Overcrowded courts

Bat Phone
Image by Thomas Hawk via Flickr

The economic crisis is really affecting the courts, and there’s a great shortage of judges, lawyers, even courtrooms. Elif’s stepfather Cos is working longer hours than an investment banker, because his caseload is so thick. I see him still working at 1AM, poring over cases with the television on in the background – he does around 80 a day. He enjoys it, but a lot of it is new to him; he’s always done labor law and now he’s doing a little of everything. Elif’s mother (an attorney) helps him when she finishes her own cases. Although they’re wired up with new technology – including a new computer, scanner, laser printer, and a cell phone whose ringer plays the Fenerbahce football team song – when they work on their cases, they still use manual typewriters and carbon paper.

We were visiting relatives yesterday when Cos’s Bat-phone went off, which means he has to go into work RIGHT NOW. So we all go in the car and go a great distance to the area near his court, which is in a terrible district of Istanbul, Avcilar, still not much repaired since the 1999 earthquake, apartment house after apartment house abandoned and bombed out.

We went up the stairs in the dark and got a cop to turn the lights on for us, and we waited for the prosecutor to arrive. The office has a leather backdrop behind the desk, with an Ataturk picture above it, everyone commenting on how nice this particular pose of Ataturk was. Cos turns on the boombox marked “INCREDIBLE SOUND” and drops in what appears to be his favorite tape – he has it memorized and sings along – “Hooked on Classics.” The prosecutor arrives, smoking a cigar, laughing about the cases to come. Cos tries on his black and green robe that looks masonic, and then we go downstairs. I go with Cos and turn on my microcassette recorder in case something interesting happens. Down a corridor past criminals and suspects awaiting their fate. I peeked in Cos’s courtroom, which looked like something out of the film “Brazil” – file cabinets piled seven rows high full of pink dossiers containing the details of every conceivable crime, lining 3 walls. In front of the judge’s desk, a manual typewriter and sheets of carbon paper. But Cos was to hear cases in a different office, not his courtroom, for his emergency duty calls for him to do the weekend pretrial cases – to decide whether there’s enough evidence to arrest the suspect, and to see whether the confessions made and signed were coerced. He dons a red robe for this task.

The first case was a group of gypsies who stole a wallet out of a woman’s backpack at a grocery store – he arrests one and frees the others.

Then came a group of car thieves, whom Cos had to question one at a time, and bring them in and out for each separate charge. Again, one got arrested, the others freed.

The first case we saw from the beginning was of a guy caught stealing a car, a TV, a computer, and cigarettes. The defendant is charged with more crimes; Cos reads from the police report. The defendant is asked if he agrees, to make sure his statement to the police wasn’t coerced. The defendant says that he was beaten. Each time the defendant says a word, Cos rephrases it as a long sentence, and a female stenographer types it as if it comes from the defendant. Apparently this is normal. Cos let him go; they don’t have enough evidence that he knew what was stolen. Cos calls in the next defendant for the same case, asking him about the charges one by one.

Defendant 2: “Three people went, Sinan broke the door of the house, I waited in the car, Serhan was on the driving seat. We were drunk. It was 3 AM. Sinan left the items in front of the door, and I carried them to the car. It was a stolen car, and once we lost the tire, and we abandoned it. Serhan and Sinan stole it. I quit stealing. I was drunk. I’ve got psychological problems. Serhan said, “Let’s go stealing, and I’ll give you money to pay to lessen your army service requirements.” They found another car. I saw them steal the car. I was scared. We also stole stuff from the second car. We left the stuff in Hasan’s house. They didn’t give me any money. I only helped, I didn’t physically do it. Ferit wasn’t there, like I said to the police. I’ve been clean for a year. The police coerced me into signing the confession. I didn’t do anything. They gave 80 million for me to sell it. I didn’t know it was stolen. Yes, the signature on the statement is mine, but I was coerced into signing.”

Cos: How could you open the locked car?

The defendant describes how to bend a car door. They took a joy ride and stole clothing, toys, and shoes from the car.

Defendant 2: I was waiting for them in a taxi while they stole the fourth car. When they told me they were going to snatch purses, I said I won’t come. (A couple of people have gotten killed in Turkey when their purses were snatched by people driving by them slowly in a car, and they were dragged to death.) But we together, went to steal the car. Let me go, I am going to the army. I beg you. I don’t know where the place is. I didn’t steal anything.

Cos has him arrested, as it turns out he’s also a fugitive; the defendant says it’s a case of mistaken identity.


Whatever Cos’s personal shortcomings, he’s a good judge on women’s issues. The next case is over child custody; a woman appears, along with a tall, thin man with a thin mustache, giving her filthy looks.

Cos: How old is the child?
Man: Four.
Cos: I don’t give custody to the man unless there’s a moral issue – if she’s doing something immoral. Now be careful what you say about moral things, because it’s your child’s mother and whatever you say here will be written forever, and the child may grow up and kill the mother – your words cause terrible things to happen and ruin lives, because it’s an honor society. You really want to give her money, enough to take care of herself and child, because she’s the mother of your child and you don’t want her to go to bad ways because she doesn’t have money, because her reputation, the mother of your child, is in your hands.
Man: She doesn’t have money or a job to take care of the child.
Cos: You can’t take the child because of that.

Cos gave them a time for the custody hearing, to which they would need to bring witnesses. When they both were leaving, the woman secretly passed Cos a note, without speaking. It read (with tons of spelling mistakes):

“Mr. Judge, I would love to say this to you face-to-face. But I can’t, or he will beat me to death. He is threatening me. In Bostanci I have a sister. I will stay with her, but he told me never to come to the European side. After getting a divorce, he won’t be able to tell me what to do. He told me last night that if I get a job in Istanbul, he will make great trouble for me. ‘I will kill you,’ he says. And he will give 50 million as a monthly alimony. Let him not give it, it’s better. If something happens to me, know that it’s from him. He has been using me (sexually) for a month and a half, saying we’ll get separated. From my home, he is not giving me anything (furniture/belongings). I am coming to your grand court for safety – I have nobody in the world. Sir Judge, my mother died, and my father got remarried. They don’t want me. My sister is a nurse. My father is telling my sister, don’t take her in because she’s going to destroy your comfort. What should I do?”


The next case is a couple around 50-60 years old getting divorced. Unlike America, judges and witnesses are expected to stick their noses into the case.

Cos: What’s wrong with you guys, you’ve been married for 30 years.
Man: Well, she’s causing me “pesevenk” (pimp). I’m a retired teacher. No one can call me that.
Cos: Don’t use language like that in my court – what kind of teacher are you?

A witness is called, who says that the couple never get along.

Cos, to witness: Have you ever tried to talk them out of a divorce and make the peace?

Cos has been seeing a lot of “fake divorce” cases lately. In Turkey, the marital unit is based more on economic practicalities; people get together because they’re of age, to have a legal child, and it’s often a bit of a business understanding: how can I find a parent for my child who won’t embarrass my family? The primary unit is vertical, and honor holds the greatest currency. Elif feels that feelings of love or of being “soulmates” aren’t necessary in Turkish society, and consequently, there’s less divorce because they’re more realistic about what to expect. Lately, however, in this economic crisis, there are more “fake” marriages (of an Anna Nicole Smith variety) and more “fake” divorces – people (Dilek has close friends who did this) who get divorced but stay together, to protect themselves from debtors.

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