The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I’m a journalist in a Turkish jail. Why is Erdogan afraid of people like me?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives in Buenos Aires on Thursday for the G20 summit. (Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

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.

Secular citizens of Turkey have never felt so alone

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 nine-year 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.

How Turkey uses terrorism to justify its crackdown on the press

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 officers 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.

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