Sevinç Özarslan is a journalist and a renowned human rights activist who has left her mark on Turkey in recent years with her work. Known by many as “the person who proclaimed the grievances in Turkey to the world”, Özarslan is known for revealing the human rights infringements and legal violations in Turkey to the global public through her news and social media posts. In these days when the free media is silenced in Turkey, the press and media organs are placed partisan tutelage and it is hard to obtain accurate news, it is a struggle to follow and be informed about the events in Turkey.
When even ordinary journalists asking mere questions are imprisoned in the country and all channels and conduits where people can access accurate information are closed or blocked, the news generated by journalists like Özarslan are much valuable and significant. We directed a host of questions to Sevinç Özarslan who follow Turkey closely and know the current stifling phase inside out as an expert on this difficult period in Turkey with human rights violations, dysfunction of the rule of law, and the effects of the grievances on the victims. We had an enlightening interview which I think you will enjoy reading.
Ms. Sevinç, thank you for agreeing to give an interview to Politurco. Could you first introduce yourself to our readers?
I was an ordinary culture and arts journalist living in Istanbul. The word ordinary should not be taken as modesty, it really was. In my own way, I endeavored to follow cultural and artistic events like painting, theater, exhibition, cinema, traditional arts and made news. I graduated from the Istanbul University School of Journalism. After graduation, I worked for various newspapers. I started journalism in the Sabah Media Group. I switched to the culture and arts daily Yeni Binyıl. It was an outstanding daily and I learned a lot there. I could get to know several respected journalists and writers. Since the Yeni Binyıl was closed after the 2001 economic crisis, I worked in art galleries and publishing houses for a while. In 2005, I received an offer from daily Zaman. I was in Zaman until the government appointed a board of trustees there. When the trustees fired me, I moved to daily Yeni Hayat.
Apparently, majority of the opposition periodicals were closed after July 15, 2016. We got branded as terrorists. All my material and moral rights were confiscated by the Erdogan government. I decided to go abroad for education and to get over this phase peacefully and securely. I aimed to learn a foreign language and, if I could, follow a master’s degree and return to Turkey afterwards. Yes, that was exactly my objective. Because there was no court decision that could cause me to leave Turkey. I didn’t flee from my home country. I have never been inside the alleged hierarchical structure of the Gülen Community. After July 15, I learned the existence of an encrypted messaging app called Bylock, allegedly used only by the participants of the Gülen Movement. Here’s why I say these: According to Court of Cassation decisions, the points I have mentioned are considered ‘crimes’. I could take a flight back to my country with my passport at hand and continue my life in silence and comfort. I would even sing songs like ‘Everything is beautiful in my country,’ the same as many. However, after July 15, Turkey was dragged into an entirely lawless setting.
When I saw the regime in Turkey continued doing a great injustice against many innocent people I had the chance to know closely, I decided not to return. I have stayed in Europe and fought against unlawfulness. This was the decision of my life. As the years go by, I realize how tough a decision it has been. I live in Germany.
You said “Until Zaman was closed” …
It was around the end of 2005 when I started in daily Zaman. I used to work at a publishing house until I got a job offer from Zaman. Loving journalism as profession, I accepted this offer. Once I started working at Zaman, I remained there until it was closed because it was both about my job and the people I loved. After the police operations against corruption and graft, the Erdogan government launched a scheme to silence the opposition media. On March 4, 2016, his government appointed a board of trustees to daily Zaman. Two of the trustees were litigators and one was a poet. I never forget their names: Sezai Şengönül, Attorney-at-Law Tahsin Kaplan and Attorney-at-Law Metin İlhan. The trustees fired me a month after their arrival.
On the first night of imposing trustees on the paper, Yunus Göksu, who worked in the Internet department of daily Sabah, came to the Zaman building with the trustees. As I learned later, their purpose was to locate Zaman’s internet server and shut it down. I knew Yunus. He was a friend whom I knew from the community defined as Islamists. I had many friends from the AKP-inclined writers, cartoonists and journalists. I became closer friends with them than with the Gülen Community. This was not a conscious thing; rather spontaneous it was. My house was in Fatih, I think it was partly because of that. The fact Yunus came to the Zaman building made me sad and angry. It weighed tough on me to see a colleague I knew closely to covet our bread at our workplace. When I saw him, I went to him, “What are you doing here? What will you say to your children from now on?” I shouted in his face. An argument broke between us. Cops were everywhere already, they separated us. The next day, we accosted each other at the entrance of the Zaman building and had a heated discussion. Hearing these, the new management not only dismissed me but also did not pay me any severance.
