With the Emergency Rule extending, Turkish prisons turn into powder kegs

The movie theatre was jam-packed. As we walked onto the stage last Friday at the International Human Rights Film Festival (FIFDH) in Geneva, I had the words of a Kurdish colleague, held for months in jail, swirling in my head.

We had assembled in Geneva to talk about the shattering results of the Emergency Rule in Turkey: Apart from myself there was a key expert on Constitutional Law, Kerem Altiparmak (who as a critical-minded academic was banned from travelling abroad, thus taking part via skype). Then there was Nils Medzel, UN’s Special Human Rights Rapporteur on Turkey and academician Pınar Selek.

I was thinking of İnan Kızılkaya, who had sent out a letter from prison. He is the managing editor of Özgür Gündem, a Kurdish daily shut down by the authorities. ‘We will do you in like Musa Anter. ‘We will throw you all into the wells filled with acid’ Kızılkaya was told in police custody when he with other Kurdish journalists was brutally interrogated.

Musa Anter was a well-known, iconic, noble Kurdish intellectual, who in the 1990’s was assassinated by unknown gunmen, suspected to be Turkish paramilitary units. ‘Acid wells’ is also a well-known phenomenon from the same period, during which many Kurds seen as linked with the PKK were ‘melted’ and ‘lost’.


Medzel gave a carefully worded account of what he saw in Turkish prisons he visited after the coup attempt (he is privileged in that sense, one of the very few allowed) and it became clear in between his lines that those thrown into police custody and prisons had gone through sheer hell, at least between July 15 and October.

He spared us the details, underlining that the conditions in police custody were the worst. In many ways, it was a powerful deja-vu: Kept in darkness for decades under an ugly record of harrassment of its citizens, Turkey seemed to have a glimpse of light on the horizon some years ago, but rewinded to square one.

Now it’s as bad as before, if not worse, for anybody who disagrees with the holders of power, President Erdoğan and his allies within the state.

I knew nobody knew it better about what ‘vindictive oppression’ means, than Pınar Selek, sitting beside me. The Turkish case that has been going on for 19 years against this pacifist, feminist, social scientist and author of several books is of such a nature that it makes what happened to Dreyfus once upon a time bleak by comparison.


When Selek took the floor, what she told the audience about this labyrinthian process, which also included heavy torture and absence of justice, the audience obviously got an idea of how it might be for dissidents in jail in today’s Turkey. The more she went into detail, the deeper was public’s shock, as they were squeezed between two worlds: Kafkaesque and Orwellian – which best describe Turkey yesterday, and today.

Accused of acts of terrorism, Selek’s drama began in 1998. Today, after almost two decades, she is still facing lifetime imprisonment, despite the fact that she was acquitted four times already. How?

Some time before going to Geneva, her lawyer had sent me a note, explaining:

Istanbul High Criminal Court acquitted Selek of all charges on 19th of December, 2014 for the fourth time. Just a few days after the acquittal, the public prosecutor appealed against this fourth acquittal and the case file has been once again sent to Supreme Court for further examination. Now, after the demand of the Chief Prosecutor of the Supreme Court for the reversal of the acquittal, the appeal will be decided by the Supreme Court Criminal Chamber No: 16” she wrote and concluded:

The progress of the case shows the determination of the dark structures inside the state apparatus to go on targeting Selek. This political case has meanwhile turned to a revenge mechanism against all oppositional people daring to criticize the status quo based on violence and war politics.’

After four acquittals, still seen as guilty; searched by the authorities; and in exile, unable to return to her homeland. How come? Well, for anyone with a rational mind, this case is a intense challenge to understand. But in a sense, Selek is a symbol of how desperate the ordeal of Turkish intellectuals and civilian activists was, and continues to be.

To give a brief summary: her drama had begun on July 9, 1998, when an explosion rocked the famous Egyptian Bazaar in the Old City of Istanbul. Seven people had died and nearly 130 were injured. Those were the times, the Kurdish insurgency had been at a peak, and the army, then very powerful, had the state institutions and main bulks of the judiciary under control.

The rest is as told by my colleague, Cengiz Çandar, who had followed the complicated case:

”The investigation of the incident eventually reached Pınar Selek, a young sociologist who had begun to acquire fans from the marginal sections of society with her contrarian actions. Pınar Selek was charged as one of the perpetrators behind the explosion, based on a statement given by a Kurdish suspect who was accused of having connections with the PKK. It was eventually revealed that his deposition was taken under torture. But oddly, that same person who was detained as the main perpetrator of the incident later said that he didn’t know Selek and that he was forced by torture to give her name. He was not convicted. By contrast, Pınar Selek spent two and a half years in prison until she was acquitted. The Higher Court then reversed the acquittal, and the case continued while the young sociologist was released pending her trial.

In fact, all the evidence pointed to an explosion caused by bottled gas. A number of expert-opinion reports submitted to the court said this was the case. Selek was acquitted once again, and once again, but the Higher Court reversed the lower court’s decision.

There was a new trial. Evidence was collected again, new expert reports were examined and Pınar Selek was again acquitted…”

19 years and four acquittals later, Selek is still seen ‘guilty as charged’, with an aggravated life imprisonment hanging above her head. As part of a farce, European Court despite a torturously long period, refused to handle her complaint, saying ‘you should exhaust all the legal paths in Turkey, before applying with us.’

Selek was, of course, not surprised at all with the ongoing ordeal in Turkey where tens of thousands of people on political grpunds are imprisoned, and common criminals were released to provide space for even more. In her eyes, nothing has changed in the backbone of ‘oriental despotism’ so recurrent in Turkey.

As I left Geneva, I was flooded by fresh data from Council of Europe (CoE). Its report said that the number of prisoners in Turkey had almots doubled between 2006 and 2015, while many other CoE member states had noted a fall.

Its relations may be utterly tense, but overloaded prisons in Turkey are, according to other reports I received two days ago, a powder keg. Lawyers linked with a mainly Kurdish solidarity organisation (ZDICK) announced on Wednesday that a series of hunger strikes are now under way, beginning from March 15 on, threatening to spread to the entire bulk of political prisoners.

In Turkey, demands for human decency has now turned into a perpetual battle. On Wednesday police arrested Raci Bilici, the vice chairman of Human Rights Association. State of Emergency evolving into an unsustainable way of keeping its vibrant society under a lid, Turkey is heading towards an even more intense confrontation, both within and outside its borders.





About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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