Court arrests former principal accused of mass sexual abuse in İzmir
Nazlan Ertan – İZMİR
DHA photoAn İzmir court’s decision to re-arrest a school principal accused of mass sexual abuse of his students was heralded by women’s groups on June 28.
The arrest decision is regarded as a turning point in the two-year court case, where the accused was on the point of being acquitted because many of the children who initially reported abuse refused to come forward to testify as the case dragged on. The defendant’s lawyer argued that the evidence was “circumstantial.”
In front of the courthouse, Saadet Özcan, the teacher who noticed the school principal’s repeated abuse of children at a village school in the Menderes district of İzmir and organized the class action, shed tears of relief, saying “justice may be late, but it comes.”
Women’s groups carried banners supporting Özcan’s efforts, which included monitoring the principal, gathering evidence, and encouraging children and their families to speak up and seek justice.
The case, launched two years ago, was progressing painfully slowly as the accused were released from prison after being kept behind bars for 18 months.
Özcan, who came to be known as “the courageous teacher,” mobilized the support of women’s groups, bar associations and the media in order to publicize the case of the children and their families who were mostly poor and fearful.
Getting the children to speak
“I realized something strange was going on when I noticed that some students in my class were disappearing for certain lengths of time. I inquired and learned that they had been summoned by the school principal – in a locked room,” Özcan told private broadcaster CNN Türk in front of a local courthouse on June 28.
“As the absentees increased, many children avoided my eye after they re-appeared in class and I grew more suspicious. I broke the lock and one day I just entered the room to take them by surprise,” she said, explaining that “the children were under the table, looking embarrassed.”
“They said they were playing a ‘tickling game’ with the principal. I told them to leave the room, and asked the principal to never play the game again,” Özcan said, adding that she then gathered the students together to explain the difference between “the good way of touching and the bad way of touching.”
The next day, a girl came forward, saying she was “touched in a bad way” but she was afraid to speak out.
“There are many of us but we are afraid to speak out,” the girl said.
In a June 19 interview with daily Hürriyet, Özcan said she kept encouraging the students, along with their parents, to speak out. Eventually she reported the case to the local authorities and several students testified, including two sisters who were regularly summoned to the principal’s house.
However, the subsequent court case proceeded painfully slowly, particularly after Özcan suffered a car accident that left her paralyzed for several months.
The suspect principal, identified only by the initials A.Ş. and facing up to 102 years in jail, was released on bail after being in jail for 1.5 years pending final sentencing.
Deprived of their main supporter and demoralized by the release of the principal, students were reluctant to continue with the case and testify, which in turn led the defendant’s lawyer to argue that the evidence against the now-retired principal was “circumstantial.”
However, upon her recovery Özcan sought to give momentum to the stagnating case. She called the help line the Turkish Confederation of Women’s Associations, which called on the İzmir Bar Association and its activist lawyer Nuriye Kadan to mobilize help. The Bar went to visit the village to talk to the children and provide legal help.
Women’s associations mobilized in front of court
In the court case on June 28, a wide spectrum of women’s groups, from the left-wing We Will Stop Femicide Platform to the Women and Democracy Foundation, on which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s daughter Sümeyye is vice-chair, gathered with banners of support. Bar associations, members of parliament, and representatives of the Family and Social Affairs Ministry were also present.
In a closed court session, in which a 13-year-old child abuse victim testified along with a psychologist, and in which court officials removed their robes in order not to scare the child, the court decided to re-arrest the accused.
The final verdict will come at a later date, but lawyers familiar with the case claim that new testimonies and new accusations may follow.