Gross human rights violations have scourged Turkey, especially after the July 15 coup attempt. The ensuing phase has hurt the lives of millions. How could Turkey stoop so low in human rights?
Human rights have never been decent in Turkey. There is a perception as if we encounter such a crisis for the first time. No, it is not. Turkey has been a prominently country oft-violating the European Convention on Human Rights. Turkey has been one of the most condemned by the European Court of Human Rights. Nowadays, the situation is not much different. Maybe the cases decreased for a while in the past, but they were always there. I remember the Malatya Case from my years at the university. A group of leftist high school students in Malatya were tortured in the 1990s for protesting paid education. This event went down in history as the Malatya Case. It later evolved into an international case. What’s more, there are violations against Kurds for years. The Human Rights Association, headquartered in Ankara, brings up the grievances of those who have been violated for years and issues reports. There were also rights violations during the Ergenekon trials.
After July 15, these rights violations intensified. Honestly, I’m in a shock like everyone else. I do not know if there has been another period when pregnant and puerperal women, babies and patients were arrested en masse like in these days. Mothers were sent to prisons with their one-day-old babies. Despite the law, pregnant women spent nine months in prison, and the regime still arrests and imprisons such vulnerable women.
The worst part is, even if we report and document human rights violations, a substantial segment of the Turkish society does not believe in these. Some say, “Oh well, it fits them right.” We encounter such low grade of humanity. A few people ask, “Aren’t these people treated unfairly?” The state and power establish the rights and the law. Unfortunately, in Turkey, the regime has become the violator of rights and propagator of injustice across the country.
Why do you think these violations increased after July 15, 2016?
First, many are arrested in a manner that can only be termed as extraordinary. Can there be over 1 million terrorists in a country? Prisons burst at the seams due to the excessive number of inmates. 45 inmates are shoehorned in prison dorms made for 15-20. In a country with so many arrests, it is impossible not to have rights violations. Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdağ ate his fast-breaking meal in the Ankara Open Prison on the first day of Ramadan this year. According to the speech he made there, there are almost no violations in Turkish prisons! I mean, does this explanation ring true with the life’s ordinary flow? Not possible. In an environment where so many violations and even the existence of torture are confirmed by official institutions, how can a Minister of Justice make a statement, “Our prisons are great and our justice system is perfectly fine”? Everyone exploits the state resources as if it is their family’s farmland. There is no accountability mechanism. There is no authority one can trust when there is an injustice or illegality. For example, when I encourage the oppressed saying, ‘Seek your rights! Do not stay silent! Do not put up with it!’, they say, ‘To whom should we complain?’
Who in Turkey are victimized in terms of human rights? Why do you think these people suffer?
Currently, Kurds and the participants of the Gülen Movement arrested as part of the investigations for their alleged membership in terrorist organizations experience intense violations of their rights. Ferhan Yılmaz, tortured to death in Silivri No. 5 L Type Prison three weeks ago, is a solemn and vivid example. Cases of villagers ejected from military helicopters besides suspicious deaths and suicides increase daily Can Güder, aged 20, died under suspicious conditions in the Van Prison. According to one claim, he directly told the public prosecutor he had not been given a fair trial and said he would commit suicide. Despite that, the young man was sent to prison. According to the latest decision of the Constitutional Court, the state is also accountable for the suicides in prison. The state is obliged to protect the person, even from himself.
I think the basis of the tribulations suffered by the Gülen Community is their demonization in the public opinion. There are over 10 thousand women in Turkish prisons. Most were sent behind bars in the wake of the July 15 coup attempt. It is absurd to think these women had anything to do with the July 15 unrest. Let the actual perpetrators of the coup be found and brought to justice; let justice be done. Everyone awaits this. Instead of finding out the perpetrators of the coup, the officials harass women and children.
No decent journalist in Turkey follows the July 15-related court hearings. Many contradictory incidents are revealed in those cases… Yet the AKP government tries to justify itself by distressing children with a criminal mind. Just yesterday, the regime officials released a drone footage of a pre-dawn raid by the special operation police. It’s a completely fictional raid to play to the galleries. During a house search, the officers seize a bundle of $1 bills as adequate justification for arrest. Why would anyone keep a pack of $1 in an envelope at home? Let’s say there is such a thing, what could be a crime in this?
What are the human rights violations in Turkey?
