Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Update on our Political Prisoner

Old Sins
And New and Improved Ones!



Last week, across the front pages of several newspapers was a rather startling headline. ‘Prime Minister Erdoğan Apologizes for Dersim’! Never in the history of the republic has the capital ‘s’ State admitted to doing anything slightly wrong and now, an apology for the mini-genocide that has been one of the most stalwart of Turkish taboos. In the same breath, the PM has ordered the arrest of another one hundred people—ranging from the staff of the Kurdish-run newspaper, Özgür Gündem, to Cengiz Kapmaz, the author of Abdullah Öcalan’s biography to my father-in-law’s lawyer. Yes, his lawyer. Where does this leave his defense?  Who knows. Old students are writing on my facebook about how the 'traitors' got what they deserved.
Of course, members of the BDP party have been taken, too, along with lawyers of several other prisoners. One of the government’s spokesmen promised an even bigger round-up soon. It’s a confusing time I suppose--on the one hand apologizing for old sins, on the other merrily committing new ones, but then, the Dersim massacres were ordered under the opposition party’s reign. The apology makes them look bad, so bad in fact that their reaction to it could split the party in two, reducing in size a group of people whose political strength has already shrunken drastically. So maybe it is not so paradoxical after all.
Delal and family visited her father this week—he was in high spirits. The prison apparently makes the prisoners pay for everything from furniture to electricity. He joked that soon they would be footing the bill for the food as well. The other families were not doing well, Delal said. There were a lot of tears, a lot of despair. Ragıp Zarakolu (who writes in the Hrant biography), had no visitors. They were all with his son who has also been jailed—but in a separate place. The Zarakolus have to take turns. Kandıra prison houses one other prisoner of note—Oğun Samast, the prime suspect in the assassination of Hrant Dink. It’s hard to imagine Samast and my father-in-law under the same roof.
But again, I am thinking of Hrant.

Another old sin--Taner Akcam said in the Radikal this week that Dink's murder was the last move in the ethnic cleansing that started in 1913.

Here is the second part of my modest, abridged translation of the Hrant biography. It begins with a similar massacre to Dersim—which no one has said sorry for at all yet—and ends with tales of the childhood of the Dink brothers. I find it incredibly moving. Candar, from what I can tell, lets the voices of the old people in the family alone. They're disjointed, awkard, conflicting. There accounts in the beginning are the stories of the elderly family members—fragmented, assuming knowledge you don’t have, apologetic, and extremely natural. Only Hrant's voice (culled from his writings to help him pen his own posthumous account) are very poetic.

For anyone not versed in all things Turkey—the title ‘Efendi’ is one you would apply to a respected gentleman. Ç says ‘ch’. Ş says ‘sh’ and…well, that’s it for now.

Monday, November 21, 2011


November 20th, Sunday, a beautiful day for pepper gas and billy clubs. The sun was out, the maple trees bright gold, and the skies filled with hundreds of migrating birds. We woke up late and headed out to Kazlıçeşme (Goose Fountain—though not a goose in sight) for the BDP party’s rally in support of the political prisoners taken in the government’s self-styled ‘Anti-KCK’ operation. A line of police with riot shields made a kind of tunnel which we had to pass through to get to the festivities. As we approached, a woman was shouting the names of the prisoners one by one into a microphone still invisible over the barricades. We heard the name ‘Kemal Seven!’ and the blood rushed through me. This time I wasn’t just here as a curious observer.

Once into the rally proper, chanting, protest songs, and other such hijinx ensued—with nary a violent incident in sight. The main speaker was party chairman, Selahattin Demirtaş, one of ‘our’ boys from the city nearest Delal’s village. I drifted in and out of his talk, floating back in when he started talking about coming to terms with Turkey’s past. ‘We must face history,’ he said. ‘We must face the Armenian Genocide, the Dersim Massacre, the Madımak Hotel Fire…’ It was like a grocery list of Turkish taboos. I looked above the heads of the crowd to a hill far to the right and saw a line of police with riot shields lowered, chatting away instead of charging toward us waving their billy clubs to stop this villainous insulting of Turkishness. Things have indeed changed. A few years ago, Demirtaş’s words would have been considered high treason and he would not have come away from that speech unharmed. I thought again of Hrant Dink as I have so often during this whole ordeal with my father in law.

