By Sarah Colborne, Director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign
On 31 May 2010, the first Freedom Flotilla was sailing in international waters towards Gaza, carrying passengers and humanitarian aid on six ships, when it was attacked by Israeli forces at night, 72 miles off the coast of Israel. On the Mavi Marmara, the largest ship of the flotilla with passengers from 32 countries, nine passengers were killed and 156 were injured, 52 of them seriously.
Three years on, those responsible for Israel’s illegal assault and murders on the Mavi Marmara are being pursued. In Istanbul, a case is ongoing against four senior ranking Israeli commanders, with evidence that they had ‘personally ordered the operation’, filed by 490 victims of the attack.
Sitting in the courtroom in Istanbul last week, hearing testimonies from passengers and crew, took me back to the attack on 31 May 2010. At night, whilst most of the passengers were either asleep or starting their first prayer of the day, inflatable boats crowded with Israeli commandos surrounded the ship and attempted to board. Helicopters whirred overhead, as Israeli commandos on ropes came down onto the ship. I could hear the bullets whizzing through the air, and I covered my face as teargas and smoke bombs were shot onto the ship. But it was when I saw Cevdet Kiliclar’s body brought to the back of the ship – shot through the forehead by Israeli commandos whilst filming the attack – that I realised the commandos were shooting to kill. The UN Human Rights Council Report found that 308 live bullets had been fired by Israeli commandos on the Mavi Marmara – 39 of those bullets were taken out of the 9 who were killed. In court, Cevdet’s widow sat stoically, with families of the others killed, to hear evidence of the brutality of the Israeli commandoes.
One passenger talked about being shot in the stomach. Another of being shot in the hip and intestines. Yet another of being shot through his head, and the bullet coming out of the other side of his face. Of the multiple operations that some of them had undergone as a result of their injuries. Of passengers being shot whilst lying on the ground, and then kicked repeatedly. Of seeing what they thought was rain coming through the hatch from the roof of the ship, but then realising it was blood. Of being handcuffed with cable ties despite being seriously wounded. Of our long and slow journey to Ashdod port, in suffocating heat inside the ship because the Israeli commandos had broken the handles to the door to the room where the airconditioning unit was housed. Of the humiliation endured under interrogation and whilst in prison. And witnesses talked about the beatings continuing right up to when they got on the aircraft in Tel Aviv. One talked about an Israeli soldier in Tel Aviv airport kicking his leg, and when it didn’t break, he was forced to the ground and another Israeli soldier joined in, kicking and stamping on his leg.
Passengers talked about the continuing psychological trauma that they have suffered. And crew members talked about how they had been unable to find jobs in international marine companies following Israel’s attack.
Waiting in the courtroom with Cigdem Topcuoglu, widow of Cetin Topcuoglu who was killed, I was taken back three years. As I held her hand whilst she waited to testify, I remembered her tight grip on my hand whilst we both sat in Tel Aviv airport. She was refusing to get on the plane without her husband’s body. I was repeatedly being told I would be taken to a little room for interrogation. Cigdem had been travelling on the Mavi Marmara together with Cetin, who died in her arms. Systematic attempts were made by Israeli commandos and prison officers to humiliate, brutalise and dehumanise her, yet she retained incredible courage and strength. We had both left Israeli prison for the airport, and watched others board whilst we sat on a hard bench in the departure lounge, waiting. Inside prison, we were prevented from making phone calls until the night before we were expelled – and even then, the women on my wing were told they could not talk in Turkish because the prison warden standing next to us wanted to know what we were saying. Most passengers had their credit cards stolen from them. So when we finally got onboard the plane to take us to Istanbul, and I had a phone in front of my seat, I handed my phone and credit card to Turkish passengers who needed to use it to break the news about who was alive, and who had died.
And those are the reasons why the passengers are pursuing legal remedy. Israel’s apology in March 2013 for ‘operational errors’, and the ongoing negotiations between the Turkish and Israeli governments about compensation, are not going to derail us. The legal cases aren’t motivated by money and compensation – but about seeking justice. As one of the lawyers working on the case being heard in Istanbul, Cihat Gökdemir, said: ‘The real goal of the Mavi Marmara victims’ is not to receive compensation but to ensure conviction of Israel in court. The compensation cases will also pave the way for other compensation cases for all the crimes Israel has committed in Palestine.’
