A widespread crackdown on dissent is fuelling tension across Turkey, which has seen a rise in hate crimes against minorities – including a recently reported attack against a well-known transgender activist in Istanbul.
Turkey’s Daily Sabah reported that the badly burnt and mutilated body of Hande Kader, a 22-year-old LGBT activist and sex worker, was found on August 8 by the roadside in a residential area of Istanbul.
Although DNA evidence has yet to confirm the remains belong to Kader, the director of a gay rights group said her boyfriend and some friends had positively identified the body.
Emirhan Deniz Çelebi, the director of SPoD, a national LGBT organization based in Istanbul, joined other LGBT associations in condemning what they believe is deliberate silence by the country’s mainstream media in the wake of the activist’s death.
"We are not equal,” he said.
After Kader was arrested during an equal rights rally and faced down police water cannons during last year's Gay Pride parade, she became a symbolic figure in the LGBT community.
“We are being murdered and they do not hear our voices, because the rules in Turkey don't protect us”, said Deniz Çelebi.
Outraged supporters launched a social media campaign to raise awareness of Kader’s death and the plight of the LGBT community in Turkey. On Twitter they shared the hashtag #HandeKaderSesVer (MakeSomeNoiseForHandeKader), while on Change.org a petition was circulated to advocate for better protections for those in the community.
Last Thursday local activists took their cause to the capital, holding a press conference outside the parliament to highlight the daily risks confronting LGBT members.
Kader’s murder comes less than two weeks after the beheading of a gay Syrian refugee whose body was found not far from where Kader was discovered.
Muhammed Wisam Sankari, who had fled war-torn Syria, was found decapitated after being raped and assaulted. He could only be identified by the clothes he was wearing.
After last month’s failed coup in which the government instituted a state of emergency, the rights of minorities including gays, women and LGBT members have been whittled away.
While the Turkish capital has been a safe haven for many fleeing persecution and war in neighbouring Syria and Iraq, hate crimes against LGBT people have increased.
“Since the coup-attempt, a number of my transgender friends have called me and talked about how they were discriminated against because of their ID Cards and appearance,” Deniz Çelebi said.
Turkish lawyer and LGBT rights advocate Levent Pişkin said Erdogan’s rampant purges have exacerbated the fears of minorities.
“Actually, LGBT people in Turkey have never had legal rights,” said Pişkin.
“But we knew there were judicial mechanisms to support us. Nowadays, most people feel more vulnerable.”
Shift away from secularism
Although homosexuality is not a crime in Turkey as it is in many other Muslim countries, homophobia remains widespread. Almost 80 percent of Turks believe homosexuality is “morally unacceptable” according to a 2013 study by the US think tank PEW Research Center.
Pişkin said Kader’s death is symptomatic of a country shifting away from secularism.
“An Islamic tendency has gradually been getting stronger,” said Pişkin.
“The government has preferred war over strengthening our democracy. Therefore, our democratic rights and one’s right to life hang by a thread.”
LGBT activists will stage a demonstration on Sunday in Istanbul’s İstiklal Avenue to raise further awareness about Kader's death.