Torture, battery, threats, harassment in detention centers and prisons… Prolonged detention. Illegal interrogation guised as an interview. The law enforcement officers threatened detainees with the wellbeing of their families. They even threatened they would rape their wives and daughters. Teenaged girls were harassed during interrogations. Abductions in broad daylight not only in Turkey but also abroad. Interrogations dubbed as interviews are absolutely illegal; they should not be conducted in any way, but the law enforcement does not care. During the night, they remove detainees from detention rooms and take them to a different room where they first ask questions kindly. They simply want to force people to confess; they want them to give names. They also beat those who would not speak. Everyone must have heard what befell Gökhan Açıkkollu. The interrogators maimed and beat people to death in the Mersin Police Department. Aydın Aydoğan was inhumanely battered in the Istanbul Police Department during the Gezi events in 2013. He resorted to legal remedies and sought his rights. Finally, the Constitutional Court decided his rights had been violated and he was paid 45,000 TL in compensation. Sometimes people perceive seeking their rights as opposing the state authority. Seeking rights is not opposing the state. We all love our country and our state. We have no problems there. We are just seeking justice. We have a hard time explaining this. Others do not wish to do anything thinking it will lead nowhere. The important thing is to do your part and surrender the outcome to God’s will.
It has been in the UN and the EU reports that torture is widespread in Turkey. What would you like to say about Turkey and the reality of torture?
Yes, torture is mentioned the reports released by the United Nations and European Union. What’s more, it has been documented with the decisions of the Constitutional Court that the law enforcement in Turkey resorts to torture. It became official with the decisions of the Constitutional Court that geography teacher Eyüp Erken, who was imprisoned in Antalya, and Ahmet Aşık, who was imprisoned in Afyon, were tortured under custody.
Readers should excuse me here, but I say these for expressing a bitter fact: People in detention were raped with batons. In Ankara, people were electrocuted, hanged on hooks, and blindfolded with sacks in custody at an unofficial detention center called “The Farm”. This has been revealed in the court hearings. Despite all these official decisions and reports, it is still debated whether there is torture in Turkey. These debates are not held by the common people, but the intelligentsia including journalists, writers and intellectuals. No one can dare to say there is no torture in Turkey anymore.
Are the people mentioned here officially arrested or abducted?
The abductees were tortured in unofficial detention centers. I mean, the law enforcement operatives release these people after torturing them for a while. Some of the tortured spoke in courts about their inhumane treatment. For example, Ayten Öztürk was arrested because of her leftist views. The Turkish intelligence operatives abducted her from Lebanon to Turkey. She explained she had been tortured for six months. After her official arrest, she said in her defense, “My fellow inmates in the ward counted 800-odd wounds on my body.” These were chronicled in official records. She explains on the social media the daily torture she underwent under unofficial detention. In our modern age, I feel shock and shame to be talking about torture.
Doesn’t Turkish society consider these victimizations as torture?
Unfortunately, people do not. For example, they do not consider beating as a form of torture. They simply quip, “What bad happens if you deal one or two blows?” Some of the tortured too are of this opinion. For example, a man I interviewed said, “I’m not someone who would collapse over two slaps and whine on the ground. Let them hit me, nothing happens. They hit me in the head with the butt of a gun.” He meant his interrogators would deal him with two slaps. This is absolutely against the law. A person paralyzed after being hit on the head with the butt of a gun said these words.
Torture has both physical and psychological dimensions. Threats, oppression, ridicule, humiliation, isolation, confinement, and terrorization are psychological dimensions. Harassment, rape, assault, electrocution, waterboarding, forcing into a straitjacket and so on are counted among physical forms of torture. These have been conducted during the phase after the July 15 coup attempt.
Do you think the reason Turkish society is not sensitive about this issue is the lack of awareness and education about a vital issue like torture or is it because of some social reasons?
Society views the arrested and the imprisoned thus: If he was incarcerated, he must have committed something criminal. The officers behind those walls may do whatever they wish to make them talk. These topics are depicted as ordinary even in drama serials. For example, in the Justice series, the prosecutor brother says to his brother imprisoned for murder, “If it weren’t for me, they’d make you sing here.” A prosecutor says so. What does this mean? They may do any torture to you here. In some serials on the state broadcaster TRT, scenes of abduction and torture are lionized with folk ballads. These methods are presented as if they are ordinary state policy. The officials say, “We have the muscle and we can do what we want.” It is impossible for them not to know this travesty. If they are doing it on purpose, it is a shame for Turkey. We are a feeble nation in claiming rights and raising voice against injustice done to people, no matter who or where they are.
