Imprisoned Turkish Architects and Human Rights Activists Ayse Mücella Yapici, Tayfun Kahraman and Can Atalay win the Esteemed 2023 European Prize for Architecture
By Christian Narkiewicz-Laine
Three Turkish architectural watch dogs and champions of human rights are this year’s Laureates of The European Prize for Architecture and will receive the prestigious honor in their prison cells serving 18-year sentences for “treason” by speaking out against social injustice in Turkey and for warning in advance about the devastating consequences of the February 2023 Earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.
The three imprisoned human rights activists sentenced in April 2022 include Ayse Mucella Yapici, architect from the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects; Tayfun Kahraman, urban planner and the Executive Board Chairman of the Chamber of Urban Planners; and Can Atalay, attorney for The Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects.
Six other co-defendants were also charged and sentenced to 18 years in prison, without any evidence, for the same politically motivated indictments: Çiğdem Mater, a Turkish film producer and journalist; Hakan Altınay, director and professor of Political Science in Boğaziçi University and founding president of the Global Civics Academy; Mine Özerden, film director and producer; and Yiğit Ali Ekmekçi, professor, human rights activist and founder of the Nesin and Mesopotamia Foundations, and a member of the founding board of Istanbul Bilgi University.
Osman Kavala, publisher, sponsor, and human rights defender and a 64-year-old businessman, activist, and philanthropist who supported numerous civil society organizations in Turkey and who had been arbitrarily imprisoned for the past five years, was sentenced to life imprisonment for "espionage" and attempting to “overthrow the Turkish government by force.”
Despite numerous calls for Kavala’s release, including a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in December 2019 and a previous acquittal by a Turkish court, he has remained behind bars since then.
This is barefaced, unashamed political persecution, the absence of any moral compass whatsoever, using a state’s twisted, corrupt legal apparatus to outrageously frighten, intimate, and severely damage any and all innocent dissent.
These preposterous convictions are connected to the initial 2013 Gezi Park protests when urban/architect activists came together to campaign against the Turkish government’s plans to demolish the park to build a replica of the Ottoman-era Taksim Military Barracks that would include a shopping mall.
The forced eviction of protesters from the park and the excessive use of police force sparked an unprecedented wave of mass demonstrations.
Around three million people took to the streets across Turkey over a three-week period to protest a wide range of concerns.
The Gezi protesters originally came together to protest local environmental concerns.
However, as the protests grew and spread, they turned into a larger opposition movement, drawing mostly young people from various backgrounds.
Many people protested not only the government’s urban development plans but also its refusal to allow citizens any influence over the restructuring of public urban spaces.
Others protested the government’s intrusive practices, with its lack of respect for diverse lifestyles and more broadly democratic rights and individual freedoms.
Many protesters demanded a change in governance and a more inclusive political understanding at both the local and national levels, which eventually led to the coup attempt in July 2016.
Although Ms. Yapici and Messrs. Atalay and Kahraman were initially found not guilty in the Gezi Riots trial in 2015 and again acquitted in a second trail, all were retried in a third trial and found guilty of even more serious accusations as “treason and sedition against the State” including the other six activists, who allegedly assisted these efforts to topple the government.
On April 25, 2022, all three were outrageously sentenced to prison for “organizing a "coup d’état” and “attempting to overthrow the Government of the Republic of Turkey by using force and violence.”
These trumped-up verdicts are the result of a years-long campaign of blatant political persecution that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his authoritarian government have waged against his perceived enemies.
From the very beginning, officials have made it clear that their goal in this case has been political repression, not justice.
Imagine the cruel, heartless, and barbaric treatment of architects who have devoted their entire lives and their artistic and social passions to pure humanitarian causes and objectives.
This is beyond barbaric; it’s plain and simple evil. Absolute and inhuman; shallow and incomprehensible.
Mr. Erdogan and his corrupt prosecutors and courts are the absolute personification of Hannah Arendt’s “The Banality of Evil.”
This disgrace should globally offend everyone and anyone who believes in social justice and spark public and professional indignation, outrage, and condemnation against the international pariah Erdogan and his political thugs.
I’ve never heard of an architect being thrown into prison for protesting and speaking out in support of humanitarian concerns. Not even architects organizing a "coup d’état".
For God’s sake, Ms. Yapici is 74 years old. Her 18-year sentence for ‘treason’ means she will end her life in a prison cell.
Further, these harsh prison sentences are meant to brutally crackdown, intimidate, and weaponize the justice systems to smother, suppress any dissent in Turkey.
Britain's "The Guardian" claims the incarcerations are “likely seen as an attempt by Erdogan to deflect political blame and criticism stemming from the [7.6 and 7.7 Kahramanmaraş] earthquakes in Turkey and Syria last February and while he faced tough elections last May.”
AYŞE MÜCELLA YAPICI
Ms. Mücella Yapici is currently an architect, engineer (B. Arch, M.Sc.), and a member of the steering committee of the Union of Architects and Engineers in Turkey. She is the secretary of the Consulting Committee of Environmental Impact Assessment.
Since the first years of her occupation, for almost fifty years, she defended and acted in defense of public and urban rights without any individual benefit. She has always struggled for better living conditions in the city and equal rights.
