A view of Silivri Prison, near Istanbul,Turkey, 2014. Wikicommons/CeeGee. Some rights reserved.When the
anti-terror squad raided the hotel on the island of Büyükada near Istanbul in
the morning of July 5, the door of the meeting room was open. It was the fourth
day of a training workshop, in which eight Turkish activists and two trainers
from Germany participated. They were all arrested in the conference room of the
hotel for their alleged association with an unspecified terrorist organization.
The eight activists were Günal Kurşun (IHGD, Human Rights Agenda Association),
İdil Eser (Amnesty International), İlknur Üstün (Women’s Coalition), Nalan
Erkem (hYd, Citizens’ Assembly), Nejat Taştan (Association for Monitoring
Equal Rights), Özlem Dalkıran (hYd, Citizens’ Assembly), Şeyhmus Özbekli
(Rights Initiative) and Veli Acu (IHGD, Human Rights Agenda Association).
In addition, the
two trainers Ali Ghavari and Peter Steudner were also taken into custody. The
workshop was organized by IHOP (Joint Platform of Human Rights NGOs). The aim
of the workshop was to increase awareness about the risks and threats that
human rights defenders face, including information security and high-stress,
and to develop the skills necessary to deal with them.
The case reflects the sort of power relations and the
particular conception of morality that dominate the so-called ‘New Turkey’–
that is to say Turkey as it is re-constructed under Erdogan’s ‘strong-willed’
leadership. In this ‘New Turkey’ a form of violence that disregards human
rights, even including the right to life and the manipulation of reality and
morality to suit the interests of power holders, are part and parcel of
Nowadays the power holders of Turkey don’t need to go
to great lengths to fabricate evidence or elaborate legal justifications to be
able to arrest people, hold them in prolonged periods of pretrial detention, or
even deprive them of their right to life. The power holders have almost
unrestricted control over people’s freedoms and lives, as well as over how they
perceive reality – for almost all media outlets with an oppositional stance
have been driven into virtual non-existence.
An international conspiracy on Büyükada
This mass media-driven obscurity notwithstanding,
however, for those whose compass is calibrated by a quest for truth, the
reality has never been this obvious. And it is because of this clarity that
different actors in the mainstream, pro-government media as well as in the
judicial establishment are forced to approach the matter in different ways
reflecting their different styles of ingratiating themselves with the
Thus for example, in the pro-government media the
training workshop in question was initially presented as a meeting of
international coup plotters and the fact that the arrests took place
just days before the first anniversary of the failed coup attempt of
July 15, 2016 allowed them to concoct a new `glorious` history in which yet
another sinister international conspiracy against the nation has been thwarted
by heroic public authorities. There was, however, no shred of evidence to
support such wild allegations and this absence of evidence soon became obvious
even to those who have no wish to see the truth.
Hence, after a while, even some pro-government
columnists and AKP politicians started to question the arrests, this time
suggesting that, perhaps, it was not the arrested human rights activists who
were involved in an anti-government conspiracy after all, but the officials who
decided to detain them on such flimsy grounds! In the television program Media
Critic broadcast on TV channel TGRT on August 18, 2017, embedded journalists
Cem Kucuk and Fuat Ugur made comments to that effect. Unfortunately, in the New
Turkey, even a truth that is obvious for anyone to see, does not guarantee that
justice will be done. Thus, 8 of the 10 human rights activists are still in
jail and all motions to release them on bail are still being denied.
This is why these arrests give us an excellent
opportunity to analyze power relations in contemporary Turkey. First – a closer
look at the process of the arrests themselves.
The police found no evidence
The fact that the
activists were arrested in the morning was discovered only in the evening of
July 5; in the meantime they were all denied access to their families and
lawyers. The official report of the arrests was prepared hours after the raid
and since the police could not find any evidence against them in the first
seven days in which they were held in custody, the period of custody was
extended to 13 days.
period, the police went to a fishing expedition searching their houses and
going over their computers with a toothcomb in an attempt to find the slightest
shred of evidence that can remotely justify their arrests. None was found, yet
on the 13th day of their custody a court committed four activists and their two
trainers to pretrial detention on suspicion of alleged association with unspecified
terrorist organizations! The court
initially released Ilknur Ustun, Nalan Erkem, Nejat Tastan and Seyhmus Ozbekli,
on bail pending trial.
But the injustice
of this court order was not the end of the story. It was only the beginning.
