A Turkish court has sentenced two men to prison for the rape and murder of 23-year-old university student Sule Cet in a case that galvanized women’s groups outraged by the country’s high rates of violence against women and the widespread impunity of the men who commit it.
Cet plunged to her death from the 20th floor of an Ankara office tower in May 2018. On Wednesday, judges jailed Cagatay Aksu for life for raping and killing her as well as false imprisonment and found his accomplice Berk Akand was an accessory to the murder, giving him 19 years in prison. Applause and chants of “long live female solidarity” broke out in the courtroom after the decision was announced.
The verdict came the day after the murder of another university student. Ceren Ozdemir, 20, was stabbed to death in the Black Sea town of Ordu on her way home from a ballet class on Tuesday. A suspect has reportedly confessed to that crime.
Activists welcomed the sentences for Cet’s killers after police and prosecutorial inaction immediately after her death could have allowed the two men to walk free. A public outcry and the Cet family’s complaints compelled the authorities to open a murder investigation.
At the hearings, dozens of women picketed outside of the Ankara courtroom, demanding justice for Sule Cet. Lawmakers attended the trial, and the Family Ministry, which oversees women’s issues, joined the case as a complainant. The hashtag #SuleCetIcinAdalet (Justice for Sule Cet) trended on Twitter over the course of the trial.
“This was a historic trial in Turkey and became a symbol, thanks to the women’s movement, which refused to allow her death to be covered up,” said Hulya Gulbahar, a lawyer with the Equality Monitoring Women’s Group. “Sule Cet’s killing was made to look like a suicide until women from all over the country, regardless of their political point views, showed up in Ankara to prevent that.”
The police had initially ruled Cet’s death a suicide and even after a prosecutor took up the case, the suspects were released twice before their eventual formal arrest. Forensic evidence showing Cet had been assaulted and raped and had one of the suspect’s skin fragments under her fingernails was added to the case file. Late last year, a new prosecutor was assigned to the case.
“The statistics on femicides do not reflect reality. Murders are covered up under the guise of accidents or suicides,” Gulbahar told Al-Monitor, estimating the number of killings is three times the reported figures. “Women are being eliminated not only by murder but in the statistics.”
Violence is the biggest problem Turkish women say they face. A 2015 UN Women report found that almost 40% of women in the country have been physically abused. The Council of Europe, which promotes human rights, blamed gender inequality as the cause of violence against women in Turkey.
Efforts by women to draw attention to their plight can sometimes attract their own violence. Last month, police used rubber bullets and tear gas on women demonstrating in central Istanbul for harsher penalties against men who harm women. Police also used force to stop a Women’s Day walk in March that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed had disrespected the Muslim call to prayer.
Aksu and Akand, both businessmen in their 30s, said the media glare made a fair trial impossible. They denied killing Cet, who had previously worked for their company, and claimed she had flung herself from a window after complaining of financial hardship. On the night she died, Cet had dinner with the two men, who then invited her back to office plaza for drinks. She texted a friend that she was being held against her will.
Their defense included assertions that if a woman agrees to drink alcohol in a private space it amounts to consensual sex and that Cet was not a virgin. The newspapers piled on, publishing what they said was her last photograph and pointed out that she was smiling and holding a bottle of beer. During the trial, Aksu told Cet’s father he should have taken better care of his daughter.
Aksu's lack of remorse should have precluded a reduction in his sentence, argued the family’s lawyer, but Aksu managed to evade an aggravated life sentence, which includes solitary confinement and no chance of parole, because the court found he had displayed good behavior during the trial. Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul said on Thursday that reduced sentences for “monsters” were unconscionable.
Turkey adopted sweeping legislation to combat domestic abuse in 2012 and Erdogan has vowed to staunch the “bleeding wound” of violence against women. But the number of violent incidents has only climbed, according to the United Nations.
Gulbahar said harsh sentencing won’t bring down Turkey’s femicide rate until the legal system makes prevention its priority. Fewer than 150 shelters for women escaping violence operate in Turkey, and restraining orders on abusive partners are difficult to obtain and renew.
“But this isn’t just a legal matter. Gender equality needs to be embraced by society. Without this, you won’t solve anything, even if you gilt victims’ graves in gold,” Gulbahar said.
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