Turkey’s Writers Face Yet More Trials

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On a sweltering afternoon in Istanbul last summer, loud noises woke
the Turkish novelist Aslı Erdoğan from a nap. “Open, police! Open, or we
will break the door,” a voice called. When Erdoğan, an award-winning
writer, unlocked her door, the cold muzzle of an automatic rifle
was placed against her chest. Soldiers in black masks and bulletproof vests
barged in, shouting “Clean!” as they moved through each room. Erdogan, who is
fifty years old, was alone in her apartment. The men, Turkish special
forces soldiers, left after the arrival of dozens of members of the
Turkish counterterrorism forces. As Erdoğan watched, men scoured every
corner of her apartment. Erdoğan, who is not related to the Turkish
President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was informed that she was going to be
charged with supporting terrorism. The basis for the criminal case, she
was told, was her five years of writing articles and serving on the
advisory board of a daily newspaper, Özgür Gündem, which the Turkish
government said was linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and which was shut down in 2016 but later reëmerged under a different name. After
spending seven hours searching through the thirty-five hundred books in
Erdoğan’s home library, the officers took six books on Kurdish history
with them as evidence.

“Later, the judge asked me about those books,” Erdoğan recalled in an interview
earlier this month, in Istanbul. “Is it a crime to read about Kurds in
this country? Aren’t they a part of this nation? Not to read about them
should be a crime,” she said, as she calmly smoked a cigarette.

When Erdoğan was arraigned before a judge and told the charges she
faced, she fainted. She was charged under Article 302 of the Turkish
penal code: disrupting the unity and integrity of the state. She was
held in solitary confinement for the next five days—the first two of
which she was deprived of water—and then jailed with other female
prisoners. On Erdoğan’s hundred and thirty-third day in prison, she was
given her first opportunity to defend herself in court. Looking thin and
tired, she delivered a statement to the judge hearing her case: “I will
read my testimony as if there is still rule of law in this country,” she
declared. The courtroom microphone was off, though, and the journalists
present could barely hear her. Later that night, Erdoğan was released
from the Bakırköy state prison, in Istanbul, to a cheering crowd of
family and friends. She is out of prison but barred from travelling
outside the country, and her trial resumed last week. It was her
fourth court appearance since December. She faces a life sentence if
convicted.

In a separate trial that began last week, seventeen journalists stand accused of
serving as the media arm of the failed July, 2016, coup. They include Ahmet Altan, age sixty-seven, a prominent novelist and
journalist; and his younger brother, Mehmet Altan, sixty-four, a
distinguished academic and the author of forty books. Prosecutors
initially accused the Altans of sending “subliminal messages” to the
plotters of the failed coup. “It was the first time in my career that I
heard this term,” their lawyer, Veysel Ok, told me, smiling. “It was
probably so for the prosecutor who wrote the indictment as well.”

All told, the brothers have spent nearly three hundred days in jail
awaiting trial. Based on the charges currently filed against them, the brothers each face three life sentences if convicted. They stand accused of “attempting to overthrow
the Turkish Grand National Assembly,” “attempting to overthrow the
Government of Turkey,” “attempting to abolish the constitutional order,”
and “committing crimes on behalf of an armed terrorist organization
without being a member.” Prosecutors are using phone records, and articles the Altans wrote about various topics, among other things, as evidence against them. The oldest article dates back to 2012, four years before last summer’s failed coup. After five consecutive days of hearings, the judge ruled
last Friday to continue the pretrial detention of all defendants. The
trial is adjourned until September 19th.

Writing in Turkey—chronicling current events in particular—has always
been a dangerous undertaking. But the crackdown carried out by the
Turkish government since the failed coup is the largest one in decades.
There are an estimated hundred and sixty-five journalists, writers, and other members
of the media behind bars in Turkey today. The government has
shuttered close to a hundred and seventy-nine newspapers, magazines,
radio stations, and TV channels. Turkey ranks a hundred and fifty-fifth, out
of a hundred and eighty nations, in the 2017 World
Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders. Government officials can call a media ban at any
time, severely crippling people’s access to information. Access to
Wikipedia is currently blocked nationwide. Access to Twitter and YouTube
has been blocked in the past.

Cumhuriyet, one of Turkey’s oldest newspapers, and one of its few
remaining opposition-news outlets, is also under assault. In a separate
trial, set to begin July 24th, nineteen staff members—most of whom have
been held in pretrial detention since October—will stand trial, accused
of links to terrorist organizations.

Eugene Schoulgin, a seventy-six-year-old Norwegian novelist and the
vice-president of PEN International, has observed the trials of journalists,
human-rights activists, and writers in Turkey over the last twenty-five
years, and said that his meetings with government officials and
civil-society groups during his most recent trip, in February, left him
bereft. “There was a time when I had found a glimpse of light. Turkey
was a country which I imagined was going, although slowly, in a
democratic direction,” Schoulgin said in an e-mail. “What I saw was both
the same as in many years yet at the same time something completely new.
In the short run, I have nearly no hope for Turkey.”

Other segments of Turkish society have been targeted as well. An
estimated forty-seven thousand people
have been arrested since the failed
coup. At least a hundred and forty-five thousand people working in
various fields—education, law enforcement, civil-society
institutions—have been fired or suspended from their jobs. Many Turks
today live in a constant state of vigilance. Who might be targeted next?

The state of emergency that overrides certain judicial procedures and
was declared after the coup as a temporary measure is still in
effect. Last month, President Erdoğan said that it would be lifted when
the country achieved “welfare and peace.” Ok, the Altan brothers’ attorney, told me that new
regulations on prison conditions have gone into effect as well. He said that
lawyers—who previously had unlimited access to their clients—are now
entitled to one video-monitored hour a week, with a guard standing by.

During the interview, Aslı Erdoğan’s hands were seldom still, either
motioning while she spoke or cupping a pack of tobacco. At her trial
this week, she demanded the right to travel abroad, which was granted.
But it remains unclear whether the government will return her
passport. In September, she is to receive the Erich Maria
Remarque Peace Prize, in Germany; previous winners include the
Belarusian investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich and the Syrian
poet Ali Ahmad Said Esber, who uses the pen name Adonis. “With the
travel ban, the humiliation lingers,” Erdoğan said. Her trial will
continue on October 31st.

After her release from prison, Erdoğan told me, she didn’t return to her
apartment for several months. Nightmares hindered her ability to write.
In prison, she reread poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and Paul Celan, and from the prison library
she borrowed “Shoah,” the text of
Claude Lanzmann’s documentary about survivors of the Holocaust, from 1985. Some of her own books were available at the
prison library, too. Lately, her work has found new readers at home and
abroad, and the Times profiled her this spring. Her book “The Stone Building and Other Places” will be published in the U.S. in November.

At the end of our interview, I asked Erdoğan about her state of mind. “I
keep asking myself, ‘What is this hatred that this country has toward
its writers?’ ” she said. “If a country has begun to be fearful of its
writers, it means it has a serious problem with facing reality. Only
heavily totalitarian regimes burden themselves with their writers. By
cutting off the writer, the academic, the journalist of your country—you
actually cut off your own language. So, I ask: What is this hatred
about? By hating me, you actually show the hate you have for yourself.
Because I am you. Whether you like it or not. I am Turkey. Whether you
accept it or not, we are the language and the conscience of this
country.”



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