Mass Arrests of Kurdish Intellectuals in Istanbul


On Friday morning, while I dressed for work and my wife, Xezal, made me breakfast, the police were ransacking my father-in-law’s house just blocks away. According to Xezal’s little sister, they took down every one of his books, flipped through the pages and dumped out anything found sandwiched between. They confiscated over a hundred CDs and DVDs. They plucked post-its off the computer screen, bills off the coffee table. Two neighbors were called in to serve as witnesses in accordance with a new law—both woken up at 5:30 to observe the proceedings. It was a tremendous blow to my father-in-law’s pride to have these strangers gawking at his humiliation. He was a teacher. Everyone called him hoca.

‘He looked so crestfallen,’ my sister-in-law said. ‘I’ve never seen him like that before.’

‘One of the neighbors looked so scared,’ quipped my mother-in-law, ‘I bet she went out right after the police left and bought a ticket for Germany!’

My father-in-law was one of fifty people arrested on Friday morning, and while the police were civil at his house—calling him beyefendi (sir) and taking care not to break anything—in other parts of Turkey they kicked in doors and turned homes inside out. The detainees are all members of the Kurdish-affiliated BDP party—all minor party officials and academics. They were not all Kurdish either. One of the arrests was Professor Büşra Ersanlı—a sixty-one year old woman. She is distinctly Turkish, a liberal constitutional law professor and a member of the BDP’s constitutional commission—and therefore a person who could have challenged the ruling party when the new constitution is drawn up later this year. Another is Ragıp Zarakolu—a sixty-three year old publisher and human rights activist. All are charged with membership in ‘a terrorist organization’, namely the KCK—the supposed urban arm of the PKK. This is only the latest round of arrests. The government has been chipping away at the BDP for a while now. 7798 party members have been taken into custody—from mayors to city council chairs to members of parliament. 3939 of those have been formally charged and are now waiting in prison for trial.

And my father-in-law is one of the smaller fish caught in this net.

Xezal waited to tell me till I got off work. We’d been planning to go to a concert but before that, she said, we needed to to stop by Aksaray, though she wouldn’t explain why over the phone. (I couldn’t figure it out—there was nothing worth seeing in Aksaray—just a mall and the Istanbul police station where I have to go every once in a while to renew my residence permit.) When I saw her at the ferry dock, I could tell immediately something was wrong. Her face was drawn and anxious and she couldn’t stop wringing her hands.

‘They’ve taken my Dad away,’ she said.

I’ll never forget that ferry ride. I’ll never forget feeling so angry and helpless. We were heading into the great maw of the State to try and pull some tiny concession out of its jaws—and evidence of its power was everywhere. The bright red banner of the Turkish flag covered every building, boat, and bridge—it had never felt so aggressive. Police filled the streets. The Turkish national anthem chimed all around us—people were using it for their ring tones–and the headlines of the newspapers being read by our fellow passengers raged about Turkey’s fallen ‘martyrs’ and revenge. Looking at all those front pages, I felt like our allies were dropping like flies. Last Friday, the Prime Minister had met with all the news agencies in Turkey and made them agree to report on ‘terrorism’ as he instructed them, too. ‘News will reach the subscriber by considering the social benefit and solidarity. The public order will be taken into account.” In effect, the media willingly put themselves under government control. There was no longer any hope of truth or objectivity from the news—no hope from anywhere

On the ferry, Xezal held her father’s diabetes medicine in her hands, cradling it in her lap like a child might clutch a teddy bear. She thought they might let her in to see him if she had some sort of medical excuse. I got her tea, I held her hand, I hugged her as hard as I could. I tried to be any kind of comfort I could be. I hated seeing her look so small and lost, and I hated the people who made her feel that way.

The police station was a gigantic fortress. As we passed through security—I stared at the ten story Turkish flag hanging from the A wing just outside—next to it was an equally gigantic picture of Ataturk, and carved into stone at the building’s top floor were the words ‘How Happy is He Who Calls Himself a Turk!’ Never had these three symbols seemed so frightening—it all seemed to say, if you’re not Turkish, you are nothing. We were let into Ward C, the anti-terrorism department. They took the diabetes medicine, but would not promise to give it to him without a doctor’s note, which we didn’t have. A bushy-haired old sergeant manned the information desk. ‘Don’t be scared,’ he told us. ‘If anything happens, they’ll run him immediately to the hospital. It’s right across the street. We have heaters in all the rooms. We have pillows and comfortable beds. No one gets beaten or slapped around here anymore. They’ve passed laws against all that. He’ll be fine! And who knows? He might be released in just a few days!’

‘Can I ask you what they’re going to do with all the stuff they took?’ Xezal asked. ‘All the books and CDs and everything? Are they seriously going to look at all those things? It could take forever.’

‘No, dear,’ the old man answered. ‘They already have some kind of evidence or they wouldn’t have arrested him.’

And the evidence is apparent in the newspapers the next day. A phrase taken out of context from a lecture by someone at the BDP Academy–‘We must make them see us as bombs,’ a teacher supposedly said in regards to the reigning party. ‘And we must see ourselves also as flaming bombs.’ They were speaking metaphorically of course, talking about building themselves into a political force to be reckoned with—but that’s not how the AKP is spinning it. The same tactic was used to condemn Hrant Dink five years ago—there was a line taken from an article in Agos about Sabiha Gökçen, the sentences before and after removed, and then pubished in the newspapers. It urged the ‘poison of the Turk to be cleansed from Armenian veins.’ The ‘poison’ Dink actually meant was the bigoted ideas that Diaspora Armenians have about Turkish people, the ‘cleansing’ was the need to put them aside before the two peoples can move foreward. But without a context, that was not apparent at all and Dink was assassinated a few years later by fanatical nationalists. Now the government is trying the same thing with my father-in-law and his colleagues.

