“They took me into custody in my home at five in the morning”

Asena Günal, Executive Director of Anadolu Kültür.

Voices from Defenders’ Days

Close-up with Asena Günal, Executive Director of Anadolu Kültür, Turkey.

As democracy is backsliding at a rapid pace in Turkey, the pressure on civil society is mounting. Asena Günal, human rights defender, history expert and feminist, has experienced this pressure first-hand. But despite travel bans and arbitrary arrests, she is more committed than ever to the fight for human rights. She is one of 200 participants at Defenders’ Days in Stockholm this week. 

Asena Günal is the Executive Director of Anadolu Kültür, an organisation on the intersection of art and civil society. Asena tells Civil Rights Defenders that the topic of human rights in Turkey has gained a wider meaning to include cultural rights as well as civil and political rights. 

“People have become aware of the importance of access to artistic expression and culture and arts in the framework of human rights. In addition to that, state oppression of culture, arts, and civil society have increased”, says Asena.

Anadolu Kültür covers sensitive topics that are often uncomfortable to the government. For example, they have organised and hosted art exhibitions about the Gezi protests and the Armenian legacy in Turkey.  

Mounting pressure since the arrest of Osman Kavala 

The organisation is experiencing additional pressure from the Turkish government and institutions since its founder, prominent human rights activist Osman Kavala, was illegally detained five years ago. Asena herself has experienced numerous threats, harassment, and violations of her human rights.  

“Seven people stormed into my house at half past five in the morning while I was still half-asleep. I was lucky to be released later that same day, but during a five-hour interrogation, I had to answer absurd questions based on recordings of my phone conversations. I had to listen to a lot of conspiracy theories about the Arab Spring, Occupy movements and Gezi”, says Asena.  

Following this incident, Asena was put under a travel ban for three and a half years, which was not lifted despite her numerous applications.   

“At one point, they told me I had to prove that I was innocent! So, obviously, the presumption of innocence is not working in the way it should. The judiciary was not bothering to prove “my crime”. 

Gains strength from younger generations 

Being a member of civil society in Turkey is already difficult and becoming riskier, and many human rights defenders are leaving the country due to constant pressure and lack of security. But Asena finds motivation when seeing the dedication from younger generations.  

“When we post a call for a job, we are astonished to see tens of people apply, and they’re usually young people. They say: “We know the risks. We know the case, but we want to show our solidarity, and we want to work with you.” That is very motivating for me and the whole team”, says Asena.  

About Defenders’ Days

Defenders’ Days is Civil Rights Defenders’ global networking platform for human rights defenders, focused on making use of innovative tools to combat human rights violations. Defenders’ Days Conference is a conference with and for human rights defenders, organised by Civil Rights Defenders every two years, to support and connect people who fight for democracy and human rights. 

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