The Curious Case of Şule Çet
In May 2018 two guards at the reception desk of an office tower in Ankara were whiling away the dark hours of the morning when they heard a bang. It startled them. They asked each other what had happened.
What they had heard was the sound of a young woman hitting the bare concrete of a first-floor terrace after falling 66 metres from a 20th story window.
The guards had seen the young woman hours earlier when she entered the building with two men who had invited her for an after-dinner drink. They would see the two men again as they left the building. And one guard would testify that when he asked the men where the woman was, they replied she had left, adding “didn’t you see her go?”
The death of Şule Çet, a 23-year-old textile design student, is widely seen as a case of men taking advantage of a woman, killing her and passing it off as a suicide. It has provoked a groundswell of opinion against the abuse of women in Turkey.
But when the two men went on trial in Ankara on Feb. 6, it became clear the case is complicated. There are many unknowns. The three judges, who include a woman, face a Herculean task in trying to reconcile the forensic reports, the crime-scene evidence and the testimonies of the accused and witnesses.
The two men, Çagatay Aksu, 34, and Berk Akand, 35, pleaded not guilty to detaining Çet against her will, raping and murdering her.
Hundreds of people attended the first, and so far only, hearing. Protestors held posters of Çet’s pretty face emblazoned with the words “We will not stay silent” outside the court. Politicians of all parties asked the judge to recognise them as “parties to the case”.
Defense lawyer Levent Ekmen presented the court with photographs taken on a cell phone that show Çet drinking beer and smiling to the camera with Aksu alongside. She appears to be happy.
But this is not the only evidence to emerge from the office “party”. Çet sent an early-morning SMS to a friend, saying: “I can’t get out of here. This man doesn’t let me go. He is obsessed with me.”
Phone records also show that defendant Akand sent an SMS to his fiancé at 2:39 am _ more than an hour before Çet exited the window. It said: “Bad things happened here.”
Advocate Ekmen believes Akand sent the SMS from a police station later that morning, and the time on his cell phone was set incorrectly. The Çet family lawyer, Umur Yıldırım, contests that.
Defendant Aksu testified that while he was preparing to leave the office, and Akand was dozing in a chair, he saw Çet go into another room. Moments later he entered the room to find Çet climbing out the window, head first. She shouted “I don’t want to live anymore.” He tried to pull her back, grabbing her ankle until he tore the tendons on his arm.
Akand testified he did not hear Aksu shouting for help to restrain Çet as he was sleepy and loud music was playing.
Initially police believed Çet had committed suicide. Advocate Yıldırım told Sigma the family engaged him because they did not believe Şule was suicidal. Then the first forensic report arrived.
It found Çet’s vagina and anus had been damaged; her vagina contained saliva and PSA _ a protein released by the penis; and two of her fingernails bore the DNA of Akand.
Unfortunately the specimens of saliva and PSA were not sufficient for DNA testing so they could not be linked to the accused.
In court, Advocate Ekmen pointed out that no sperm was found in Cet. He argued that as PSA and saliva can survive for 7 days, those traces could have come from an earlier sexual intercourse. Çet’s “hymen was broken” before the day of her death, he told the judges.
The remark provoked outrage. Ekmen seemed to be trying to destroy Çet’s reputation. Three days later he issued a press statement which, to his credit, showed he accepted what his critics were saying. It said: “Şule Çet’s virginity, her drinking alcohol _ with whom, where and at what time _ is neither the subject of the trial nor the business of anybody else.”
Detectives found no fingerprints on the window, which is strange because somebody must have opened the window and pushed it out _ the hinges are at the top. The indictment accuses the defendants of cleaning the window afterwards, but they deny this.
One of the biggest mysteries is that the cause of death is not known. Four forensic reports were compiled, but not one can say with certainty what killed Cet and whether she was dead before she exited the window.
Equally puzzling is that a small bone in Çet’s neck, the hyoid, was broken. None of the reports say it broke when she hit the concrete. The Mersin University report, commissioned by Çet’s family, says that from 68 to 92 percent of the time the hyoid is broken by strangulation.
Whatever the difficulties, the court has to be seen to reach justice. A lot of people are watching.
“This case symbolizes the terrible face of femicide in Turkey,” Özden Öz of We Will Stop Femicide Platform told Sigma in an interview. The group says men killed 440 women in Turkey last year. Another 43 women were killed in January this year, and seven of their bodies were found in rivers, lakes or forests.
Leyla Topal of Woman’s Solidarity attended the trial. She told Sigma she was pleased by the tens of thousands of people who posted comments on #SuleCetIcinAdalet (justice for Şule Çet). But she was disappointed by the judges’ granting the defence’s request to refer to Çet’s death as the “falling incident”. Legally the decision was correct because to use the term “murder” is to prejudge the trial.
Topal fears the defendants will be convicted but receive light sentences. This is a common criticism of Turkish judges: they regard such killings as crimes of passion and hand down sentences that have no deterrence at all.
But a criminal lawyer and rights campaigner is optimistic that justice will be done. Günal Kurşun told Sigma that the presence of a legislator for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the court was “a clear sign of government pressure on the judges”.
“All political parties were present in the courtroom, which shows that the whole of public opinion is supporting this case; that Şule Çet was a victim; and that the accused must be punished,” said Kurşun of the Human Rights Agenda Association.
What worries Kurşun is the “dozens of cases similar to Şule Çet’s” which come to court with little, if any, publicity and which end with decisions that are painful to the victim’s loved ones.