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‘Sometimes I laugh at this farce’: six writers on life behind bars in Turkey


Six persecuted writers describe the mental and physical toll of living in the country that jails more journalists than any other

Photograph: YouTube

Ahmet k

Age 46

Profession Author, investigative journalist and trade unionist

Charge Terrorist propaganda

Time behind bars Four months and counting, and one year and one month in 2011-12

Possible maximum sentence Seven and a half years

Turkey disclaimer

It is hard to be in prison. Its even harder when its because your typical acts of journalism have been criminalised. We are surrounded by emptiness: stuck between a past that we dont belong to and a future that we cant predict.

The only link that connects me and my fellow inmates to the outside world is the little bit of sky that winks at us beyond an eight-metre wall. A little piece of sky, barely as big as my palm, which is also obstructed by razor wire.

Books and letters would bring a sense of freedom to a place like this, where everything is so rigid and unjust. But they are forbidden. The newspapers and television do not give us much comfort.

For a long time there has been a world of difference between what appears on the screens and pages and the actual reality of what is happening in Turkey.

Right now, I feel what anyone would feel if their freedom was taken away if they refused to be a journalist that obey their president.

Being in my situation is like being awoken from your sleep in a place that you are completely foreign to. You feel deaf although you can hear everything, you feel blind although you can see everything, and you feel muted although you can explain everything. This is where Im at right now.

Testimony collected by Ahmets wife, Yonca Verdiolu k

Photograph: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Necmiye Alpay

Age 70

Profession writer and advisory board member at Ozgr Gndem

Charge terrorist propaganda

Time spent behind bars released after four months pretrial detention, trial still pending

Maximum possible sentence life imprisonment

Towards the end of August 2016, I was out of Istanbul when I found out that I was wanted by the police, together with the other members of the advisoryboard.

I was advised to give testimony. So, with my lawyer, we went to the prosecutors office where I was told that Ozgr Gndem is an organ of the [outlawed Kurdistan Workers party] PKK, and every name on its masthead is suspected of being a kind of terrorist propagandist.

I explained that I supported freedom of the press and freedom of expression, and I believed in a democratic and peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem, but that I didnt condone violence or terrorists.

I was arrested that day. The moment you say youre in solidarity, youre finished.

When you are put in prison you must spend one, two or three days in solitary so they can observe you. Perhaps theres a logic in this. My bed was clean and I was given water and soap. I slept a lot.

I was moved to the PKK ward. We were 21 or 22 women in the ward and I was happy to know them. It was the first time I was living with Kurdish people. It was quite easy to live with them because they had their communal rules almost like a student dorm.

I had been imprisoned during the 1980s after the military coup when the prosecutors used to request capital punishment. Now the requested punishment for me is life imprisonment.

We were accused of the same crime as Abdullah calan, the founder of the PKK. It is a kind of torture, to frighten you, a way of using the law to punish you for your opinions, for something you didnt commit.

The only evidence for our crime was our names published on the masthead. I was mad, but from time to time I was laughing, because it is a kind of farce.

When I was imprisoned my work was stopped. I could no longer continue the book I was preparing. But I tried to profit from the situation and began to learn Kurdish. I didnt cry in prison. Perhaps I should have, but no.

Perhaps the worst thing was the not knowing will we be free soon, or will we stay here? Its the same with Turkey today. We cannot be sure what awaits our country.

Photograph: Handout

Ahmet Altan

Age 67

Profession journalist, author, columnist

Charge attempting to bring down the government

Time spent behind bars five months and counting

Possible sentence three consecutive life sentences

My experiences in prison are writing themselves into a memoir which will become a book some day. I had a novel in mind before they put me here. I think of that all the time.

Three of us stay together in one cell. We only have a very small patio to walk around on. We dont see anyone else during the day.

I do not feel a physical danger from other inmates or the authorities. Anyone who would dare to threaten me physically should give up on themselves.

As I am held under the state of emergency laws, sending and receiving letters [or any written communication] is absolutely forbidden. We meet our lawyers once a week but all of our communication is verbal.

It is true that the charges against us are ludicrous. They make no sense but the problem is today that this nonsense has become the lifestyle in Turkey. It is as if I live on a desert island. I feel like Robinson Crusoe but I dont know if my ship will ever arrive.

Testimonies collected verbally by Ahmets lawyers and translated by Yasemin ongar at p24, a platform for independent journalism.