Ms. Yapici, for instance, was among the leading figures of Taksim Solidarity and has been one of the most vocal critics of the construction boom that Mr. Erdogan’s party has relied on to fuel economic growth during the past decade and a main cause of the massive destruction of the 2023 earthquake.
Ms. Yapıcı has defended public rights as an egalitarian, libertarian, and democratic in urban areas.
She was on trial because of the Gezi riots in 2015; afterward, the court acquitted her.
After years, without any sufficient proof, she was acquitted in the second trial.
In the third trial, without adequate evidence, she was blamed for “invented” reasons and arrested on May 25, 2023.
In prison, she is no longer doing to the work she devoted to her life, and she is not acting for public rights because of the suspension of her from the citizens and the students who are serving the urban rights shoulder by shoulder.
She did this only for the necessity of her profession, and she acted solely for better living conditions in cities.
As an academic and urban planner, Tayfun Kahraman was born in 1981, İzmir, and he graduated from the Urban and Regional Planning Department of Mimar Sinan Güzel Sanatlar University (MSGSU) in 2004.
He completed his master's degree at the same university MSGSU in 2010 and his Ph.D. in Political Science and Public Administration at the Faculty of Political Science, Istanbul University, in 2017.
He worked as an expert in the Ministry of Culture and Tourism between 2009 and 2014. Since then, he has taught at MSGSU and was the director of Earthquake Risk Management and Urban Rehabilitation Great Municipality of Istanbul between 2019-2020.
Mr. Kahraman supervised the secretary of the “Solidarity for Taksim,” consisting of more than sixty (60) non-governmental organizations acting for urban and public rights for contradictory and "invented" urban construction plans on Gezi Park with the Chamber of Architects starting in February 2012.
As the president of the Chamber of Urban Planners in Istanbul, he organized many press conferences and campaigns against urban rights in Taksim, Gezi Park.
When the construction started with heavy equipment in Gezi Park, on May 27, 2013, the Solidarity for Taksim defended Gezi Park and stopped the brutal and illegal operations. The riots and demonstrations in the area transformed into searching for rights, justice, and democracy.
In the events of Gezi Park, Tayfun Kahraman supervised the solidarity and acted as spokesperson for two chambers, architects and urban planners.
ŞERAFETTİN CAN ATALAY
Can Atalay has grown up in an activist family supporting Turkish Workers' Action between 1961 and 1988.
The rightist groups murdered Can's uncle, Şerafettin Atalay, in 1981; his family gave him his uncle's first name, and he took on his uncle's struggle.
He took place in student actions about democratic, scientific, secular rights and the free educational system when he started his education in the Law Faculty of Marmara University.
He was a prominent organizer of student protests in the 1990s.
As a lawyer, he started to defend the intellectuals who were arrested and punished because of their thoughts. He established the Association of Social Rights in 2006 and was the president of this association between 2012 and 2016.
He has also defended the miners and their families in the trial of the mining explosion disaster in Soma, the victims of the children abuse in Aladag Dorms, and other victims of the railway accident in Corlu and the explosion of the fireworks factory in Hendek.
He has always defended the rights of the victim with their families on the streets and in the trials.
Presently he is the lawyer of the Chamber of Architects, Istanbul, as part of the Union of Chambers, Architects and Engineers, Turkey.
He defended public rights against increasing urban crimes during the AKP (Justice and Development Party) era.
Despite threats, despite all threats, he was always in front of the crowds in the struggle for human rights.
Mücella Yapıcı, Tayfun Kahraman, Can Atalay were arrested after their third trial and sentenced behind bars for 18 years for not only “overthrowing Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish Government by violent means and force,” but for rejecting unlawful public operations in the city.
The courts also accused them of opposing urban and public rights encroachment.
This is cold-blooded Stalinism at its worse.
A travesty of justice.
We condemn the political power that legitimizes this system of injustice, that legalizes this disgraceful silencing of any and all democratic freedom of speech—all for the sake of flagrant suppression and inhibiting of any and all public discourse or opposition.
Our hearts go out to Ms. Yapici and Messrs. Kahraman and Atalay, and all others bearing the weight of this injustice–as well as to their families, friends, and colleagues.
The American and European institutions that bestow this prestigious Prize dedicated to the highest standards of European civilization to these three heroic Turkish architects and champions of human rights stand with them resolutely, and we fervently support and echo all those around the world in calling for their immediate release from prison.
Mr. Kavala told the court in his final remarks, before his verdict and aggravated life sentence was announced. “It is an assassination by the use of the judiciary,” he said.
After the defense of the lawyers, the court asked the architects for their last words.
Ms. Mücella Yapıcı said to the judge, “I do not think it is my last word,” emphasizing that she has never been in favor of violence; “I have carried out my profession with honor for the benefit of society. So far, I have never fed a single forbidden bite to my child. I have not committed theft or corruption. I used my profession in line with my profession. I am honored with my life. I hope you have the same honor when you reach my age. The judgment is yours,” she said.
Now political prisoners, Mücella Yapıcı, Tayfun Kahraman, and Can Atalay are the 18th-20th Laureates of the European Prize for Architecture.