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From Turkish Prisons with AST: Human Rights Festival Exhibits

“They engage in these activities under the cover of darkness, only to be exposed and apprehended by the morning sun’s rays.” These were the words that my mother, who passed away over thirty years ago at the age of 80+ (January 1, 1994), consistently impressed upon me during my childhood. She wanted me to abhor clandestine behavior that goes against society’s values, hoping that the truth would remain hidden forever.

Her message, she always emphasized, was rooted in the belief that a day would come when all my secretive actions would be unveiled for the world to see. The secrets would cease to exist in the shadows. That would mark my day of shame, the day when society would condemn me. These lessons from my late mother came rushing back to me when I learned that the Advocates of Silenced Turkey (AST), based in New Jersey, would be hosting a Human Rights Festival on Sunday, August 6, 2023, from 2:00 PM to 8:30 PM. The festival aimed to raise awareness about human rights issues and celebrate the spirit of solidarity.

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This development prompted a significant question in my mind: Could this festival serve as the symbolic event where the truth about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s concealed agenda against Turkey and its people would be exposed? Might it be the day when the world would confront the human rights situation in Turkey and be empowered to tell Erdogan that ‘enough is enough’?

Drawing inspiration from military jargon or dart sports terminology, this occasion had three targets, each requiring a precise hit for success. These objectives encompassed identifying current human rights issues in Turkey, shedding light on them, and uniting the global community to exert pressure on Erdogan to return to principles of good governance.

In the fabric of everyday life, we recognize the true value of light through darkness, and we understand kindness through the contrast of cruel actions inflicted upon us and others. From vices, we gain insight into virtues. Even the basic principles of logic, aside from complex physics concepts, dictate that for every positive, there is a negative.

This year’s AST Human Rights Festival held a unique timing. It occurred three weeks after the seventh anniversary of the July 15, 2016 coup, an event whose aftermath undoubtedly contributes to the current adversities faced by Turkey and the suffering of its citizens at home and abroad. Furthermore, it transpired shortly after the pivotal parliamentary and presidential elections held in May. These elections secured Erdogan another controversial five-year term through a process that left much to be desired. However, these matters lie beyond the scope of this discussion. Similarly, the upcoming local (municipal) elections in March of next year, and the question of whether the opposition learned from their previous defeat, do not fall within the scope of this analysis.

Nevertheless, the insights and news surrounding the Festival provided evidence of Erdogan’s meticulously plotted path towards autocratic rule, forming the core of the Human Rights Festival exhibits. These facts aligned with the festival’s primary objective of raising awareness about human rights issues and celebrating solidarity. Amidst the variety of activities featured in the festival, certain fundamental experiences must not be overlooked to ensure the occasion’s true spirit is realized.

A focused examination of human rights in the country confirms AST’s concerns regarding Erdogan’s vision of the “New Turkey.” This vision has led to the adoption of draconian laws, mass incarcerations, and frequent violations of universal human rights. Erdogan’s administration stands as the antithesis of the rule of law, dissent, human rights, and respect for human dignity. It is from this perspective that any exhibit highlighting human rights violations in Turkey becomes integral to the purpose of the Festival. In this context, the recent report by the Istanbul Human Rights Association (İHD) Prisons Branch Commission stands out prominently.

Entitled “Marmara Region Prisons Human Rights Violations Report,” the document compiles human rights violations reported over a three-month period (April, May, and June 2023) from prisoners and detainees in Turkey’s Marmara Region and beyond. A close examination of this three-month interval reveals a period when a conscientious leader might have demonstrated heightened commitment to ethical governance. This period encompassed the culmination of two months of elections and one month into the new presidential term. So, what did Erdogan do?

Presented to the public during a press conference at the association’s headquarters, the report documented “a total of 726 human rights violations: 298 in April, 186 in May, and 242 in June. Furthermore, 242 violations were identified through media monitoring.” In sum, the report unveiled “a total of 968 violations during the three-month period.”

What essential details bring the message of the AST Human Rights Festival to the forefront?

First, the report’s foundation lies in letters, faxes, and applications from prisoners, detainees, their families, lawyers, and media monitoring. The report unveils “a total of 30 applications originating from 11 prisons in April, May, and June 2023. Of these, three were based on legal grounds, while 27 were rooted in political reasons, with each application encompassing multiple violations.”

Second, the spectrum of violations is extensive, with certain cases sounding almost inconceivable under normal circumstances. The report documents a comprehensive range of violations within Marmara Region prisons, including:

  • “Attacks on the right to life” (4 cases)
  • “Torture, abuse, mistreatment, and degrading treatment” (297 cases)
  • “Violation of the right to health” (105 cases)
  • “Unjust imprisonment, execution of prisoners, and lack of fair trial” (36 cases)
  • “Violation of the right to access justice” (41 cases)
  • “Violations of communication rights/isolation” (183 cases)
  • “Violation of the right to adequate and clean nutrition and access to clean water, failure to meet self-care needs” (60 cases)
  • “Highlights from media sources” (242 cases, including 4 deaths)
  • “The lawyers of Abdullah Öcalan, held in Imralı F-Type High-Security Prison and unheard from for 29 months, had their 35 visitation requests denied…”

Third, women, children, and patients found themselves vulnerable and unprotected. The report draws attention to the mounting challenges posed by prison overcrowding, discriminatory practices, and policies. Vulnerable groups, including “children staying with their mothers, foreigners, women, LGBT+, elderly, disabled, and sick prisoners,” faced insufficient protection against human rights violations. The report highlights instances where at least four detainees have died in prisons this year and underscores cases of suicide and suspicious deaths linked to illnesses.

In the words of Gülseren Yoleri, the İHD Istanbul Branch President, oppression and torture have become commonplace in Erdogan’s prisons. Practices like strip searches, mouth searches, and the use of swearing, insults, threats, and degrading treatment have become alarmingly prevalent. Similar to the sentiment expressed at the Greenview Park Human Rights Festival, Yoleri rightly calls for a lasting solution to these issues, in line with domestic law, the Constitution, the United Nations Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules), and international human rights documents.

Erdogan’s Turkey is marked by an escalating policy of isolation, torture, mistreatment, arbitrary bans, and practices devoid of justice and equality. Yoleri is correct in highlighting these violations, yet this alone is insufficient. While sensitivity to these violations is essential, finding solutions is equally crucial. Achieving this demands a collective spirit of solidarity. The magnitude of human rights violations in Erdogan’s Turkey calls for global action. The pursuit of justice and equality, whether in Turkey or anywhere else, requires more than amplifying the voices of the oppressed; it necessitates unwavering solidarity.

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Felix Kaiza is a Tanzanian journalist with more than 50 years of experience currently working as an independent media consultant. Learned in agriculture, journalism, political science and international relations, his main fields of consultancy, besides the media, are good governance, nature conservation, tourism and investment. He was the first Tanzanian Chief Sub-Editor of an English daily newspaper in 1970, he has been behind the establishment and growth of the national independent media since the early 1990s. He is UNFAO Fellow Journalist since 1975 and has wide experience on regional integration. He worked on the Information Directorate of the original East African Community on whose ashes survive the current one. His ambition is to brand Tanzania in the inbound market with made-in-Tanzania brands, including information, almost all of which is currently foreign brewed.

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