Why do the EU and the UN reports and the ECHR decisions do not affect Turkey? What do you think about this?
Turkey does not implement and does not recognize most decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. I have a hard time understanding the European Court of Human Rights. As a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, Turkey has to implement the decisions of the ECHR, but the Turkish officials do not care. The ECtHR also imposes no sanctions related to such callousness. Frankly, I have already lost my trust in institutions such as the ECHR and the UN. While living in Turkey, I used to think these institutions were reliable. The more I live in Europe, the more I have seen the decisions of international institutions are also political. For example, I think the decision of the ECtHR on Yusuf Bilge Tunç, who was abducted two years ago, is purely political.
Do you think the ECHR can say, “Turkey does not implement our decisions anyway” and decide about the state?
Here’s what I mean: The verdict they gave about Yusuf Bilge Tunç is not in line with the truth. The resolution purports to say, “An effective investigation was carried out and no problem exists.” Yusuf Bilge Tunç’s car was found 10 days after his abduction, with the efforts of his family. The crime scene investigation was carried out 6 months later. Where is the effective investigation in this? The car was first kept on location for a long time and the officers left after 6 months. Now, based on which document did the ECHR take this decision? It is hard to comprehend their mindset. What’s more, this abducted man did not simply disappear into the thin air … If a person has been missing for 2 years, the state is surely responsible for that. The state has to find him and produce him. The ECtHR should have considered this as well. Other abducted people turned up. A few people did not. Yusuf Bilge Tunç is one of them. What happened to him? What did his abductors do to him? Everyone wonders and wishes to know.
Nearly 400 babies are in Turkish prisons. Why do they imprison babies?
The AKP, which came to power by propagating a manifesto on justice, rights and law, went down in history as a regime that imprisoned babies and children. According to the data provided by the Ministry of Justice, there are 396 children between the ages of 0-6 incarcerated in Turkish prisons with their mothers. The number of imprisoned children and convicted between the ages of 12 and 18 in prisons across Turkey is 2076. These figures change constantly. Until two years ago, 780 children and babies were in Turkish prisons. Suddenly, that number dropped.
You know, there are juvenile wards in prisons. Şakran Prison has one ward and until recently 14 children and 14 mothers lived together in an area of nearly 100 square meters. Any child aged between 0 and 6 cannot be separated from his mother and a mother cannot be separated from her child; this is why both are in prison. They’re necessarily there. Moreover, most of their fathers are in prison. Some children are taken care of by their grandparents, but this is impossible for every family. The little ones or newborns already need the mother, they are breastfed.
Children who stay with their close relatives such as grandparents suffer massive traumas. They have to visit their mothers in prisons. Children whose parents are imprisoned know prison as a workplace. Children have no way of understanding these political arrests, how can this be explained to them? Families are desperate. In five years, those children have grown up, reached primary school age, have learned how to read and write, and now they realize the place they have been visiting is not a workplace. A friend’s daughter asked, “This is not a workplace. This is a prison, I know. They throwing thieves in here. Why did they throw my father here? What did my father do?” She said she hadn’t been able to sleep for days when she was questioned by her child this way. There are such gross traumatic experiences.
In the early days after the July 15 incident, we heard the officials separated the children from some families and placed them in the Child Protection Agency dormitories. This had received a serious backlash. Does this practice continue?
The officials initially handed children to the Child Protection Agency. Later, they gave up on it after much backlash. I haven’t come across anything like this recently.
We hear reports that inmates are not given enough food in prisons. Do they give enough food to the inmates with children?
There is never any special food for children, and the food served is not suitable for them. Mothers endeavor to meet their children’s food needs from the canteen. That means additional financial burden. They can buy and feed their children as much as their financial means. Prison canteens charge exorbitantly and one cannot find everything they want. One has to make do with whatever the canteen personnel order. Of course, the food served is not enough for the inmates. Some prisons are very problematic some do not. A mother, a dismissed judge imprisoned in the Izmit Gebze Prison, was behind the bars with her two-month-old daughter. She had told her family on the day of the visit she had to feed her child with the broth of haricot beans and eggplants served in meals. No one from the prison authorities cares whether your baby is properly fed or not.
Why does the Erdogan regime imprison the participants of the Hizmet Movement regardless of men-women, children-the elderly, and the sickly or the healthy? What did these people do?
