Turkey's freedom of speech is crumbling
The writer and publisher Ragip Zarkolu is an honorary member of Swedish PEN. He has over the years published numerous books on subjects that are sensitive in the modern Turkey. Until last week, he was held in a “high-risk prison” for terrorists—without any trial. During this time, he wrote this letter to his lawyer, outlining the struggle for freedom of expression in Turkey.
2012-01-20 at 5.30 a.m.
Dear Mr. Sennur,
Any place we inhabit long enough becomes like a home of our own. This is the case even with places that we haven’t chosen ourselves but where we are forced to live for a long time. Where I live now is terribly cold and humid. The building is entirely constructed of iron and concrete and when I walk over the ice-cold concrete floor the cold permeates from my feet up to my waist.
As a prisoner of the Turkish army I also spent a year in the infamous Selimiye Prison. There the rooms reminded me more of old medieval prison cells than the modern ones where I live now. I have also spent time in prisons such as Maltepe 2, Zırhlı Tugay, Alemdağ, Davutpaşa Kışlası, and others. But the worst conditions I have ever endured were in the Selimiye Prison. There we were imprisoned in a stripped room surrounded by one-metre thick walls with a fluorescent lamp that was lit night and day. In the tower above us the natural light poured in through small openings, but below, where we were, there were only small cuts of some inches width letting in thin rays of daylight.
The building now functioning as the Selimiye Prison was erected during the great period of the Ottoman Empire and was then used as a stable for the horses of the Ottoman army. In this old building I was imprisoned for two and a half months. After the arrival of my son Deniz (who was put in the same prison), I was moved to a more comfortable cell where the sun could find its way in.
The Selimiye Prison is not only unhealthy for the prisoners but the prison staff suffers too. As already mentioned it is made of iron and concrete. In order to stand the cold I had to wear three pairs of socks—two thinner and one thicker knitted of Anatolian wool. Over the ordinary underwear with long legs I put on another pair made of wool, and under my shirt and the thick-knitted sweater I wore a thinner woollen vest. A thick sweater wrapped around the waist kept the warmth to some degree but even when the radiators were turned on we all still squeezed ourselves around them just to feel the warmth spread through our frozen bodies.
A friend of mine, who worked at the same publishing house as I did, had told me about the prison long before I was sent to it. Her husband had spent almost ten years there. This kind of prison establishments are called F. Tipi (Type F), in other words, they are prisons for criminals suspected of terrorism. In Turkey the notion of terrorism is fairly arbitrary; the existing political will and thus the state decides what is meant by terrorism. Merely to have once met somebody involved in so-called illegal political activity can be enough to make one suspect of similar ‘terrorist’ activities. Also, referring to the Kurdish issue, working as a writer or journalist with a former membership in some leftist organization, or merely uttering the name of some of the ‘heroes’ who have now become part of popular culture, you run the risk of being suspected of ‘terrorist’ activity.
Supporting the struggle for freedom for, and the recognition of, the Kurdish people is considered a revolt and an outrage. This means that you risk being accused of terrorism if you as a journalist support the struggle of the Kurdish people. One journalist colleague of mine, Veysi Sarisozen, who has written three articles discussing the solution of the Kurdish issue, has been sentenced to prison three times.
The state of Israel considers the Palestinian party Hamas to be a terrorist organization. Nevertheless, the Turkish Government invited the leader of Hamas to Ankara last week, where he made a speech in Parliament. According to our Government, Hamas is a legitimate political party defending the rights of the Palestinian people. At the same time, Members of Parliament of a legitimate party in Turkey, elected mayors, late Members of Parliament, and people who have worked for and have accomplished a successful election are all exposed to a political massacre.
Writers like me, who are not even members of this party, are also imprisoned alongside the liberal intellectuals who are in favour of a peaceful solution and who are perpetually harassed by new threats. I have been writing for the opposition for more than forty years and, by different military courts between 1971-74, I was sentenced to two years imprisonment in total.
In the past twenty years I have been writing for the oppositional democratic left wing and for Kurdish media. As a result, I was sentenced again in the 1990’s. Fortunately, the penalty was postponed but I lost all my political rights during the next five years.
In the 1970s, my wife, Ayşe Nur Zarakolu, who was a publisher, was arrested by the police and imprisoned for forty-five days before she was sentenced to four months imprisonment. In the 90s she was arrested again, this time for publishing two books dealing with the Armenian and the Kurdish questions. According to the Helsinki Watch Report on violations committed by the Turkish army, she was sentenced in 1996. Also this time the penalty was postponed, but all her political rights were taken from her.
