Turkey imprisons more journalists and writers than any other nation, so it is not surprising that it features in these pages so often. The books of two dissidents written behind bars have recently been published in English translation. Ahmet Altan (LR, April 2018) is well known in literary circles and as an advocate for the rights of Turkey’s Kurdish and Armenian minorities. He is currently serving a life sentence without parole on trumped-up charges following the attempted coup of 2016. His conviction has received worldwide condemnation. Altan’s essays, collected in I Will Never See the World Again (Granta Books), are eloquent meditations on prison life, dreams of freedom and his love of literature. Selahattin Demirtaş, a Kurdish politician and human rights lawyer, was accused of spreading propaganda against the Turkish state and arrested on 4 November 2016. In September 2018 he was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison for a speech he had made in 2013. He reportedly faces terrorism charges too and the possibility of a further 142 years behind bars if convicted. In his short-story collection Dawn (Hogarth), a bestseller in Turkey, Demirtaş writes in simple, affecting prose about oppression in its various forms.
Ayşe Düzkan, a prominent writer, journalist and feminist activist, is also behind bars. Düzkan has worked for several newspapers and magazines, including Radikal, Milliyet, Star, Pişmiş Kelle, Hayalet Gemi, Expres, Kırmızı Alarm and Yeni Gündem. Her books include Çalar Saat (1994), Erkekliğin Kitabında Yazmaz Bu (2006) and Behiç Aşçı Kitabı (2006). She was one of the founders and later the editor-in-chief of the women’s newspaper Pazartesi (‘Mondays’).
Between May and August 2016, Düzkan and fifty-five journalists and activists joined the pro-Kurdish daily Ozgür Gündem’s ‘Editors-in-Chief on Watch’ campaign, during which they took turns in acting as ‘editor for the day’ of the established newspaper. The campaign was designed to draw attention to the Turkish authorities’ long-standing attempts to put pressure on the publication and its reporters. Following the July 2016 coup attempt, Ozgür Gündem was accused of ‘continuously conducting propaganda for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’ and ‘acting as a publication of the armed terror organisation’. It was subsequently closed down by emergency decree in October 2016.
Numerous journalists and writers were arrested for supporting or participating in the campaign, including the author Aslı Erdoğan (LR, September 2016), the writer and linguist Necmiye Alpay and Erol Onderoğlu, Reporters Without Borders’ representative in Turkey. PEN International immediately denounced the detention, prosecution and sentencing of the Ozgür Gündem guest editors and condemned the Turkish authorities’ crackdown on dissenting voices. On 16 January last year, Düzkan was charged and convicted under Article 7/2 of Turkey’s Anti-Terrorism Law, together with four other journalists. The court stated that their lack of remorse was a reason for their conviction. Düzkan was sentenced to eighteen months in prison for ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organisation’. Her sentence was upheld by the Istanbul Regional Court of Justice on 29 November 2018. Düzkan presented herself at the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office on 29 January this year, from where she was sent to Bakırköy Women’s Prison.
Speaking outside the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office, she raised concerns about the number of people imprisoned on trumped-up charges in Turkey and the severity of the sentences handed down to many writers and journalists. In response to her prosecution, Düzkan issued this statement:
Free journalism provides the best chance we have that people can access truth and reality about the societies we inhabit. Everyone deserves that. Strange as it may seem, my spirits are high and my mood is good. We have a saying in Turkish that might be translated as ‘This will come and pass, too.’
Readers might like to send appeals expressing alarm at the sentencing of Ayşe Düzkan, urging the Turkish authorities immediately and unconditionally to release Düzkan and all those held in prison for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of opinion and expression, and calling on the Turkish authorities to end the prosecution and detention of journalists for writing articles critical of the government.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Ministry of Justice, Adalet Bakanlığı, 06659 Ankara, Turkey
Fax: +90 312 419 3370
His Excellency Abdurrahman Bilgiç
Turkish Embassy, 43 Belgrave Square
London SW1X 8PA
Fax: 020 7393 0066 | 020 7393 9213
Messages of solidarity are greatly appreciated by writers in prison. You might also consider sending them books, magazines, pictures and postcards, but do not use political symbols or send political content. Please send messages in English and Turkish to:
Bakırköy Cezaevi, Gözlem 41 Koğuşu
34158 Bakırköy, Istanbul, Turkey
Edirne F Tipi CİK B1-38, Edirne, Turkey
And to Ahmet Altan care of his lawyer:
Update: On 7 May, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo (LR, October 2018), two Reuters journalists imprisoned in Myanmar for reporting on the plight of the Rohingya, were freed under presidential amnesty. In September 2018, they had been convicted of breaching the Official Secrets Act and sentenced to seven years in prison.