Hard Times For Turkish Dissenters

Many tout Turkey as a model for “Arab democracy,” but its human rights record raises troubling questions

Stephen Franklin

Seyma Ozcan has already spent five months in jail after the government accused her of belonging to an outlawed group. She denies the charges. (Stephen Franklin).

ISTAN­BUL — Sey­ma Ozcan is painful­ly thin and deeply worried.

Before prison, she was frail. But she couldn’t eat in prison, because of the food, the crowd­ing and the men­tal tor­ture of the ques­tion­ing — unnerv­ing jolts for a 22-year-old thrown in with mur­der­ers and crim­i­nals along with dozens of uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents like herself.

She still can’t eat nor­mal­ly, but she also can’t seem to catch her breath. That anx­i­ety start­ed dur­ing her five months in a Turk­ish prison and it lingers as she awaits a court date.

I don’t think about my future,” she says, sit­ting uneasi­ly in a café here. I got out of prison, but I don’t have a nor­mal life.”

Long bedev­iled by mil­i­tary coups, an intol­er­ance for dis­sent, upris­ings from the right and left and a wors­en­ing strug­gle with its large Kur­dish minor­i­ty and mil­i­tants, Turkey is trapped by its dis­re­gard for human rights.

It’s a lega­cy that has put jour­nal­ists, stu­dents, union mem­bers and lawyers in prison for what human rights advo­cates say are broad­ly employed anti-ter­ror­ism laws that vio­late free­dom of expres­sion and fair tri­al rights. Most­ly this has meant a crack­down on those sup­port­ing Kur­dish issues, but it has spilled over onto oth­ers sup­port­ing left­ist issues and those involved in issues as basic as demon­strat­ing on behalf of free uni­ver­si­ty education.

More than 90 jour­nal­ists have been held in Turk­ish pris­ons for most of the last year, mak­ing Turkey the world’s num­ber one jail­er of jour­nal­ists. Most of the jour­nal­ists come from the Kur­dish news media, but a small num­ber work for main­stream and left­ist news outlets.

A stu­dent sup­port group counts more 770 stu­dents in prison and the Turk­ish Jus­tice Min­istry in August said 609 stu­dents were in prison for belong­ing to an armed ter­ror­ist” group and anoth­er 178 face the same charges but were not in custody.

Even defend­ing some­one fac­ing ter­ror-relat­ed charges has become a dan­ger. Lawyers for per­sons in cas­es linked to ter­ror­ism have been detained, charged and pros­e­cut­ed, accord­ing to a May report for the Human Rights Coun­cil of the Unit­ed Nations’ Gen­er­al Assembly.

This regret­tably seems to be increas­ing­ly the case in Turkey,” it added.

With Turkey posi­tion­ing itself for a greater voice in the region and oth­ers view­ing it as a mod­el for the Arab nations first embrac­ing democ­ra­cy, its human rights record rais­es questions.

A nation that doesn’t tol­er­ate dis­sent­ing voic­es can­not be a mod­el for this region, a region where there are so many prob­lems with minor­i­ty rights,” says Emma Sin­clair-Webb, the Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch.

It is a very seri­ous sit­u­a­tion,” says Rob Mahoney, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Com­mit­tee to Project Jour­nal­ists. You have a whole array of laws that can be used or mis­used to silence jour­nal­ists and intim­i­date a free press. We’ve seen waves of arrests of jour­nal­ists, par­tic­u­lar­ly Kur­dish jour­nal­ists, which is unac­cept­able in a democracy.”

When the rul­ing AK Par­ty (Jus­tice and Devel­op­ment) came to pow­er in 2002, it vowed to undo many of the legal knots Turks have lived under since the nation’s found­ing. And, ini­tial­ly, they lived up to their promise.

But the right-lean­ing, reli­gious­ly con­ser­v­a­tive party’s appetite for such change has appar­ent­ly slowed in recent years. Some of it may be blamed on its deep­en­ing and bloody entan­gle­ment with Kur­dish mil­i­tants; some on its pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with sweep­ing away the old mil­i­tary elite and its allies who watched over Turkey for decades; some on the inabil­i­ty to root out old ways in its courts and police; and some on its dis­in­cli­na­tion to give up the pow­er it inherited.

How seri­ous is the problem?

The Euro­pean Court of Human Rights offers a good mea­sure of the sit­u­a­tion. The court’s records show that Turkey account­ed for the great­est num­ber of its judg­ments among its 47 mem­ber nations in deal­ing with free­dom of expres­sion vio­la­tions since 1959: 43 per­cent of all cas­es. Turkey also led in the num­ber of judg­ments involv­ing the right to a fair tri­al and pro­tect­ing one’s right to lib­er­ty and secu­ri­ty, the records indicate.

Such a record mat­ters as the Euro­pean Union decides whether to admit Turkey to it ranks.

An exten­sive exam­i­na­tion of Turkey’s human rights sit­u­a­tion issued in Jan­u­ary by the Com­mis­sion­er for Human Rights of the Coun­cil of Europe didn’t help. Turkey received praise for its progress but also blis­ter­ing crit­i­cism for ongo­ing problems.

One of the nation’s biggest prob­lems, the report said, has been the prac­tice of judges and pros­e­cu­tors to give prece­dence to the pro­tec­tion of the state over the pro­tec­tion of human rights.”