‘He’s innocent,’ our aunt Ayşe says later that night. We are having dinner at my mother-in-law’s house, the family gathered together to comfort one another. ‘They could be bugging us right now, but let them! Who cares? They’ll never find anything on him. He’s done nothing wrong. Nothing!’ She’s my father-in-law’s sister and I have never seen her like this. Usually she’s laughing and joking and passing around something she’s baked—pırgaç or qatmer or börek. Her face is swollen and red, now, but the tears won’t come. ‘I’ve never been able to cry like normal people,’ she tells me. ‘It all happens in my body. This morning my back gave out and I can’t walk—that’s where it hits me. But I still haven’t cried. I was like this when my mother died. Now they’ve taken my brother! People disappear in this country when they’re arrested!’

‘That doesn’t happen anymore,’ I assure her. ‘That was in the nineties.’

‘Every day you see on the news about some mass grave they’ve dug up.’

‘But all that was in the nineties.’

She’s unconvinced. ‘So many people have disappeared and never been seen again.’

Her brother, my father-in-law’s little brother, is nowhere to be found. He’s supposed to join us, but is mostly likely drinking somewhere. He has been profoundly shaken by his brother’s arrest. We can’t tell grandfather because of his heart condition—God only knows how it will effect him. And yet it’s inevitable that he will hear about it from someone soon. Cousins and second cousins are calling to find out what’s happened, everyone worried to death. I myself am afraid to publish this for fear it will make my own mother worry too much back in the States. And what do I know anyway? My in-laws have all lived through years that make me shudder—when assassinations of Kurdish politicians, no matter how smallfry, were happening everyday, and going to prison meant certain torture and mutilation. It seems different now, but then this arrest seemed impossible just a few months ago.

It’s Wednesday morning now. After five days of waiting for a verdict from the judge (Xezal and her sisters kept vigil outside the courthouse in Beşiktaş all week), the decision has come. Her father, our hoca, will be formally charged. 44 of the 50 arrested will wait in prison for trial along with him. The family is distraught. We get together to break the news to Grandfather. He starts to shake and rock back and forth.

‘They took me, too, you know,’ he says bitterly. ‘Not that long ago. I had done nothing. I was a 78 year old man and they threw me in prison in Muş for four months. And let me tell you, I’ve seen what they do to people there! Why did no one tell me?’

He’s angry at us for not telling him sooner, but what could we do? He has a heart condition that any stress could set off. One of Xezal’s aunts living far away in Şırnak is on the edge of a nervous breakdown at the news, and my elderly mother is sleepless from worry. The arrest of one man by the AKP has such a wide impact. Never mind the other families we met waiting outside the courthouse—the young girl whose parents were both in jail and now had to fend for herself. ‘Take me!’ she shouted at the police, ‘I have nowhere to go.’ Or the elderly woman whose sick relative was also inside. ‘He has to go to the hospital every two days! What will he do in prison?’

On the main Western news sites and on Al Jazeera, there is nothing about the latest political purge. They have, instead, put up articles about a suicide bombing in Bingöl that killed three people the same day my father-in-law was arrested . Xezal and watched the news about the bombing on TV that night.

‘That doesn’t seem like the PKK’s style,’ Delal said, and I began to wonder, starting to be affected by the fear and paranoia, knowing that the media now works for the government, that everything is biased, that you can take nothing at face value—maybe this is a distraction? Maybe they did the bombing themselves to take attention from the arrests? I don’t believe this, but it’s the kind of thought that starts going through your head when you no longer have access to real information and everything you read and see in the news becomes suspect, and someone you love is now in the power of something much bigger than yourself that you can neither fight nor touch nor argue against without great risk to them and yourself.

Hopefully her father will be acquitted, but the road will be long and hard, and it seems every day on the Radikal, Bianet, and other news sites there are more reports of prisoner torture by police.

This will backfire on them in the end. I hope. I hope. Young people who have never been that political are angry now, like Xezal’s little sister, who watched the police drag her father away for the first time in her life (she had been very young the other times). There’s an anger when she speaks I’ve never heard before. It’s like a whole new generation is waking up. My eyes are certainly starting to open wider and wider.

To help:
There is a signature campaign to free political prisoners in Turkey. The website is here. When you sign, it asks for a contribution but it isn’t required.

For Americans or anyone who knows an American, you can write a letter to the White House and Congress. The U.S. is planning a sale of Cobra helicopters to Turkey to fight the PKK, but it requires Congress’s approval. Blocking the sale would also apply political pressure. Here is a form letter you might use.

Dear Senator,

I am writing in regard to the proposed sale of Cobra helicopters to the Turkish military.

According to the Leahy Amendment it is illegal to sell arms to a country found to commit gross violations of human rights. This weekend the Turkish government rounded up 50 academics from the opposition BDP party in the name of ‘anti-terrorism’—23 were prosecuted, including a human rights activist (Zarakolu), a professor of Constitutional law (Busra Ersanli) and a retired volunteer language teacher (Kemal Seven). More than 7000 people from the opposition party have been arrested in the same way over the past 2 years, nearly 4000 jailed. 90 students sit in jail for protests demanding free education. This past week, human rights groups and activists have accused the Turkish military of using chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels in the southeast—including napalm in clear violation of international law.

I urge you to block the sale of the Cobra helicopters and other weapons in Congress until Turkey ceases the random arrests, releases its political prisoners, and discontinues the use of chemical weapons. Is this the sort of government we wish to empower? The violations of free speech, the wrongful imprisonments, and the breaking of international law on just warfare are a violent insult to all our nation was founded for.

[Your Name]