I started reading Hrant Dink’s biography, put together by Tuba Candar, a few days before my father-in-law’s arrest. It is a singular work. When we were standing in front of the courthouse in Beşiktaş I was reading about Hrant’s days at the same court. When we started seeing the newspaper articles calling the BDP academy where my father-in-law worked the ‘Academy of Terror’ I was reading about the media’s smear campaign against Hrant. My reading material is obvious, I’m afraid. Hrant’s name pops up in all the entries I have written about our political troubles.

I decided to translate and share a small bit of the book. Tuba Candar does not so much as write the book, as shape what already exists. The writers are the hundreds of friends, relatives and coworkers that loved and admired Hrant. They tell his story from birth to death—giving a kaleidoscopic variety of views that flesh the man out in a way no single author could. When Delal was reading the book last year, she was crying rather copiously, on a daily basis, and I just chalked it up to her being sensitive. I mean, I liked Hrant Dink. He seemed like he had been a man of integrity. He reached out to all sides on the Armenian issue and became the first to speak out on taboos decades old in an effort to reconcile Armenians and Turks. And he spoke out for others as well—for all of Turkey’s downtrodden and martyred without fear or compromise, regardless of race, creed, or political background.

On January 19th, 2007 he was shot in front of the offices of Agos newspaper, the Turkish Republic’s first and only Armenian newspaper which he founded. He had been branded a traitor and a hater of Turks by the media for suggesting Sabiha Gökçen, Atatürk’s adopted daughter, had been an Armenian orphan. It is still unclear whether he was murdered by a lone group of fanatical nationalists or an organization more closely connected with the state. The trial continues today—and the Ministry of Communications is refusing to hand over evidence.

Enough from me. Here is an excerpt from the first part of Hrant’s 600 page biography. The book begins with his family’s reaction to news of his assassination. Readers, let me know if I should continue. It's by no means perfect, but I have tried to be faithful.



Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Brief Update--for the family and other worriers

So yesterday Delal was able to visit her father for the first time.  The news is good. His morale is high. Apparently, the guards at the prison are being very civil--telling them good night and good morning and using respectful language. He is not alone but has two roommates and apparently also has access to newspapers, including Kurdish ones like the Gündem. Of course, there is the usual Republic of Turkey silly bureaucratic rules.  For example, Delal had to go get a special ID card with her maiden name printed on it before they would let her in the prison. Prisoners have to buy all of their own stuff--TV, blankets, furniture--from the prison itself and you cannot bring them anything that is sold there.  The visit was limited to a talk on the phone behind protective glass, and all letters had to be mailed to the prison from afar--they could not be brought in.

So all of this has been a relief to us--as we were worried about the treatment at these notorious F-Types.

Monday, November 14, 2011

News--A Letter From Prison

Last week, shortly after my father-in-law’s arrest, I came home to find the house dark and empty. My wife, D., was supposed to be home—she had texted me just a few hours before to say she was on her way. I called her cell, but she didn’t answer. Normally, I would just shrug and go jogging or watch an episode of The Daily Show online, but this night I turned off all the lights, lay down on the couch, and clutched the center of my chest where a sudden terrifying tightness took my breath away. My eyes filled with tears, but I couldn’t cry. I just sank into panic.

I don’t know how long I lay there in the dark. I was sure that they had come for her while I was out, whoever ‘they’ were--the secret police, the gendarmes, or AKP goons. Prime Minister Erdoğan had promised that the round-ups of ‘terror suspects’ was not over, I reasoned. Had the neighbors informed because they heard Roj TV coming from our apartment? Had someone read my blog and decided to get at me through her?

At last, D. texted me from the bus. ‘Too much noise,’ she wrote. ‘Didn’t hear the phone.’ The chest pains started to fade.

This was all paranoia, I now realize, but then when the government can arrest someone you love on the flimsiest of pretexts, it’s hard to tell what’s overreaction and what’s real. Several times this week, I have had the impulse to call her in the middle of the day just to make sure she is still around, but I’m embarrassed to do so. Is the inexperienced American husband just overreacting? Or were my fears reasonable? Perhaps I wasn’t cautious enough?

