“For a long time I had been observing him,” says Saadet Özkan, 39, an elementary school teacher in Sancaklı, a village in western Turkey. “He would take one or two girls inside his office and lock the door. I became curious.”
Özkan had been working under principal Adil Şahintürk for four years before detecting what she suspected was nefarious behavior on his part. “I waited for the right time. He once left the door unlocked. I rushed in. He was standing upright, and my two seven-year-old pupils were under the table, between his legs.”
She says she screamed at Şahintürk, “What are you doing there?”
“We are playing a game,” he responded sheepishly. “They were naughty and I am punishing them. Look, we are tickling each other.”
Özkan asserts that the incident, which took place in May 2014, confirmed her suspicions that the 63-year-old principal had been sexually abusing students. After the initial shock, she embarked on a quest to extract the truth from the pupils and bring Şahintürk to justice. But this would hardly be an open-and-shut case.
A couple of days later, she called the two girls she had seen in Şahintürk’s office out into the school’s courtyard, asking them again what game they were playing. “We were tickling the principal’s legs,” one said. “We were tickling the principal’s legs,” the other echoed.
A mother of a 13-year-old son herself, Özkan was worried no one would believe mere speculations about a principal who had been employed at the school for 22 years with a rock-solid reputation, an equally longstanding marriage, and grandchildren.
One morning, Özkan gathered all of her students inside her classroom to explain the difference between innocent intimacy and sexual harassment. She says she explained how maternal love, for example, is a good kind of love because it is unconditional and stems from a person you are familiar with. This is the exact opposite of, say, the interest a stranger shows to you when they give you chocolates or other goodies in exchange of affection – particularly when they say “Mum’s the word” following the treat.
“I thought I would erode their defenses,” says Özkan.
She hadn’t yet completed the demonstration when the principal entered the classroom.
“What are you doing here?” she says Şahintürk asked, to which she answered, “We are reading a poem.”
The principal scanned the class and departed. After the lesson finished, Özkan says a student approached her and said, “There is a person who loves me and other children in bad ways.”
Özkan pressed the child for more information; however, the girl refused to disclose any further details.
“But moments later,” Özkan continues, “I was approached by another seven-year-old who asked the creepiest question – ‘Am I pregnant? Will my belly get swollen?’ – sobbing uncontrollably while pointing at her belly.”
Özkan says she tried to soothe the girl, promising her that nothing bad would happen and that her belly would not get swollen. The girl said she was afraid to tell her teacher about the principal, and, pointing to a garden outside the school building, said Özkan would be buried there if she dared say anything herself.
Özkan says she soon found out that Şahintürk had not only been abusing the girls, but exposing them to pornographic material for at least two years. She was shocked about the scope of the abuse, and later determined that the logistics of the school had helped conceal the principal’s malicious acts. All the teachers were hired on a contract basis, for stints lasting no more than six months. He was the only true long-time faculty member.
But Özkan now had the girls’ testimonies, and headed to the authorities with all the gruesome details. A couple days later, on May 17, 2014, Şahintürk was detained and charges were filed.
Then things got even more alarming. After Şahintürk’s arrest, Özkan says she started receiving a slew of anonymous phone calls ordering her to give up the case. One morning, in October 2014, she was in a serious traffic accident. “I could feel it. Something was wrong with the steering wheel from the start,” she remembers. She’s convinced it was sabotage, although no evidence was discovered. “No matter how hard I maneuvered it, the steering wheel was turning in the opposite direction. I totally lost control of it, and BOOM! I spent six months in hospital, and another six months bedridden, recovering from a broken back.”
The pre-trial of Principal Şahintürk, similar to a grand jury in the U.S., took place on October 15, 2015. The court ruled there was enough evidence against Şahintürk and set a court date for the following June, eight months later. At that point, citing the nearly year and a half Şahintürk had already spent in jail, the judge ordered him released pending trial.