In total my wife was sentenced more than forty times for publishing books about the Armenian or the Kurdish people. At a time when her capacity was at its peak, the fact that her publishing house almost collapsed under the high pressure from the regime, together with the inhuman conditions in prison, damaged her health to such an extent that we sadly lost her. Each time she had been sentenced to imprisonment she had, however, been acquitted from charges, except once, when her application to the European Court of Human Rights arrived too late.
When the municipality of Diyarbakir wanted to honour her by naming a park after her, it was stopped by the Government in Ankara. Despite all the distinctions she had received; despite the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights that she was innocent, and despite the fact that we had received indemnity from the foreign ministry of Turkey, the Government still refused to consider her as anything but a terrorist.
Unfortunately, the Diyarbakir province didn’t appeal for the decision to be changed, nor did they defend the name of my wife Ayşe Nur Zarakolu. On the contrary, they bowed to the unfair decision. By acting in this way they hurt us, the survivors, once again. My late wife had been active in PEN, struggling all her life for writers in prison as well as for those forced to live their lives in exile. It would have been an honour for all of us if there had been a park named after her.
The Belge Publishing House has several writers attached to it and many of them now live in Sweden. For instance, Sebuktay Kaan, Kiymet, and her husband who is also a writer. Berjin Khaki lives in Finland and it is my wish that PEN also works for Berjin. One of the writers whom my wife Ayşe Nur Zarakolu published is A. Kadir Konuk. Konuk was sentenced to death but thanks to worldwide protests in 1984 Ilyas and he escaped death. In the 90s, when no other publishing house dared to publish Mehmed Uzun’s books in Turkey, my wife did so. The Belge Publishing House also defended the human rights to free expression and publication within the circles of the opposition and criticized the acts of violence occurring in certain left-wing organizations.
In the past fifteen years I have been publishing the statements and the reports on the freedom of the press made by the Union of Publishers and I must admit that today I feel cheated, angry, frustrated, and disappointed. Parallel to our warning to the Government against carrying out the new security reforms, I delivered the report on the freedom of the press to the lawyer who had once charged me. My hope was that it would be submitted for a final consideration. Even if the politicians don’t carry out the necessary security changes, I still wish they could contribute to the creation of more democratic security practices.
Between 1994-1995 I participated in the Commission of the Press Council in order to prevent TMY from restricting the rights of expression and publication. At that time I had already chaired the Writers in Prison Committee of Turkish PEN. Certainly the committee had limited possibilities to carry out the necessary changes, but as long as it existed further imprisoning of journalists was avoided. At the annual meeting of the American Union of Publishers I reminded them of the murder of Hrant Dink and informed them of the increasing amount of hate-crime in Turkey.
I also participated in the fifth National Press Congress, arranged since 1939 by the Ministry of Culture in Turkey, and as a chairman for the Committee for Freedom of Publication I presented a proposal of reforms. In answer to this I was imprisoned once more.
A similar experience was shared by Professor Baskin Oran and Professor Kabaoğlu who were engaged by the Government to write a report about minority rights. Despite their official commission they were harassed and threatened by far right groups and racist circles; they were insulted and in danger of being lynched. However, the charges against the insulters were later dropped, while the Turkish lawyer instead tried to sentence Oran and Kabaoğlu.
By accusing me of suspected terrorism and by making public that I have been in contact with illegal organizations, the Government intends to defame me and to hurt the honour of my family in society. I interpret these actions as calumnious and in my opinion they show disrespect towards the institutions we have strived together to reform and into which we have tried to introduce human rights.
Since 1988 I have exerted every possible effort to bring to trial the so-called ‘coup-makers of the 12th of September,’ who have committed crimes against humanity. Can this effort be considered a crime? People are striving to frame me as a suspect and as an unreliable person. They want to draw suspicions over people and institutions that are in contact with me. Among these one could also mention the Ministry of Culture in Turkey.
Incidents like this occur in all totalitarian regimes and police states, but it is extremely painful to experience it under a Government pretending to be in favour of reforms. My lawyer, Sennur Baybuğ, applies each month to free me from the injustice that has once again imprisoned me.
Had this happened in one of the Istiklal courts in the 1920s, or during the rule of the martial laws in 1940 and in 1971, it hadn’t surprised me in the least. But it is a shame to realize that the Magna Carta has not yet entered into our lives in the twentieth century. It is a shame not only for me but also for hundreds of journalists, mayors, defenders of human rights, and others. But more than anything it is painful and embarrassing for my country.
For me this is the end of words.
High security prison Nr. 2, Type F
Note: They have not yet been able to prove that I have committed any kind of crime. Imprisoning me before even having tried me on whatever charges therefore means that they have punished me in advance.