Photograph: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Asl Erdoan

Age 50

Profession writer, novelist, columnist for Ozgr Gndem

Charge terrorist propaganda

Time spent behind bars released after four months pretrial detention, awaiting trial

Possible maximum sentence life imprisonment

I have been broken and twisted in more ways than I can imagine. I feel very damaged. The day I was arrested the police came and searched my apartment for seven and a half hours while I waited sifting through thousands of books and reading materials.

I was in a solitary cell for five days, only allowed one hour in the courtyard. You could go crazy after a while. I spent 48 hours without water when I first arrived. I was in shock which worked a bit like an anaesthetic.

The authorities try to make you not feel like a human being. Firstly its being behind bars, and when they come to talk to you they just open the lower hatch on the door. Thats how they give you bread too.

I was put in a prison ward with women accused of being PKK militants, because I was accused of supporting terrorism. I was arrested under article 302, but you would need to have an army, or be the founder of the PKK, to be guilty of what I am accused of.

I was very angry because it was so openly lawless. A newspaper cannot be a terrorist organisation and I hadnt written a column since 2013.

Plants were banned in prison, but some of the girls were trying to grow them in the bathroom anyway the way they took care of these plants was incredible. Then they were caught and begged to keep them. That made me cry.

When it was warm I would go out to the courtyard and practice ballet when it was free from 12-2pm. My fellow inmates found it a little strange, but it gave me a sense of normality. When I got a fever they took care of me like I was a baby.

I missed so many things . Walking without walls; listening to classical and jazz music; dancing; the earth; the sea. You cant see the sunset or sunrise, just a small piece of sky and barbed wire.

Being released [after an intervention from the European court] was an adjustment process too. I woke up nauseated and screaming on the first night. I found it hard to remember what coffee to order.

I recently went back home for the first time. I had been staying with my mother. My phone books and bank cards were gone. I broke down when I couldnt find my ballet slippers.

They had rummaged through everything. Everything was scattered around. I am someone who never throws out a scrap of paper from her apartment. It felt like I had been raped. I know they do this to writers now because they know how much it hurts.

Photograph: YouTube

Mehmet Altan

Age 64

Profession academic, author and journalist

Charge attempting to overthrow the government

Time spent behind bars five months and counting

Possible sentence three consecutive life sentences

We are three people in the ward [a different one to my brother Altans]. We cant communicate with our loved ones, let alone correspond with the outside world. We cant write letters. People cant write to us. What I am saying here has to be transcribed by my lawyers.

Although I have never felt in physical danger I have had to postpone all my existential emotions and ideas. We are contained in an environment where no needs of a mature mind are met. It is like wearing striped pyjamas. It is a very narrow life without any joy or feeling to it.

Should the rule of law reign in Turkey again one day I am confident that I wont be considered a suspect even for a second. I am a suspect now only because I demanded democracy.

Photograph: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Erol nderoglu

Profession journalist, Turkey representative for Reporters Without Borders

Charge terrorist propaganda

Time behind bars released after 10 days pretrial detention, trial pending

Possible maximum sentence 14 and a half years

I was arrested because my name appeared as one of the editors of the Kurdish daily Ozgr Gndem on 18 May. In fact, I didnt edit the paper, nor had I read the articles; my name was there as a symbolic statement of support.

The day I was charged I went to court by myself, to see the prosecutor. His message was: We dont care whether this was part of a campaign. If you are defending media freedom, we are charging you with spreading propaganda in favour of the PKK.

I said clearly that the articles published about power struggles among the security forces and the ongoing operations against the PKK were in the common interest of the Turkish people. For two decades I have protected freedom of expression for all political factions. This was no different.

On 20 June I was detained and spent 10 days in two prisons an extremely short time compared to what some colleagues are experiencing.

I was released thanks to international pressure, which is now quite low as Erdoans diplomatic rows suck up the energy. While I wasnt physically harmed in jail, I was left with the feeling that my profession is no longer welcomed by the government and is perceived as a threat: journalists and civil society have been wiped out.

The hardest thing was when my wife and son came to visit and I could only talk to them from behind a glass wall. I was also surprised that I lost my muscles so quickly. Outside I am quite active.

People who have gone before me have been systematically convicted, and while I am still fighting my case it will happen eventually. I try to not dwell on it though. In this situation you are not yourself, but just one among all in this picture.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us


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