrest, feminists from all over Turkey came together to support her. 

Women’s rights activist holding a sign “Our eyelashes won’t fall #ÇilemDogan.” Source: Evrensel.net

Many Turkish women behind bars for killing their husbands have hefty files full of official domestic violence complaints, including protective orders. Doğan’s story was no different. 

On the day of her first arrest, the young woman shouted to the press “Why should women always die!” In a country where the murder of women has skyrocketed in recent years, Doğan’s gesture became a singular act of defiance and inspired others to speak out. 

Therefore, activists, students, mothers etc. came to the streets of Turkey calling for Doğan’s acquittal and insisting that self-defence is a legitimate right. Every hearing during her trial was accompanied by heavy demonstrations not only on the boulevards but also on social media. A petition campaign demanding her acquittal has gathered more than 130,000 signatures. Quickly, the figure of Çilem Doğan became one of a hero and particularly on social media.

Çilem Doğan thumbs up and confident during her first arrest. Source: Bianet.com

The shirt which reads “Dear past, thanks for all the lessons. Dear future, I am ready” which Doğan happened to be wearing on the day of her arrest even became a symbol in the struggle for women’s rights and has been quoted as the slogan of the year.

An Act of Defiance which Inspires

The general mobilisation around Doğan’s case revolves around the identification of other women in her situation, as her lawyer Cemre Topal, whom I interviewed, pointed out ; 

“The first time Çilem Doğan was being seen in public after having been arrested, she was fearless. I am not saying she wasn’t feeling guilty but she wasn’t scared. She knew she had to protect her life and one of her daughters. There was a kind of revenge or stronger message that says; it is not always women who die in this world.”

This attitude of defiance frightened the government. It caused indignation towards the power in place but also admiration towards Dogan. “She sort of enfranchised herself from being the property of someone in a patriarchal system. That is certainly an example to follow.”

Çilem during an interview. Source: Keleljek.web

This activist lawyer who dedicates her career to defending the cause of women’s rights highlights that her client changed the narrative of domestic violence in Turkey. 

“We are now capable of saying that we embrace the feminist revolution which has started already. For us, it is not finished. It is just the beginning and the new generation is ready to fight for it! We are gonna open the door, confront the justice and push the politicians in order to get our rights respected.”

“Women’s movement is far stronger in Turkey. Feminist lawyers are united and determined. We are ready! ”

“Çilem Doğan is given 15 years too much in prison but even if it reacquires us to do something extraordinary, we will change this unjust decision. We will recall the case to reclaim the verdict.”

Following the final verdict, Sevil Araci, one of her attorneys stressed the following “With this verdict, Çilem Doğan has become one of the women who are punished because they didn’t die.”

A Political Trial; the Failure of the Turkish Justice

Doğan’s case and those of other women who kill their husbands in similar circumstances raise the question of whether they would have been killed if they had received effective protection from authorities after seeking help against their abusers. “I never wanted this to happen, but I had no other option,” Çilem said, in her closing statement at trial. 

In their case, resorting to a gun or a knife is usually a last, desperate measure after repeated requests for help from the police. Such murders are not simply a matter of an individual decision, but also involve authorities’ inaction, in failing to protect women who are being battered. The courts and other authorities, therefore, prove to be futile in breaking the pattern of domestic violence.

“This situation illustrates perfectly the fact that the current government doesn’t protect and doesn’t want to protect women in Turkey.”

Cemre Topal

Indeed, as stressed by her lawyer, Cemre Topal, Çilem reported 9 times the domestic violence she was suffering, hoping to receive some protection. The capable authority denied and neglected that woman’s accusations and so, as a consequence, she had to resort to self-defence to live. 

The lawyer Cemre Topal during a conference. Source: democracyendowment.eu

“It is a great example of the consequences of the incompetence of a government to protect the life of women in Turkey” stressed Cemre Topal. “Çilem Doğan had lodged countless complaints with the police and prosecutors. She committed the murder to stop an unjust attack against herself. Women are always pictured in second place. The Turkish Judiciary system is ineffective in terms of protection of half of the population.”