I was originally going to start this piece with a rather long litany of political arrests and persecution in Turkey—a kind of factual barrage to establish my legitimacy on this issue. It’s almost like the story of D., her family, and I aren’t enough. One needed more people, a famous professor arrested, some eye-catching torture accusations, or news crews to be worthy of being known, but then I realized that all the propaganda on Turkish TV (and Roj TV for that matter) about their ‘martyrs’ and the battles against capital letter words like Fascism and Splittism and Terrorism are not the real issue at all.  The real issue is the time they are taking from my father-in-law’s life. Is the strain I see on my wife’s face when no one else is looking. Is me clutching my chest on the living room couch and fearing for D.’s safety.  The real issue is the low-level torture that these crimes people refer to as ‘politics’ inflict on us ordinary people. We will live with this anxiety until her father is released and these arrests stop—and it will eat away at our family life, our home life, and our relationships.  It could last years (Suspects have been getting long sentences). And the frustrating thing is its all for nothing. For teaching at the wrong place and wrong time.

The papers these days are revving up the tabloid talk. Professor Buşra Ersanli, who was arrested along with my father-in-law, has been labled ‘The Professor of Terror’ in the newspapers. The television channels call all detainees  ‘KCK members,’ though they haven’t even been tried. This is par for the course in the Turkish media. It doesn’t matter what’s true, or fair, or even logical. It doesn’t matter if there’s proof, or reasonable doubt, or a just conviction. You just go with what shocks. You say whatever you want and wave the flag as you do it. The same is true of government officials. The Minister of the Interior, İdris Naim Şahin, told the whole country that Professor Ersanli was giving ‘lessons on terror’.  And again, all of this mud-slinging is going on before a trial. None of it is based on any fact. No evidence has been offered up. But then, there’s a saying in Turkish, ‘Throw enough mud and something is going to stick.’  This same character assassination was done four years ago to Hrant Dink, when the Turkish news labeled him an ‘Enemy of the Turk’ and distorted his words to such a degree (most likely with government approval if not encouragement) that some people decided to take things into their own hands and assassinate him. Before Hrant, it was singer Ahmet Kaya. Not much has changed.

D. and I took a vacation over Bayram (Eid) to get our minds off of all of this for a while. We went to Mardin, a mostly Kurdish city in the Southeast. While we were wandering obliviously around the ruins, Ismail Akbulut of the Turkish Human Rights Association was arrested just a province away for making propaganda for a terrorist organization. His real offense was investigating accusations of war crimes against the Turkish government. Locals claim that 24 PKK guerillas were killed by chemical weapons in the Kazan valley. It may very well not be true. It doesn’t really matter. Truth is about who can bellow the loudest, and now Akbulut is locked away and effectively silenced. Then we read in the Hurriyet that Erdoğan, after his pious prayer at the Blue Mosque, told reporters that ‘criticism of the massive investigation amounted to support for terrorism.’ That makes me, and nearly everyone I know a ‘terrorist’ in the eyes of the Republic. What a way to silence opposition. That’s straight up dictatorship, my friend, the real deal.

My father in law has been transferred to Kandıra prison in Izmit. They’ve split all the prisoners, sending them willy nilly to different high security prisons around the country. Kandıra is one of the F-Type high security prisons built in 1999 to replace the old mass ‘ward’ system—where detainees would be crowded into one large cell where they would at least have the comfort of each other. The F-type was designed to subject prisoners to extreme isolation, an idea spearheaded by a Doctor İtil, a prison physician during the coup years whom the Radikal newspaper calls ‘The Dr. Mengele of the Turkish Coup’ for the way he used prisoners as guinea pigs for psychological experiments that amounted to torture. Luckily, we discovered, my father-in-law is most likely in one of the cells designed for three cellmates.

We had hoped for a visit this holiday, but were told that there would be no visits at all this week. It’s unclear when we’ll be allowed in. We have a list of things he wants scribbled on a prison order form—a pair of pants, a belt, a razor, tissues, a wash cloth, hand wipes, and his red scarf from home.  We have this form instead of the man himself, and it’s almost like that’s all he amounts to anymore, this list of seven mundane items.

We also got a letter from him through the lawyer. It’s short, but I think captures his spirit well—dignified, defiant, somewhat personal but ever the politician, ever thinking about the bigger picture.  And it’s clear he wanted others to read it. Posting it here along with a translation is at least one little thing I can do to give him a voice as he waits voiceless in his cell.
I wanted to put the Turkish up as well, as he wrote it, in his writing, but the PDF file wouldn't work. So here is the English translation.

My Dear Son,

Today is our second day in Metris Prison. Since our arrest, at every second, they have made us aware of their inhumanity with the low-level but intense torture they have subjected us to for the past five days, both in our cells and in the ‘court’. But they have not broken our dignity nor our morale, and this has both shocked and infuriated them.