“Rapists and abusers are continuously released by a medieval legal state of affairs,” Özkan says with a cracking voice, lamenting the Turkish justice system. “I could not believe it.”
Many international activists have questioned Turkey’s commitment to safeguarding children from abuse. In late 2016, the Constitutional Court of Turkey ruled to annul a provision that punishes people who engage in sexual acts with children under the age of 15. Critics said the action essentially legalized pedophila. The court’s position was perhaps not a surprise given that Turkey retains one of the highest rates of child marriage in Europe, with 15 percent of girls getting married before the age of eighteen (though, technically, such marriages are outlawed).
“I still remember that scene,” Özkan says of the day she saw her former boss go free. A mother of one of the school’s students asked her: “Why are they doing this to us? Why are they not ending this whole nightmare? Because we are poor? How can we trust anyone again?”
Friends and family told Özkan to stay away from the case and let justice take its course or – even worse, in her view – wait until the principal simply retired. These voices fueled her anger more.
The pending criminal trial had received no attention in the Turkish press, so a few days before it commenced, Özkan contacted a journalist who writes for Hürriyet, one of the most popular daily newspapers in Turkey. On Father’s Day the newspaper ran an article about the principal who allegedly abused his position so he could sexually abuse children. The piece sent shockwaves through Turkey, and coupled with lobbying efforts by the Izmir Bar Association and the Federation of Women’s Associations of Turkey, the case continued to be followed around the country.
On June 2, 2016, lawyers from every corner of Turkey, representatives of children’s organizations, artists, philanthropists, activists and others occupied the court’s booths. The climate seemed ripe for justice, Özkan recalls. After all of the evidence was presented and argued, Şahintürk was given a sentence of 102 years in prison without the chance of parole.
Şahintürk’s victims and their parents rejoiced. “They were heard for the first time,” Özkan says.
Due in part to the publicity the first trial received, as well as its outcome, more of Şahintürk’s victims came forward, and on May 28, 2017, during a new pre-trial, the judge levied charges against him of serial sexual exploitation of six children, between the age of six and 11, for a period that lasted up to four years, as well as possession of “obscene publications.” A second criminal trial was set for July 13.
On July 12, I contacted Şahintürk’s lawyer, Atilla Ertekin, who told me through an interpreter that his client still denies the accusations, and that this is a trial of “perception management,” meaning that Özkan and Şahintürk’s other accusers are trying to influence public sentiment by singling out certain facts while ignoring others.
“Even on the day of his arrest, Mr. Şahintürk was surrounded by children, children were happy around him, and witnesses saw that,” Ertekin said. “Regarding the girls’ psychological state, an expert said that what has negatively impacted their psyche is predominantly the sensational reproduction of the case on the media.”
“If such sexual abuse had been going on for over 20 years,” Ertekin later offered, “why didn’t anyone say anything?”
Ertekin, who pointed out that he is the father of a daughter himself, also questioned Özkan’s credibility, alleging that many parents filed complaints against her for consistently skipping classes. Özkan denies this, and says that lawyers examined documents from the school and the Ministry of National Education of the Republic of Turkey and found that she was consistent with classes, adding: “It’s insulting to me and my children that a criminal, a child abuser uses this kind of thing against me.”
Ertekin also said that his client was “handicapped” from the early stages of the proceedings because the judge who presided over the initial stages of the case was a woman.
On July 13, Şahintürk was sentenced to an additional 82 years and six months in jail.
Özkan, for her part, has been inspired to fight for other children. Last month she helped found an organization that provides outreach to child victims of abuse, both in Turkey and beyond, and in March she traveled to Washington, D.C. to receive the International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. State Department, presented by First Lady Melania Trump.
Still, she remains concerned that her country has a long way to go before victims of sexual abuse feel safe enough to step forward and report an offense to police without fear of stigma. “I’ll stand by them always,” Özkan says, “and hope my example, and everything I went through for justice to shine, will wake up the public.”