I then asked the lawyer if she thought that the high judiciary court’s decision set an example to show Turkish women that self-defence will not be tolerated. 

“ Yes, absolutely! Within this case, there was a lot of false information, a lot of emptiness, false testimonies etc. They have botched this trial and the investigations that were necessary for the proper conduct of the legal process. They tried to make the judgement as fast as possible to give the 15 years sentence in order to, as you said, set the example and so, definitely condemn self-defence. During the very first trial in Adana, the prosecutors, as well as the president of the court, were amazing and all claimed; self-defence.”

“But in Ankara everything changed. The trial became political!”

It goes without saying that the judiciary organ of a country should remain neutral and independent as well as fair and impartial in order to ensure and promote the check and balance system of democracy. This case underlines the severe politicisation of the judiciary system in Turkey.  Indeed, in accordance with the chronological steps of this trial, the basis of the independence of the judiciary organ has been violated and so has the principle of check and balance. By witnessing the national acclaim that the case of Çilem Doğan case has received, the government intended to give a symbolic lesson to prevent a loss of control margins of the judgment which had been rendered on 20 June 2016. While she was released under judicial control, the handling of the case by the Supreme Court drastically changed the verdict. The judicial service failed at ensuring to take all the necessary steps to provide a fair trial; false testimony, lack of investigation etc. as denounced by Cemre Topal. It must be noted that her demands for fair trials got systematically rejected during the court proceedings.

A view of the Supreme Court in Ankara, Turkey. Source: Daily Sabah

This example, therefore, illustrates that the political philosophy of the Turkish ruling party heavily influenced the final decision of the judicial organ of the country which should be neutral and independent from any political pressure. The decision initially made by the judicial system has been changed in favour of a more conservative verdict. The value of the check and balance system has been endangered and so has the Turkish democracy once again

Turkey; the Country which Fails its Women

“Çilem has no regrets regarding what she did. She was killed for the sole purpose of surviving against a man who could probably have killed her by now. It’s the state that failed her and her daughter” condemns Topal.

For a few years, to protect the family vision in Turkey, the paradigm of domestic violence has shifted. The ruling government considers diminishing domestic violence protection to disincentivize women from seeking a divorce. Hence, in 2016, the parliament recommended that; “Women should prove their partner’s violence to receive extended police protection”. Within this scenario, the burden of responsibility is therefore on the women victims of domestic violence. In short, they have to prove their victim status. Despite Çilem Doğan’s attempts to seek police protection, the court found her responsible for her lack of evidence and lack of will. Indeed, she did not resort to plastic surgery to change her appearance as the judge regretted. She also failed to prove, on 9 occasions, the violence of her partner. The fault resides with the victim. 

This understanding of the law could thus allow the following interpretation; in Turkey, the woman victim of domestic violence has to undertake the role of a policeman by collecting the necessary evidence to be believed and by taking enough steps to protect her children and her integrity from the violence of her husband. 

Thus, the government should not be so surprised when the victim, converted into a police officer, kills the man who assaulted her with a gun. Police officers are indeed armed and the use of a weapon is reserved for legitimate defence in cases of imminent danger to life. 

Women’s rights protest in Istanbul. Source: The New Arab

This is the sad reality of a state that fails to protect women from the domestic violence that escalates in a country where it is not convenient to be of the second sex

This is the reality that pushes victims to become guilty of the ultimate crime of desperation and abandonment by the police and thus the state.

“Even if that decision discouraged women in the sense that they cannot be protected by the law nor the state, Çilem herself encouraged women. She might now be in prison but she could be dead. I think that a lot of women would rather be in prison than be beaten by their husbands. It is encouraging that she is alive and that she is fighting for her rights” concluded Cemre Topal.

An emblem of defiance for some, a symbol of danger for others, heavily condemned in the courts, and loudly defended in the streets, Çilem Doğan’s story is ultimately indicative of a societal split. Although Doğan will remain locked up in prison for years, her singular act of defiance has inspired others to liberate women’s rights in Turkey.


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