During the Ergenekon trials, an audio recording had been leaked on the Internet. An imprisoned general of the Turkish Armed Forces was saying, “We’re going to smash them all”. I had not believed it much back then. “What kind of a statement is this?” I thought, “What are they going to do, anyway?” They act on everything they said. It has long been evolved in a matter of revenge. As if they were responsible for the coup attempt, there is a dishonorable attack on children and pregnant women. I do not know what other word can describe this. Why would a Stage 4 cancer patient be imprisoned? The doctor already said to his or her face that (s)he can live for a year, maximum. Why do you keep such a person in prison? To punish them, there is a measure called supervised release or something like house arrest. Why do you have to imprison them when you can apply these measures? There’s no risk of escape. Arresting a person is the last resort in law. I cannot explain otherwise the arrest of many people, including such critical patients.
Do you think that the Ergenekon structure is taking revenge?
I do not know if it is Ergenekon or not, but a revenge is being taken from a faith-inspired community. The avengers do this using the coup attempt as an excuse.
An amnesty was issued during the Covid phase, but the government did not let the political prisoners avail that right. Why do you think that was so?
The state views political prisoners as “dangerous inmates”. These people are the educated cadres of our country. They include medical doctors, teachers, university professors, journalists, judges, prosecutors, lawyers, businesspeople, homemakers, university students, retired people and volunteers who participated in the activities of non-governmental associations and foundations.
Many judges and prosecutors were especially imprisoned in the Sincan Prison, Ankara. The officials dispatched these people to Kırıkkale Keskin Prison, one by one, to solitary confinement as ‘dangerous inmates’. There is Turan Canpolat, an attorney-at-law detained in High Security Prison No. 2 in Elazig. For three years, the officials have been keeping him in a chicken coop-sized cell. The story of Turan Canpolat is rather significant. Although he was arrested as a political prisoner long before July 15, 2016, he was suddenly included among those criminalized for planning the July 15 coup. Although he was in prison during the coup, he went down in history as a lawyer accused of the coup. He was exiled from Malatya to Elazig for refuting the officials’ legal blunders, forged documents and forced accusations against him. I read the case files of Mr. Turan and study the letters he writes; he struggles against the irregularities and injustices in court hearings by trying every possible way, even though he is in prison.
About the amnesty, general amnesties have always been issued on important anniversaries in Turkey. Like on the 10th and the 20th anniversary of the Republic. Everyone curiously asks if such an amnesty will be issued in 2023, the centennial of the Republic. There are public rumors. It would not be right to make such a comment without a general amnesty and seeing it implemented.
Talking about the political prisoners, what do you think about the victimization and detention of Selahattin Demirtaş and Osman Kavala, despite the fact the whole world knows the ECHR decided to release them?
As I said before, I have a hard time understanding the European Court of Human Rights. The ECtHR needs to find a solution or impose a penalty. It has been seen in Turkey there is no result just by taking a decision and quitting. As everyone knows, Selahattin Demirtaş was imprisoned for saying to Erdoğan, ‘By God, we will not make you president’. Believe me, there is nothing in the case against Osman Kavala. Kavala’s close friend Oya Baydar said, “Osman was upset when he saw the swear words written on the walls about Emine Erdoğan during the Gezi Park events, and hired a man to have those writings removed from the walls by his own means. He also gave the message ‘this is not our purpose here’ to the protestors. The events escalated to such a point that all accusations were placed on Kavala and he has been in prison ever since. They take revenge on him too.”
They take revenge on Kavala and Demirtaş, just as they take revenge on the Gülen Movement. They pursue the policy of destroying all those who oppose. In Turkey, there is no law, but arbitrariness prevails. Despite all these decisions, there is still no other explanation for these people not being released. The regime is officially holding thousands of people hostage.
Do you see any of them being released any time soon?
No, I have no hope, frankly. Yet, it’s not certain. You’ll see, one day, they may release them all with a bang. Nothing is predictable in Turkey.
You said the European Court of Human Rights should normally impose a sanction. What kind of practices does the ECHR have at this point against the party countries that do not implement its decisions?
They impose warnings and punishments. I am not very familiar with the general legislation. A few people doing their PhDs in Germany interviewed exiled journalists. They asked me if I had confidence in the legal system in Europe. I said I had none. The cases of imprisoned journalists Hidayet Karaca and Mehmet Baransu have been waiting to be resolved by the ECtHR for years. It has yet to be resolved. Meanwhile, when journalists like Barış Terkoğlu and Barış Pehlivan were arrested, their applications were resolved within three months. Now, on what basis does the ECtHR decide the priority of these files? Spano, President of the ECtHR, made a rambling statement like “There are too many files; of course, I know it should not take that long”.
