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Turkish pop star's case highlights violence against women

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Ankara (Turkey) (AFP)

When Turkish pop star Sila reported her partner's physical violence to police, it was a rare moment in Turkish history: a celebrity speaking out against her abuse.

Ahmet Kural, a famous actor, is accused of beating the singer, whose full name is Sila Gencoglu, in October.

Kural's trial begins on Thursday in Istanbul, one day before International Women's Day, celebrated with a march in the metropolis, and rallies in other cities.

For Sila's lawyer, Rezan Epozdemir, her case is a powerful moment for Turkish women since victims do not usually come forward.

Rights groups say Turkish laws to help protect victims have improved. But traditional patriarchal attitudes dominant in conservative society as well as a lack of awareness often prevent women from speaking out against abuse.

"It is extremely significant that a woman who experienced violence freely sought her rights and took legal action, and for her case to be at the centre of debate," Epozdemir told AFP.

Kural faces up to five years in jail for charges including actual bodily harm, which the television and film actor denies.

Activists say the number of Turkish women murdered by their partners is rising and more suffer physical or sexual abuse by partners or male relatives.

In 2018, 440 women were killed in murders linked to their gender, according to the women's rights group We Will Stop Femicide, compared with 210 in 2012.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu last November said 133,809 women had been victims of violence in 2017 while in the first 10 months of 2018, the number was 96,417.

A 2014 government study found 38 percent of Turkish women had been subjected to either physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives.

Canan Gullu, head of the Federation of Women Associations of Turkey (TKDF), said after Sila's action, there were "many more calls" to their emergency hotline from female victims of abuse empowered by the singer's actions.

Gullu said more women had become aware of their rights and the law that protects them from violence.

- More shelters needed -

Turkey was the first country to ratify the 2011 Istanbul Convention, the world's most progressive binding accord to prevent and combat violence against women.

Feride Acar, a Turkish academic at Middle East Technical University (METU), who contributed to the text, said improvements had been made in Turkey, but more needed to be done to build on the convention's promise.

The convention calls for more shelters, known as violence protection monitoring centres in Turkey, which Acar praised. But she said more access to the shelters was needed.

Ankara-based lawyer Gunce Cetin, who advises victims of violence, noted police officers were also not applying the law in practice.

"Sometimes police don't remind women they have a right to a lawyer. This is very valuable," she said.

Cetin and Acar said more training was needed for police and judiciary personnel to handle such cases.

- 'Nobody wants violence' -

Although there appears to be an increase in violence against women, Acar said "data is not really reliable and it's not there to cover all types and incidents of violence".

But Acar said more incidents are reported in Turkey than before.

"Nobody wants violence against women, whether you are a conservative or whether you are a liberal," she said.

One issue is that conservative elements in Turkish society "do not see violence as a reflection of gender inequality", she said, which leads to problems in preventing violence.

The government insists violence against women is taken seriously and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has lambasted it as a "betrayal of humanity".

But critics worry women's rights in general may be eroded under Erdogan, who draws strong support from Turkey's religiously conservative sectors.

- Lower sentences -

One of the concerns for Cetin and rights activists is the application of leniency and lower sentences for good behaviour in cases of violence against women.

Activists also criticise attempts to discredit victims during trials by defendants' lawyers or the suspects in order to minimise the seriousness of crimes against women.

One high-profile case illustrating those problems is that of Sule Cet, a university student, found dead last May. Two men went on trial last month, accused of her sexual assault and murder after claiming she had fallen from the 20th floor of a tower block in Ankara.

The case caused a furore, especially after the first hearing in which one of the defendant's lawyers speculated that Cet was not a virgin.

Sila's lawyer also criticised parts of the media for dishonest reporting of her case.

But Epozdemir remained optimistic: "I hope that the outcome of the case will reveal the truth and a decision will be given in the interest of justice."

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