The Court Hands Down Their Doom
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.’
The petition is still out there, http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/detentionsinturkey/signatures/page/101
As is the letter writing campaign from my previous entry.