Serious debates started in the global public opinion regarding the Turkish authorities’ decision to hand over the Jamal Khashoggi files to Saudi Arabia. Do you think this issue has also been caused by the legal problems experienced?
Jamal Khashoggi was murdered within the borders of Turkey and the Turkish authorities discovered this murder themselves. Now the case is closed and handed to Saudi Arabia. This is purely a matter of political interests. A recent allegation is that former Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gul was dismissed because he did not want the case to be transferred to Saudi Arabia. One of the first acts of the new minister Bekir Bozdağ was the transfer of the Khashoggi case. All these have nothing to do with the law.
Then can it be said justice in Turkey is under the tutelage of politics?
That’s what it looks like when witnessing implementations. Recently, President of the Court of Cassation Mehmet Akarca said “One of the pressing problems in the judiciary is that 60 percent of judges and prosecutors are inexperienced”. What does this mean? “Our judges and prosecutors are inexperienced.” Is it that easy to play with someone’s life? There are people in prison for the last five or six years. There are people kept in solitary confinement for years and have not seen the light of day. Have you left people’s lives in the hands of these inexperienced judges and prosecutors? He further stated the Turkish Law Academy would train judges and prosecutors. These statements by the President of the Court of Cassation are shocking. It is said that the judges who hear the most crucial cases will receive training, it is simply mind-blowing. This shows the judiciary in Turkey has been dead and buried.
Seriously ill and elderly people need care in prisons, and there are campaigns for the release of these people. Unfortunately, they are still not released. What do you think are the reasons for this?
I do not think so. Many people, especially Ayşe Özdoğan, have been released. Campaigns on social media seem to yield results. There are also people who await to be released. Actually, there is no math for this. There are those who are released after a campaign and those who are not. Paralyzed Mehtap Şentürk, imprisoned in the Ankara Sincan Prison; Bilal Konakçı, a 100-percent disabled police officer, and many others were not released despite their serious condition. They should not have even been arrested. The police should not have showed up at their houses. They should not have been produced before a public prosecutor. Yet, the authorities do all these.
In countries where law and democracy prevail, people do not seek their rights on social media. They trust their courts of law. For example, Twitter is not an effective social media platform in Germany. Merkel doesn’t even have a Twitter account. In our country, people are forced to seek their rights on social media because state institutions are hollowed and there is no trust left for them. Everyone screams for their rights on Twitter.
Due to social media campaigns, successful results are obtained, especially on preventing femicide. Authorities take people’s reactions on social media more seriously. You visit the electronic government portal and file a petition saying you need help. While the same authorities do nothing on the electronic government portal, they take you seriously when you tweet.
I need to open a parenthesis here and elaborate this for your readers: Yes, people arrested for common crimes such as murder and theft are released in Turkey, but educated people like teachers, doctors, journalists and judges are imprisoned albeit they have no crimes. Actually, this well summarizes Turkey’s legal situation.
There are people said to be still in prisons despite having served their sentences. What do you think about this?
There is a measure that entitles those with finalized sentences and those who completed their sentences to spend their remaining one-year sentence as released and by signing at a police center. This is called the right of probation or supervised release. The judiciary rarely gives this right to political prisoners. Some prisons did, but only a few. Committees are formed in prisons. They include prison directors, psychologists, and prison guards. First, they interview the inmate entitled to probation. They investigate whether the inmate has a relationship with the so-called detrimental organization or not.
According to that, they release or keep the inmate. First, forming such committees is illegal. The courts have already tried you, sentenced you, and you have served your sentence. It’s time for you to be released, but you are being tried once again in the prison. Is this what’s going to happen? What’s more, the practices of such committees are not legal. They do not even release people who shift to neutral wards. The last time they asked a prisoner in the Manisa Akhisar Prison, “Is there anyone in your ward who still has a connection with the Organization?” What does this mean? “Be an informant for us.” Know what I mean? These are entirely illegal. If the inmate gives an unacceptable answer to the committee, that is, does not work as an informant, their right to probation is denied.
Let me talk about another case. Journalist Aytekin Gezici has been detained in Hatay Prison for the last five years. Gezici, sentenced to 7 years and 8 months, received his probation right this April, and he should have been released. Do you know what the authorities did? They resolved Gezici’s other ongoing cases and extended his sentence to 13 years. Since pro-government reporters like Nedim Şener target Gezici, they harbor an exclusive rancor towards him. Nedim Şener, imprisoned as a journalist, did not hesitate to commit the same illegitimacy to his colleague.
