Why is Pres­i­dent Er­do­gan lock­ing up jour­nal­ists like me?

Im­pris­oned ac­tivist and writer Max Zirn­gast says Turkey’s gov­ern­ment fears dis­sent­ing opin­ions

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK -

It started as a nor­mal raid. Shortly be­fore 6 a.m. on Sept. 11, Turk­ish anti-ter­ror­ism po­lice showed up at my apart­ment door in Ankara with an ar­rest war­rant. They ri­fled through my books, found some sup­pos­edly in­crim­i­nat­ing ti­tles (largely po­lit­i­cal works about the Turk­ish left) and took me into cus­tody. I tried to re­main calm — dis­tant but po­lite — as they trans­ported me to the sta­tion.

I first be­came in­volved in Turk­ish-Kur­dish di­as­pora pol­i­tics in Aus­tria, my home coun­try, about a decade ago. I moved to Turkey in 2015 to con­tinue my grad­u­ate stud­ies in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence and kept writ­ing about, and or­ga­niz­ing against, the coun­try’s mount­ing au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. Over the past few years, I’ve co-au­thored many pieces in pub­li­ca­tions like the U.S. so­cial­ist mag­a­zine Ja­cobin, par­tic­i­pated in pro-peace demon­stra­tions and gen­er­ally tried to push for a more just and demo­cratic coun­try.

But this is Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan’s Turkey, and the heavy hand of the state comes down hard on dis­si­dent jour­nal­ists, ac­tivists and schol­ars. In a na­tion where even me­dia out­lets are tar­gets (for the past two years, Turkey has re­ceived the du­bi­ous honor of world’s worst jailer of jour­nal­ists), my ac­tions were enough to put me in the crosshairs.

More than two months af­ter my ar­rest, I’m still in a Turk­ish prison. And I haven’t been charged. This ar­ti­cle is the prod­uct of hand­writ­ten letters I’ve mailed to the Vi­enna-based cam­paign press­ing for my re­lease. My two fre­quent co-au­thors, Guney Isikara and Alp Kay­ser­il­i­oglu, trans­lated the letters from Turk­ish and, with the help of my ed­i­tor at Ja­cobin, Shawn Gude, stitched them into an op-ed.

On my first day in po­lice cus­tody, noth­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary hap­pened. I was placed in a cell, where I slept on a piece of wood, with a thin blan­ket and no pil­lows. It was freez­ing, and the light bore down on me around the clock. The food ra­tions were sparse and ice cold. Af­ter a few days, I had an up­set stomach, cramps and di­ar­rhea.

In po­lice in­ter­ro­ga­tions and in my ap­pear­ance be­fore the prose­cu­tor in Ankara, the au­thor­i­ties ques­tioned me about the books that had been re­moved from my apart­ment (in­clud­ing one on Kur­dish pol­i­tics they mis­tak­enly thought I’d writ­ten), my sup­posed ties to the Friedrich Ebert Foun­da­tion (a so­cial-demo­cratic ad­vo­cacy group that has an of­fice in Is­tan­bul but with which I have no af­fil­i­a­tion) and an ar­ti­cle I had writ­ten for Ja­cobin (which they said had in­sulted Er­do­gan). They de­clined to for­mally in­dict me, hold­ing me in­stead on vague ter­ror­ism charges.

My case, and oth­ers like it, be­lies the no­tion that Er­do­gan is any kind of be­liever in press free­dom or hu­man rights — an image he’s tried to cul­ti­vate in the wake of Saudi Ara­bia’s killing of jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi in Is­tan­bul. My ar­rest was a per­verse con­fir­ma­tion of the au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism I’ve spent the past sev­eral years chron­i­cling and op­pos­ing.

Those stand­ing up for Kur­dish rights have been met with par­tic­u­larly se­vere re­pres­sion. The for­mer co-chair of the Peo­ples’ Demo­cratic Party (HDP), Se­la­hat­tin Demir­tas, has been jailed since Novem­ber 2016 on trumped-up ter­ror­ism charges; in June, he ran for pres­i­dent from his prison cell. Other party lead­ers have also been de­tained: HDP law­maker Idris Baluken, to take one ex­am­ple, is serv­ing a nineyear sen­tence for “ter­ror­ist pro­pa­ganda.”

Jour­nal­ists have been caught up in the web of anti-ter­ror­ism pre­texts, too. Last De­cem­ber, the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists re­ported that “ev­ery jour­nal­ist CPJ found jailed for their work in Turkey is un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion for, or charged with, anti-state crimes, as was true of last year’s cen­sus.”

Along­side this crack­down, the purges of al­leged “Gu­lenists” (fol­low­ers of ex­iled preacher Fethul­lah Gulen, whom Er­do­gan ac­cuses of plot­ting a failed 2016 coup) have con­tin­ued un­abated. In the high-se­cu­rity prison where I’m be­ing held, many in­mates are ac­cused of be­ing mem­bers of the “Fethul­lah Gulen ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion,” as the gov­ern­ment calls it. This mir­rors my ex­pe­ri­ence when I was first taken into cus­tody: There were two dozen sol­diers and a few teach­ers, all Gu­lenists. Th­ese days any­body the gov­ern­ment doesn’t like can be ac­cused of be­ing a Gu­lenist (and/or a sup­porter of ter­ror­ism). The whole process — from cus­tody to pre­trial de­ten­tion to pros­e­cu­tion — tram­ples upon ba­sic hu­man rights.

This type of wan­ton re­pres­sion gen­er­ates noth­ing but anger and hope­less­ness. Turkey’s cur­rent un­der­stand­ing of “ter­ror­ism,” and what will be crushed un­der that pre­text, will only cre­ate more an­i­mos­ity to­ward the regime in the com­ing years.

As for me, when anti-ter­ror­ism po­lice rang my door­bell that morn­ing in Septem­ber, they seemed to be in the process of try­ing to si­lence the en­tire demo­cratic op­po­si­tion in Ankara.

A for­mal in­dict­ment is sup­posed to come one day — but who knows when.

The cell I am in now is quite dirty. The plas­ter on the wall is crum­bling, and the iron is rusted. The wa­ter from the tap is pu­trid. The heat isn’t work­ing, and of­fi­cials make it ex­ceed­ingly dif­fi­cult to re­ceive vis­i­tors. We are, how­ever, al­lot­ted time to learn for­eign lan­guages, ex­er­cise and read. I’m pass­ing the days talk­ing with my cell­mate and read­ing about the Turk­ish left and fas­cism.

Dur­ing in­ter­ro­ga­tions, the po­lice set about try­ing to “fig­ure out” who I am — to peel away the af­fected lay­ers and find some evil, hid­den core. But there is noth­ing to fig­ure out. I am a so­cial­ist and a writer. I have raised my voice for a demo­cratic repub­lic and sup­ported demo­cratic strug­gles. I stand by ev­ery­thing I have done.

Ed­i­tor’s note: The Turk­ish Em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment about this ar­ti­cle. Max Zirn­gast is an Aus­trian jour­nal­ist and so­cial­ist ac­tivist cur­rently de­tained by the gov­ern­ment of Turkey.

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