Our prosecution and future punishment was set and decided long before we were taken into custody. Whatever our punishment turns out to be, you must not let it demoralize you, just as we will never let it tear us away from the policies we believe in. I know that you will be an example to those around you with your more strong willed and unwavering stance, with your truer and more cool-headed views. What we have gone through and what we will go through I count as merely the price of an honorable struggle.

Forty six out of the fifty two of us taken into custody of us have been charged with ‘membership in an armed organization’—including Professor Büşra Ersanlı and writer Ragıp Zarakoğlu. In two days, they will transfer us all to different prisons. Through you, I send my greetings to everyone at home, and to all our sympathetic, patriotic friends.

Your father

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Part 2--My Father-in-Law's Arrest

The Court Hands Down Their Doom
Kandıra Prison

As a white American, I have never experienced firsthand how your own government can tear your life and family apart. I understood that blacks and Native Americans and other minorities suffered under a system built for whites, but never intuitively, never from the gut. Until now.

On Monday, my wife Delal and her family spent the whole day in front of the Beşiktaş courthouse with hundreds of other people waiting to hear the decision of the judge—would her father be released or charged and imprisoned? He was one of the fifty writers, teachers, and students detained in Istanbul for ‘affiliation with a terrorist group .  School was like torture—I was texting Delal every hour to ask for news, and when the last class finished, I raced as fast as one can race through Istanbul’s nightmarish traffic to get to her side.

The courthouse was next to Bahçeşehir University, right on the Bosporous. Amid the Kurdish women in Eastern dress, were students sipping Starbucks and lugging books back and forth--staring. A whole contingent of riot police lined the streets with billy clubs and shields. Most people huddled for warmth outside the courthouse gates, but we waited hours in the Simit Saray next door trying to stay warm. The waiting was torment, and the only entertainment came when one of the young policemen got his finger stuck in the wires of the gate outside. The whole crowd snickered in unison.

While waiting, we finally get details about how the raid went down. When the prosecutor decided to accuse the BDP academy of terrorism, they had the police sweep the entire school for fingerprints. Anyone who had been there within the past few days was taken—students, visitors, teachers, and even a man from a shop on the first floor who’d gone up one afternoon for tea. So much for evidence, due process, rule of law or even logic.

Around ten o’clock at night, we were having tea in the Simit Saray when a young girl dashed inside and hurled herself weeping into the arms of an old man at the table next to us.

‘They’ve taken him!’ she wails. ‘They’re pressing charges!’

‘Kızım,’ the man said, hugging her. ‘Hush. This only means they haven’t released him yet.’

We rushed outside.  The guards had announced that three students would be released. The rest of the prisoners, 47 people, were being referred to the high court for a final decision. A feeling of dread pricked at the hairs on the back of my neck even as the courthouse gates swung open and three bedraggled young people emerged. Women ululated. A rush of relatives broke through the crowds to embrace the released students, and a hundred people erupted in tears and applause and jubilant cries of Biji biratiya gelan! ‘Long live the brotherhood of the people!’ I was startled to find tears streaming down my cheeks. I’ve been trying to stay strong for my wife, she has been trying to stay strong for her family. Neither of us has cried yet at all. I wanted to hug these emerging strangers. I can’t explain how many years of my wife’s life I suddenly understood in that moment—her anger at the system, her instant solidarity with people she’s never met, her cynicism. 

‘What about the others?’ Everyone started to ask. ‘Did you see my husband? Do you know my sister? How is my mother doing?’

News came quickly from the lawyers inside—a final decision would not be reached until the wee hours of the morning, possibly four or five. We should all go home.  My wife’s uncle would not be budged however—he stood shivering, his breath visible on the cold November air. ‘I’m not moving till they tell me what they’re going to do with my brother.’

The problem is this. A Turkish arrest has two stages. First you are göz altına almak or ‘taken under the eye’. You’re held in detention as the courts evaluate your case and decide if you have committed a crime. Then  you are tutuklanmak—or formally charged. Once this happens, you languish in prison until your case comes to trial, sometimes more than a year later. For my father-in-law, this  would mean the dreaded F-Type prison condemned by human rights groups around the world. This is the fate we are praying desperately to avoid.