There is actually no evidence in the case where 13 journalists from all walks of life in Adana, including Aytekin Gezici, were tried. A case that proceeds entirely with target practice. Daily Sözcü columnist Saygı Öztürk wrote an article on May 29, 2017 on those who would be arrested after July 15, saying “Eight criteria will be taken into account”. According to this article; everyone who use Bylock, exchange phone calls with people alleged to be the leaders of the Organization, were named by anonymous witnesses or those who professed effective remorse, opened a new account and deposited money in Bank Asya upon the organizational instructions, increased deposits in their accounts, worked in schools closed with a statutory decree, donated to institutions of the Organization and had their children educated in the closed schools would be put to trial according to these criteria.
Aytekin Gezici referred to Öztürk’s article in his defense and said, “I do not have Bylock, I have no Bank Asya account, I have no union membership, I have no donations made to any institution, I did not send my children to a closed school, and there are no witnesses against me. I do not fall under any of these criteria. I demand my release.” However, these were not considered.
In the case where Aytekin Gezici and 13 journalists were tried, a person named Selahattin Sekin, who had informed the authorities about the journalists and who had worked as a distributor for the Cihan Media Distribution Inc. for a while before becoming a television broadcaster by founding the Metro TV through the support of the AKP politicians, was also heard as a witness. Sekin, who created a file from the tweets of all opposition journalists in Adana, especially Gezici, could not answer the questions of the journalists he had criminalized in the court. Especially for Gezici, he said, “I never saw him, but they used to attend meetings in the newspaper building” and tried to defended his claim. Despite Sekin’s perjury and lack of concrete evidence against Aytekin Gezici, the books he wrote and the tweets he shared were cited as evidence and he was sentenced to 9 years in prison. Dursun Çiçek, once tried on charges of membership in the Ergenekon structure, attended the court hearing and later said, “There is not a single criminal in this case.”
Recently, a video showing a police special operations team raiding the home of a family with a baby with heavy weapons went viral, causing controversy. Is the police department afraid of a mother with a baby? What do you think is the reason for such operations?
The motive of those who carried out this operation, is to parade strength and gain positions or authority. The person who ordered the operation you mentioned, Istanbul Police Chief Zafer Aktaş, was the police director of Adana province two years ago and had the door of a family residence rammed. The police had the Demirören News Agency (DHA) broadcast the video of the door smashing. The place where they carried out the operation was a modest neighborhood in Adana. Ordinary people from my homeland live in such raided houses. The authorities are strong enough to harass such people. “Open the door” barks the officers when the door is not opened in the morning. They order to smash the door, in front of the cameras. When they break the door and enter, an uncle cries out, “Son, the child is sleeping! The child is sleeping!” Zafer Aktaş became the Istanbul Police Chief five days after this operation. The operation video you mentioned and shared by the police was shot in the house where a 40-day old baby lived with his parents in Güngören district in Istanbul, and the mother was taken into custody. They released her that day, but her husband was arrested after prolonged detention.
The officials do not wish to end the probes carried out on charges of membership in the Gülen Movement or the operations carried out against the so-called restructuring of the Organization. Their aim is to instill fear, oppress and intimidate the society. They give the message to their superiors that “We continue the operations. We fight against terrorist organizations”.
As these human rights violations limit people’s living space, people look for ways to flee the country. Maritza River is one of the oft-chosen routes, but people from all ages lost their lives drowning there. What do you think about this struggle between life and death?
The authorities left no one the right to live in Turkey; people are compelled to find alternatives. Think about it, you will likely be arrested unjustly, spend your years in prison and be deprived of your freedom. Losing your freedom is not an easy thing. People see salvation in leaving the country. For example, they detained a group of women in Trabzon the other day. Reason? Women bought and sold tomato paste among themselves. Trading is also prohibited. This caught the attention of the police, they detained the women and questioned them if they had any ties to the Organization. In such an environment, you have to go to another country. The right to life is not valued. They tell you, “Do not eat. Do not drink. Do not go anywhere else and die here”.