Victims of the Mavi Marmara attack have also repeatedly made clear that another essential demand that must be fulfilled is the lifting of Israel’s siege on Gaza. That was why we were sailing to Gaza in the first place. And three years on, although the outcry at Israel’s massacre on the Mavi Marmara did crack Israel’s blockade, the siege is still ongoing.
Whilst I was in Istanbul, I read press speculation that the Turkish government was trying to accommodate Israel’s demand to drop the trial in Istanbul in return for the apology and compensation. But Gökdemir pointed out in the press conference after the last hearings: “Since this criminal case is a public trial, it cannot be concluded without the court’s reaching a verdict. The claim that this case will be dropped if a deal is signed between Israel and Turkey is completely unlawful.” http://www.ihh.org.tr/en/main/news/0/mavi-marmara-lawyers-held-news-conference-abo/1711. He added that even if a deal is made between Turkey and Israel about compensation issues, cases against Israel would continue.
The Istanbul Court is due to hear the next session of this case on 10 October. Following the first two hearings in November 2012 and February 2013, the court ordered the attendance of Israel suspects Gaby Ashkenazi, Eliezer Marom, Amos Yadlin and Avishai Levi at the hearing in May. These Israeli military commanders potentially face nine aggravated life sentences each on charges of instigating premeditated murder, and a jail sentence of up to a 18,032 years for willfull killing, attempted willful killing, intentionally causing serious injury to body or health, plundering, hijacking or seizing maritime vessels, intentionally causing damage to property, restriction of freedom of expression and instigation of violent crime. According to Osman Sağırlı in Türkiye daily, notices were sent to the four military commanders by the Turkish Justice Ministry’s International Law and Foreign Relations Unit following the court’s order, calling on them to attend and testify as suspects. Not surprisingly, given Israel’s consistent refusal to respect the right of victims to justice, the four defendants did not attend. In October, therefore, we are expecting that the court declare the four defendants in the case fugitives from justice and issue arrest warrants. The next step would then be for member countries of Interpol to extradite the suspects in line with the European Convention on Extradition.
The International Criminal Court
As well as the court case in Istanbul, legal challenges are underway in other countries including Spain and South Africa. And on 14 May, a case petition in the International Criminal Court (ICC) was filed by Comoros, under whose flag the Mavi Marmara was sailing when it was attacked. Countries can oblige the ICC to open preliminary investigations into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed – crimes which fall under the scope of jurisdiction of the ICC.
Those responsible for Israel’s crimes against Palestinians are used to evading justice. But the efforts put into trying to derail the court process in Istanbul indicates that Israel is seriously rattled at the thought of its commanders and politicians facing punishment. Intense pressure was put on British governments to change the law after Tzipi Livni faced arrest if she travelled to Britain over crimes committed by Israel in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead in December 08/January 09. But even after the law was changed, Livni would not travel to Britain without being granted ‘special mission status’ in order to avoid arrest.
Israel’s immediate reaction to the Istanbul court process was to publicly dismiss it as an irrelevant show trial. However, behind the scenes, the recognition of the real danger of the case was indicated by the initial attempt to ‘pay off’ the families of those killed on the Mavi Marmara by offering them a total of $6 million in return for dropping the case – money which the families rejected. Statements such as that by an unnamed ‘senior Israeli official’ in the Jerusalem Post that the ICC referral is an ‘abuse of process’ http://www.jpost.com/International/Marmara-victims-ICC-referral-an-abuse-of-process-313295 indicates their attempt to treat the ICC with disdain too.
The decision of the prosecutor of the ICC on the Mavi Marmara case will be critical. Victims of the attack on the Mavi Marmara had also made an application to the ICC on 14 October 2010, and their application is still pending. Comoros’ application, as a State, means that the ICC prosecutor is obliged to open an investigation into the matter. Given that the attack took place in international waters, if the ICC decides not to prosecute, this sets a precedent for any state to attack any other state in international waters with impunity. And, critically, if the ICC decides not to prosecute, it will have failed in its function – as a body which is capable of upholding international law and human rights.
The families of those who were murdered, supported by those of us who were also on the Mavi Marmara, have made very clear that we will not stop until those responsible are brought to justice and pay for their crimes, and until the siege on Gaza is lifted. We came together on the Mavi Marmara for the cause of Palestine, and solidarity will continue to grow until Palestine is free.