A verdict did not come till early the following afternoon, and the news was bad.  Forty-four people had been charged with membership in the KCK—including my father -in-law. The next day that number would become forty six as two more students were condemned. The defense attorneys, sixteen people in all, stormed out of the courthouse and flung their lawyers robes to the ground in a show of protest. ‘This is not justice. This is a mockery of the law,’ they said.

The  prosecutions case, one explained, consisted not of evidence or testimony or proof of any kind—but a single question posed to my father-in-law and his compatriots.

‘Are you a member of the KCK?’  Are you a witch? Are you a communist? No? Yes? There was no right answer? They also got to deliver a statement in their own defense, and God bless him, defiant to the end, my father-in-law demanded that his testimony be given in Kurdish--and of course was refused. As the prisoners were taken away in armored cars, the crowd erupted in grief.  ‘Take me!’ cried one young girl. ‘You’ve taken my father and mother! I’m all alone now! Why don’t you take me?!’

So many people had come to lend a hand that day, including Rakel Dink wife of the martyred activist Hrant Dink.  Reporters Without Borders, the PEN Foundation, and publishing rights groups across Europe and America were rising to action for their imprisoned comrades Professor Ersanli and Ragip Zarakolu. If he hadn’t been rounded up with such big names, my father-in-law might have vanished unheralded into prison like the 4000 BDP members before him. We worry now that Turkey will bow to pressure and release the two Turkish big names, but leave the others to languish. According to the Turkish news last night, over ten thousand people now sit in prison on the same charges, waiting for judgement, but they have no foundations petitioning embassies on their behalf. They’re just ordinary Kurds and Turks who ran afoul of Power.

Now it was left to us to go home and break it to his eighty three year old father—our Dede, grandfather.

When we arrive at his house, Dede is on the edge of the couch shivering and rocking himself. He rises when we come in, his eyes red. ‘You didn’t tell me!’ he said simply. ‘How could you keep this from me? I knew nothing! Nothing! I asked your uncle why he looked so angry yesterday—all day long he was raging around biting everyone’s head off. He told me something had happened, but couldn’t tell me what. It was torture. So many horrible things went through my head!’

I take the seat beside him and he stares down at the carpet. I talk about the weather, about the news, about what the lawyers are saying—anything to keep a flow of words up. Whenever there is silence, he starts to shake and sink down inside himself. You can see his shoulders crumpling. At one point he turns to me and says, ‘I’ve seen what they do at these prisons. I spent four months in one just a few years ago for God knows what. I just…’ He can’t finish the thought.

I know the story. When he was 78 years old, a captured guerilla gave Dede’s name to the police. Was he tortured or just afraid of torture? No one knew, but they accused Dede of supplying the PKK. Dede, knowing the trouble it could bring on his family, had always tried to stay out of the guerilla fight. I knew he was innocent, but his name had been offered up simply because it was one of the best-known in the village. They loaded him into an armored truck with only a slit open at the top for air and hauled him to a prison hours away in Muş—a man of 78 years. He stayed for four months.

It’s baffling, this sudden return to the mentality of the 90s.  When Turkey has been making an effort to find and exonerate those buried in anonymous mass graves in the East. When they have been trying men like Ayhan Çarkın who admitted to over 1000 assassinations of the government’s political opponents. When for the first time a Kurdish language classes open at universities.

Delal’s dad is being sent to Kandıra prison in Izmit two hours away—far enough from us to make visiting difficult. It will be more difficult for the poorer families. As mentioned before, it’s one of the notorious F-type prisons. The high security F-type was established in 1991 to house members of ‘armed groups’ in ‘a system of cells constructed for one or three people ... Convicted prisoners will not be permitted contact or communication with other convicted prisoners."(Quoted from the Report of Human Rights Watch: Small Group Isolation in Turkish Prisons 24 May 2000).  They became famous for extreme brutality and maltreatment.  Music would be blared for hours through the cells (This is called Disco Torture—and still goes on, a soldier Uğur Kantar, was tortured to death with this method by his superior officers this July). Prisoners would be isolated for days at a time in the dark. Beatings, sleepless nights where they were forced to sing nationalist marches again and again. ‘When I visited Sincan  F-Type prison,’ wrote Mehmet Bekaroğlu of the Turkish Human Rights Watch, ‘I went into the room of one young prisoner. He seemed to have difficulty orienting himself, and it was sometime before he realized who I was. When I asked if he had any complaint he said ‘Loneliness—save me from this loneliness.’

As is the letter writing campaign from my previous entry.