The leader of one of Turkey's longest running environmental campaigns was jailed for a year and a half this week under the country's tough anti-protest laws written by the Turkish military.
Oktay Konyar is the leader of the villagers of Ovacik, near Bergama, the modern town around the ancient city of Pergamon on Turkey's Aegean coast.
The villagers have been engaged in a campaign against the international gold mining company Eurogold. The company owns a site near Ovacik at which they intend to carry out gold mining, using cyanide to leach gold from the raw ore.
Going under the nickname "Asterix," for the ancient hero of Gaul immortalized in cartoons, Konyar had long been active in the local movement to stop the mining, which environmentalists and villagers alike fear may cause fatal damage.
The villagers fear that a cyanide spill, similar to the ones last year in Romania, could harm their environment, especially their water supply.
A year ago, the villagers were celebrating victory in the case when the Turkish Supreme Court upheld a ruling from the local courts banning Eurogold from operating at the mine.
"The courts ruled that operation could not take place," lawyer Noya Ozkan told ENS, "saying that such mining contravened the right to a clean environment and the right to life - both guaranteed under the Turkish constitution."
Yet earlier this year, the Turkish Prime Ministry gave the go ahead to Eurogold to begin operations and sent circulars to the relevant ministries and governorships authorizing them to begin work despite the Supreme Court ruling.
"I can say without any doubt that the Prime Ministry's instruction is against the law," says Ozkan.
Meanwhile, speaking to reporters after the verdict, Konyar reflected on the bizarre twists of the case.
"It is interesting that I am being punished," he said, "because all I wanted was the implementation of the court decision on Eurogold."
The Bergama villagers had recently stepped up their campaign of protest against Eurogold. The mining has still not begun although construction work on mining facilities continued even after the Supreme Court verdict. According to Ozkan, "They can start mining whenever they want."
In the latest demonstration by the villagers, a group of them traveled to Ankara last Thursday to hold a protest outside the Council of State building.
Konyar was with them, and told reporters, "Those responsible for the illicit operation of this mine should be punished in the appropriate manner."
The protesters then visited the Turkish Union of Engineers and Architects Chambers, where leader of the architects and engineers, Kaya Guvenc, said that the mine constitutes "a serious threat to human life."
Guvenc pointed out that the European Parliament issued a resolution condemning the mine over a year ago. The European lawmakers slammed a report from the Turkish government's scientific research council, TUBITAK, which had claimed there was no danger from the cyanide leaching process.
Turkey is not a member of the European Union, but it is one of 15 candidate countries attempting to accede to the bloc. Candidate countries must meet European Union environmental laws before they will be permitted to join the 15 countries that are now EU members.
The cyanide leaching technique, which is often used in gold extraction, has come under increasing attack from environmentalists for the threat it poses to local water supplies, as large pools of cyanide impregnated water have to be collected at the end of the process and stored.
Bergama lies within an earthquake zone, and the villagers fear that storage tanks might crack during earth tremors, releasing poisonous liquids into the local water table.
Konyar was sentenced to a year and a half in prison, which goes up to a year and nine months due to a previous three month suspended sentence. He said he would appeal the case, which was brought under the Demonstration Law, a provision of the constitution brought in by the military following the 1980 coup.
"We are not against gold mining per se," Konyar told reporters yesterday. "We are only calling for brighter days."
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