It is a tough decision to cross the Maritza and the Aegean and flee Turkey. Yes, there have been people who died on the route, but the number of people who could cross and start new lives is often more than those who sadly perished. Recently, the situation has changed somewhat. Greece is pushing refugees back, because Europe no longer wants refugees. They agreed with Erdogan so the refugees would not leave Turkey. Europe is not so innocent in pushback events. They block the roads. Even Europe is self-democratic when it comes to interests. I’m not sure how democratic they can be about the injustice you have been exposed to. Nobody leaves their country out of the blue, they need to understand that. Otherwise, why would a doctor or a prosecutor go through the Maritza… In the first years after the July 15 event, the crossings were easier, now they have become more challenging and perilous. It is a very risky path. However, there are different ways and people keep on trying. We even saw police officers dismissed via statutory decrees paragliding from Turkey and landing on a Greek island.
Could you explain a little more about the restriction of the living spaces of the people you just mentioned? In what sense are these restrictions more common?
For example, what Menekşe Turen, a teacher dismissed from civil service via a statutory decree, said about the marginalization her daughter had been subjected in her public school is so heartbreaking and hard to believe. Turen enrolled his daughter, who attended to a private school, in a public school because her private school had been closed with a statutory decree. As soon as the child goes to her new school, she was labeled this ‘-ist’ or that ‘-ist’. To the question, “What do you want to be?” in an exam, she replied “I want to be judge”. The teacher asked why she wanted to be a judge and she said, “For justice”. What should be the attitude of a teacher who hears this response? The teacher said, “There is already justice in this country,” and confronted the girl. Even the other students in the class reacted to the teacher’s attitude. Imagine, even an educator does not understand you. If three people get together and have something to eat, the law enforcement takes you into custody on charges of restructuring the Organization. You cannot visit anyone, you cannot call.
During this period, some families victimized by statutory decrees also lost their children by depression and suicide. The children’s psychology is in tatters. If you take care of the child of a prisoner, this also poses a problem. The regime arrests people who do so and remark in the indictments “the members of the Organization support one another materially and morally”. They consider even relations established on humanitarian grounds as organizational activities. When a pharmacist in Giresun learned that the husband of a woman who bought a medicine was in prison, he said, “Sister, do not come here again.” There are thousands of examples and stories like this.
It was said people dismissed with decree laws were not given jobs anywhere. Is this still the same?
Yes, those dismissed via statutory decrees still have a hard time finding jobs. Even after the 1980 coup, the people dismissed by the statutory decrees had not been imposed like this. Everyone worked at the job they wanted; some even became rich. In today’s Turkey, the state has tagged you. If Code 36 is displayed when they key your citizenship ID number at any public institution, it tells you were dismissed via a statutory decree and, according to the official discourse, are a terrorist. All doors close in your face.
Some employers are very cruel to those who find jobs. They employ the dismissed people without paying their insurance premiums and make them do the hardest work. Unfortunately, once a person has fallen, everyone tries to take advantage of their frailty.
Do you think the human rights organizations, media and national-international organizations have done enough to end these grievances?
No, none could do enough. How much can they do enough? If they were enough, that is, if there were sanctions, these would not have happened. The Parliamentary Human Rights Commission, with a representative from each party, visits the prisons and investigates. Hüsamettin Uğur, a former Court of Cassation judge imprisoned in the Afyon Prison, wanted to meet the Commission, but he was not allowed. Had I been on that Commission, I would have liked to see the judge in solitary confinement in a cell in that prison. If they didn’t allow it, I would insist. This is the task of the Human Rights Commission. You cannot keep people in solitary confinement for over twenty days. It’s illegal by law, but a judge has been kept in a solitary cell for years and the parliamentarians leave without meeting him. Ninety percent of the media in Turkey is under the tutelage of the regime. Just like the Ministry of Justice, they see everything as rosy. It has been revealed that other than a few, no conscientious, honest, moral journalist ever existed in Turkey. No one has spoken out against this much lawlessness and injustice.
Do you think there can be a change about Turkey’s near future and these tribulations?
No, I do not think there will be a change soon. They ask me this question a lot. I cannot say anything to such questions. I think the AKP supporters, on the one hand, suppress the people with all state mechanisms as if their power will never fade, and they undermine their base too. This is how I read the violence against the Furkan Foundation volunteers in Adana. They took a crystal-clear snapshot of the perception that “Headscarved police officers beat women headscarved women” there. Erdogan came to power thanks to the headscarf rhetoric; he never let this rhetoric quit his mouth, he has maintained his power until today and won elections. Someone’s goal is to try and destroy it. The partisans of the AKP must have gone blind, don’t they see this? In the end, I think they too were undermined. Therefore, I think Turkey’s near future is gravid with abundant trials and tribulations.
Ms. Sevinç, thank you very much for doing this interview with us and answering our questions sincerely.