Later on, on the
objection of the public prosecutor, two more activists, Ilknur Ustun and Nalan
Erkem too were remanded, and thus now eight activists are in detention pending
trial for an unspecified time, and the indictment against them has not yet been
prepared. Ilknur Ustun is held in Sincan Prison near Ankara. The remaining
seven activists were sent to Silivri prison near Istanbul, which, since its
opening in 2008, has become famous for its political inmates.
have been subjected to at least one day of solitary confinement. Ali Gharavi,
Gunal Kursun, Peter Steudner and Veli Acu, for their part, remained for longer
periods in solitary confinement, so much so that there were worries about their
health. Meanwhile, Nalan Erkem has not been provided with the necessary
medication for her health condition, and was brought for medical examination in
handcuffs; and Idil Eser, who was under observation for a suspected cancer
diagnosis, has not been examined properly. Veli Acu, who lives with a medical
implant that needs to be cleaned every two days, was denied that opportunity
for 20 days.
Later, it turns out that the initial arrests were
based on information probably received from one of the interpreters employed
for the workshop. It transpires that this person harbored nationalistic
sentiments and was repeatedly pulled up by the English-speaking participants of
the workshop for making false translations and asking manipulative and
provocative questions. Other evidence used to justify the decision to detain
the eight activists includes a childish map drawn by one of the participants in
an exercise designed to reflect the most pressing issues that stress her out,
and correspondence regarding the “No” campaign in the presidential referendum
of April 16, 2017.
So there is no reasonable motive for arresting the
participants. There is no evidence to justify their detention. And there is no
indictment yet. But the clock of their time in jail is still ticking.
New values of the ‘New Turkey’: bad times for human
rights and civil society
(Human Rights Joint Platform) consisting of hYd (Citizens’
Assembly), IHD (Human Rights Association), IHGD (Human Rights Agenda Association)
and Amnesty International, are all specialized organizations in the field of human
rights advocacy, with longstanding experience in promoting democratization,
equality, freedom, feminism and lgbti rights. Similarly, the participants of
the workshop are all well-known and well-respected for their work in the field
of human rights, and each of them represent their respective prestigious
The fact that the participants are all reputable human
rights activists, well known for their contributions to the promotion of
democracy and democratization both inside and outside Turkey, gave the power
holders an excellent opportunity to make an international showcase of what they
deem to be the new `local and national` values of what they call the new `New
It allowed them not only to stage a glorious
celebration of the anniversary of the failed coup, but also to divert public
attention away from the 24-day Justice March from Ankara to Istanbul organized
by the main opposition party, CHP, which took between June 15 and July 9, 2017.
The march was a protest against the arrest of CHP MP Enis Berberoglu. In
addition to CHP supporters, many civil organizations and other opposition party
members, including the Kurdish ones, participated in the march and the march
ended with a big rally of more than 1 million people in Maltepe, Istanbul. Of
course the accusations have no foundation in reality. But it is very important
for Erdogan to keep what he calls “local and national” sentiments aroused,
until at least the 2019 presidential elections.
At this point, not only 10 human rights activists, but
also a very large number of other Turkish and International rights advocates
and journalists, including such international names as Deniz Yucel, are held in
jail as hostages. The most recent executive decree which allows the government
to exchange international inmates in Turkish prisons for Turkish political
refugees abroad, is the clearest manifestation of this approach of using
judicial processes as a means to political ends.
Meanwhile Erdogan is aware of the need to keep
transnational economic relations as relaxed as possible. Thus for example, the
Turkish National Intelligence Agency’s alleged list of German companies
supporting terrorism precipitated an international crises and formal protest
from Germany, upon which Turkey gave the huge bid for renewable energy to a
consortium including the German giant, Siemens.
While Erdogan’s responsibility in all this is
undeniable, it would be a mistake to think of him as the sole perpetrator. The
German media in particular signals him out as the real culprit, but this hides
the fact that he has secular-nationalist partners within the state bureaucracy
in devising and implementing his hardline policies. And it is impossible to
understand Turkey without understanding this relationship which has its roots
in an almost century-old statist tradition.
Presenting Erdogan as the only perpetrator also allows
Europe in general and Germany in particular to hide the indirect support they
gave to Erdogan through such political acts as Merkel's pre-election visit to
Turkey on November 1, 2015 or doubling the number of arms sold to Turkey in
recent years, or the shady refugee deal Merkel struck with Erdogan.
To summarize, then, while human rights activists,
journalists and Kurdish politicians are held as hostages, and the tension
between democracy and authoritarianism is translated into an international
tension between Turkey and the European Union, the economic necessities of the
neoliberal world are still met. And this allows the naked truth to be seen by
those who have eyes to see.
More information about the raid can be
found in http://www.ihop.org.tr/en/.
version of this article has been published in Südlink 181 www.suedlink.de.