Low-Level Torture—A Letter From An Istanbul Prison


Last week, shortly after my father-in-law’s arrest, I came home to find the house dark and empty. My wife, Xezal, was supposed to be home—she had texted me just a few hours before to say she was on her way. I called her cell, but she didn’t answer. Normally, I would just shrug and go jogging or watch an episode of The Daily Show online, but this night I turned off all the lights, lay down on the couch, and clutched the center of my chest where a sudden terrifying tightness took my breath away. My eyes filled with tears, but I couldn’t cry. I just sank into panic.
I don’t know how long I lay there in the dark. I was sure that they had come for her while I was out, whoever ‘they’ were–the secret police, the gendarmes, or AKP goons. Prime Minister Erdoğan had promised that the round-ups of ‘terror suspects’ was not over, I reasoned. Had the neighbors informed because they heard Roj TV coming from our apartment? Had someone read my blog and decided to get at me through her?

At last, Xezal texted me from the bus. ‘Too much noise,’ she wrote. ‘Didn’t hear the phone.’ The chest pains started to fade.

This was all paranoia, I now realize, but then when the government can arrest someone you love on the flimsiest of pretexts, it’s hard to tell what’s overreaction and what’s real. Several times this week, I have had the impulse to call her in the middle of the day just to make sure she is still around, but I’m embarrassed to do so. Is the inexperienced American husband just overreacting? Or were my fears reasonable? Perhaps I wasn’t cautious enough?

I was originally going to start this piece with a rather long litany of political arrests and persecution in Turkey—a kind of factual barrage to establish my legitimacy on this issue. It’s almost like the story of Xezal, her family, and I aren’t enough. One needed more people, a famous professor arrested, some eye-catching torture accusations, or news crews to be worthy of being known, but then I realized that all the propaganda on Turkish TV (and Roj TV for that matter) about their ‘martyrs’ and the battles against capital letter words like Fascism and Splittism and Terrorism are not the real issue at all. The real issue is the time they are taking from my father-in-law’s life. Is the strain I see on my wife’s face when no one else is looking. Is me clutching my chest on the living room couch and fearing for Xezal’s safety. The real issue is the low-level torture that these crimes people refer to as ‘politics’ inflict on us ordinary people. We will live with this anxiety until her father is released and these arrests stop—and it will eat away at our family life, our home life, and our relationships. It could last years (Suspects have been getting long sentences). And the frustrating thing is its all for nothing. For teaching at the wrong place and wrong time.

The papers these days are revving up the tabloid talk. Professor Buşra Ersanli, who was arrested along with my father-in-law, has been labled ‘The Professor of Terror’ in the newspapers. The television channels call all detainees ‘KCK members,’ though they haven’t even been tried. This is par for the course in the Turkish media. It doesn’t matter what’s true, or fair, or even logical. It doesn’t matter if there’s proof, or reasonable doubt, or a just conviction. You just go with what shocks. You say whatever you want and wave the flag as you do it. The same is true of government officials. The Minister of the Interior, İdris Naim Şahin, told the whole country that Professor Ersanli was giving ‘lessons on terror’. And again, all of this mud-slinging is going on before a trial. None of it is based on any fact. No evidence has been offered up. But then, there’s a saying in Turkish, ‘Throw enough mud and something is going to stick.’ This same character assassination was done four years ago to Hrant Dink, when the Turkish news labeled him an ‘Enemy of the Turk’ and distorted his words to such a degree (most likely with government approval if not encouragement) that some people decided to take things into their own hands and assassinate him. Before Hrant, it was singer Ahmet Kaya. Not much has changed.

Xezal and I took a vacation over Bayram (Eid) to get our minds off of all of this for a while. We went to Mardin, a mostly Kurdish city in the Southeast. While we were wandering obliviously around the ruins, Ismail Akbulut of the Turkish Human Rights Association was arrested just a province away for making propaganda for a terrorist organization. His real offense was investigating accusations of war crimes against the Turkish government. Locals claim that 24 PKK guerillas were killed by chemical weapons in the Kazan valley. It may very well not be true. It doesn’t really matter. Truth is about who can bellow the loudest, and now Akbulut is locked away and effectively silenced. Then we read in the Hurriyet that Erdoğan, after his pious prayer at the Blue Mosque, told reporters that ‘criticism of the massive investigation amounted to support for terrorism.’ That makes me, and nearly everyone I know a ‘terrorist’ in the eyes of the Republic. What a way to silence opposition. That’s straight up dictatorship, my friend, the real deal.

My father in law has been transferred to Kandıra prison in Izmit. They’ve split all the prisoners, sending them willy nilly to different high security prisons around the country. We had hoped for a visit this holiday, but were told that there would be no visits at all this week. It’s unclear when we’ll be allowed in. We have a list of things he wants scribbled on a prison order form—a pair of pants, a belt, a razor, tissues, a wash cloth, hand wipes, and his red scarf from home. We have this form instead of the man himself, and it’s almost like that’s all he amounts to anymore, this list of seven mundane items.

We also got a letter from him through the lawyer. It’s short, but I think captures his spirit well—dignified, defiant, somewhat personal but ever the politician, ever thinking about the bigger picture. And it’s clear he wanted others to read it. Posting it here along with a translation is at least one little thing I can do to give him a voice as he waits voiceless in his cell.

My Dear Son,

Today is our second day in Metris Prison. Since our arrest, at every second, they have made us aware of their inhumanity with the low-level but intense torture they have subjected us to for the past five days, both in our cells and in the ‘court’. But they have not broken our dignity nor our morale, and this has both shocked and infuriated them.

Our prosecution and future punishment was set and decided long before we were taken into custody. Whatever our punishment turns out to be, you must not let it demoralize you, just as we will never let it tear us away from the policies we believe in. I know that you will be an example to those around you with your more strong willed and unwavering stance, with your truer and more cool-headed views. What we have gone through and what we will go through I count as merely the price of an honorable struggle.

Forty six out of the fifty two of us taken into custody of us have been charged with ‘membership in an armed organization’—including Professor Büşra Ersanlı and writer Ragıp Zarakoğlu. In two days, they will transfer us all to different prisons. Through you, I send my greetings to everyone at home, and to all our sympathetic, patriotic friends.

Your father

Note: Some good news from the United States. 9 members of Congress are moving to block the sale of Kobra helicopters to Turkey if Ankara does not change its policies. The congressmen and women are: Shelley Berkley, Eliot Engel, Gus Bilirakis Carolyn Maloney, Michael Grimm, Frank Pallone, Ed Royce, Steve Israel and Jim McGovern. Americans, keep writing those letters to Congress! It’s working. There’s also a petition here.

What you can do:

As noted in last week’s post, 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]