The report also point­ed to exces­sive­ly long tri­als and cas­es last­ing for more than 10 or even 15 years.” It ques­tioned pros­e­cu­tors’ long-estab­lished” prac­tice of arrest­ing per­sons before col­lect­ing need­ed evi­dence against them. It wor­ried about of the inef­fec­tive­ness” of legal pro­ceed­ings against secu­ri­ty forces charged with seri­ous human rights vio­la­tions. And it chal­lenged the pros­e­cu­tion of per­sons for non-vio­lent state­ments match­ing those of ter­ror groups.

Turk­ish offi­cials wel­comed the report’s praise for their progress, but blunt­ly replied that it was not bal­anced, had relied on uncon­firmed infor­ma­tion, and they chal­lenged a num­ber of the findings.

Basak Cali, a senior lec­tur­er in human rights and inter­na­tion­al law at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don, agrees that Turkey has made advances. But,” she adds, there are still many sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems.” And in some cas­es, the sit­u­a­tion is sig­nif­i­cant­ly worse,” she says, point­ing to a record num­ber of per­sons, among them jour­nal­ists and stu­dents, in pre­tri­al detention.

Turk­ish offi­cials staunch­ly insist, how­ev­er, that they are mak­ing progress.

They point to a recent­ly enact­ed judi­cial reform, which they say will ulti­mate­ly release about 10,000 per­sons now in prison, but not con­vict­ed of crimes. They say that up to 3,200 per­sons now serv­ing time should also be released as part of the reform.

Look­ing ahead, they say the gov­ern­ment will bring up anoth­er round of reforms to Par­lia­ment in the fall. One pro­posed change would pro­tect those who speak out on con­tro­ver­sial issues, but are not linked by any evi­dence to vio­lence or a vio­lent orga­ni­za­tion. Human rights advo­cates say this is a com­mon rea­son cur­rent­ly for many arrests.

Turkey is mak­ing an effort to right­ly bal­ance between the need to expand the free­dom of speech and pre­vent­ing the prais­ing of vio­lence and ter­ror­ist pro­pa­gan­da,” said a Min­istry of For­eign Affairs offi­cial, who asked not to be named, in an email.

But human rights advo­cates and oth­ers are skeptical.

We’ve talked to the gov­ern­ment about human rights for years and I’m quite dispir­it­ed,” says Sin­clair-Webb of Human Rights Watch.

The government’s inten­tions aren’t clear either to one of Seyma’s instruc­tors at Bogazi­ci Uni­ver­si­ty in Istan­bul, one of Turkey’s elite state-run uni­ver­si­ties. It trou­bled him that her only mis­deed, as far as he can tell, is belong­ing to a left­ist stu­dent group and apply­ing for an intern­ship with a Kur­dish news out­let. When arrest­ed in Decem­ber 2011, she was charged with mem­ber­ship in the out­lawed Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Head­quar­ters group, accord­ing to news report.

Awak­ened to the prob­lem of arrest­ed stu­dents, he shared his con­cerns about Sey­ma with oth­er fac­ul­ty and has kept up to date on her sit­u­a­tion. But he’s been cau­tious about becom­ing too pub­lic with his con­cerns for fear that it could hurt him with officials.

What we call aca­d­e­m­ic free­dom is def­i­nite­ly not what it was a few years ago,” he says, adding that his name couldn’t be used in this article.

Ali Kerem Saysal, anoth­er pro­fes­sor at the uni­ver­si­ty, has no qualms, how­ev­er, about speak­ing up about arrest­ed stu­dents. He is one of the founders of a new group called Don’t Touch My Stu­dents. It only has about 10 mem­bers, he says, but it has drawn large num­bers to its gatherings.

A con­tro­ver­sial 11-year prison term this Spring for one stu­dent at Galatasaray Uni­ver­si­ty in Istan­bul on what many con­sid­ered skimpy evi­dence jolt­ed per­sons like him­self to speak out. He wish­es more fac­ul­ty would take part, but that hasn’t been the case.

I don’t act out of opti­mism. Rather, what we have to do is quite clear,” he says emphat­i­cal­ly. And maybe there will be a change,” he adds almost as an afterthought.

When a dozen police stormed the apart­ment where Sey­ma was liv­ing with her boyfriend ear­ly one morn­ing last Decem­ber, she was stunned. After they were told about the charges sev­er­al hours lat­er, the two denied belong­ing to the orga­ni­za­tion, she says. 

For the next four days she was ques­tioned by secu­ri­ty offi­cials two or three times a day and some­times at night, and each time, she says she repeat­ed her dis­avow­al of vio­lence. She didn’t see a lawyer for the first two days.

Dur­ing the inter­ro­ga­tions, she was asked why she had attend­ed protest meet­ings and why she had called the Kur­dish news­pa­per for a job, she says.

She was sent off to a women’s prison and cell where there were 25 beds for 30 women and where hot water flowed only three days of the week. While in prison she mar­ried her boyfriend. They hadn’t planned on that, but it was the only way she could see him, she explains. He was released in August pend­ing their trial.

What will hap­pen next?

In Turkey,” she says, you don’t know when you will go to court or what the court will do or what the pros­e­cu­tors will do.”

The Pulitzer Cen­ter on Cri­sis Report­ing sup­port­ed this report­ing effort.

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH