Journalists in PrisonPress Freedom

Ball is in Strasbourg’s court now, says jailed journalist Nedim Türfent

Ece Koçak

The Turkish Court of Cassation has upheld journalist Nedim Türfent’s 8 year and 9 month prison sentence, which was handed down by the Hakkari 2nd Criminal Court due to ‘disturbing news reports’ to quote the prosecutor.  Türfent answered MLSA’s questions following the high court’s ruling and talked about the next steps. Türfent, whom MLSA represents in court, noted that there is a long winter ahead of them, in which a lot more reading will be done. “We will leave our doors ajar for books, magazines, support and so on,” Türfent adds.

Following the decision of the Court of Cassation to uphold your sentence, you have been transferred to a cell for the convicted. How has the transfer affected you and what are the conditions in the convicted cell like?

The Court of Cassation ruling was communicated to me on October 1st, the same day when the Parliament met to discuss the proposed Legal Reform Strategy. Right after the morning headcount they told me, ‘Get ready, you’re moving to a convicted cell.’ They didn’t allow me to chose a room myself and also gave me no time to collect my belongings properly. I was bundled off and brought to cell A-44. When I was in my old cell, A-17, I could socialize with my friend and journalist colleague Ziya Ataman; we would exercise together and chat.  But now there’s a mixture of people, including followers of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen who are convicted for membership in what’s referred to as FETÖ. For this reason, the move of cells was not too good for me. In fact, there are a lot of convicted cells on the corridor that I’m on. I share cell A-44 with two other convicts; one from Şırnak and one from Siirt. 

Have you had any recent cause to complain about the conditions in Van Prison? Have you been subjected to any harsh treatment?

I haven’t been subjected to any physical violence recently. However, each time we leave our cells, we have to endure body searches conducted by ‘hand’ which can sometimes reach the point of physical molestation. This is despite the fact that there are CCTV cameras on every corner! Also, the time period in which we’re allowed family visits or to attend prison events is under the standard set by the Ministry of Justice. Some prisons allow one hour for family visit, but here they only let us have 40-45 minutes.  Sometimes this time is considerably shortened due to these aforementioned ‘searches.’ When my elder sister came to visit me on October 9th, they searched her 2 year old daughter, Zana, for a long time. They ignored the fact that the little girl was crying for minutes on end and proceeded to open and ‘check’ her diaper. What would a state be looking for in a little child’s diaper? Another issue is the stationery products that were banned under the state of emergency (which ended on July 18, 2018). Even though the state of emergency is over, this prohibition is being arbitrarily continued. All the notebooks, pens and diaries that were sent to us have been rotting in a depot for over a year. I have to mention one other thing here; the inflated costs of the stationery sold in the canteen. We can’t keep up with the rising prices; things are being sold at an outrageous price.

How is your poetry writing going?  Are there certain poems you’ve been working on recently?

I have been continuing with my poetry and other writing practices recently. Sometimes I spend days thinking about one line in a poem and stage a ‘jailbreak’ with my journeys of thought. I don’t know, I just sort of come back to roost in the cell again, with words given by the bosom of the land, the dimple of the sun and the folk tunes of the wind. Currently, I’m working on three poems. Sometimes, when a word sits with too much confidence on the page and smirks at me, I reach for my eraser and get rid of all trace of it!  If you’ll pardon the expression. Sometimes I trim parts of a line that aren’t working, with scissors. I just don’t want these words to sit there smirking away at me. If the words laugh or smile – so much the better!

Which books have you been reading recently?

I am currently reading John Berger’s From A to X and George Perec’s W, or the Memory of Childhood.  When I finish these two, I will start Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water. To give some examples from the books I’ve recently read: Vien Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, Stefan Zweig’s Clarissa, Naguib Mahfouz’s Wedding Song, Svetlana Alexievich’s Boys in Zinc, and Lal Laleş’s book in Kurdish, Matmayînên Ronyayê.

Do letters and books reach you without a problem?

I usually manage to get letters and books. However, sometimes there could be some instances where they get lost or are returned to the sender. There are five different prisons in Van. Some news outlets still mention the address of the prison I was previously at. This could be one reason why some shipments are misplaced. When I think of the three and a half years of imprisonment I now have behind me, your inner populace becomes inured to the ‘state of shutdown.’ There could be a drop off of support and solidarity. In the simplest term, this is easy to tell from the number of letters. We have a long winter ahead of us. In winter the doors to the yard are locked at 16:00. I’m rambling on. What I mean to say is that the season ahead of us is one in which a lot more reading will be done. We will leave our doors ajar for books, magazines, support and so on. This last sentence would be so fitting for social media!

There are a lot of organisations, PEN International in particular, who have supported and campaigned for you, highlighting the unjust sentence against you, do you have a message for them?  What are your expectations of these organisation in light of the decision of the Court of Cassation to uphold your sentence?

As long as such a radical attack on freedom of thought and expression and on journalists continues, the support of national and international organisations is, for we imprisoned journalists, a seriously important source of strength, moral support, and hope. In the struggle against those who wish to standardise the colourful realm of thought and try to mute the voice of diversity, it is important to stand side by side, to increase our hope and carry it over to the good days that will come, as this hope will undoubtedly bring with it freedom for those who work with the word, to those who earn their living with the pen. The fact that the Court of Cassation upheld this case is politically motivated (in my opinion, they haven’t even given the case file a look) and that leads me to feel that we now have to step up our fight. If they are reckless and fearless enough to uphold and approve a sentence based on the most bare allegations in relation to journalism in a case that is holed with violations, then it is necessary for those in solidarity to take one step further in making clear the injustices of these cases in a new way. We have to think long and hard about effective methods we can apply that will achieve a result. At the end of the day, what is at stake is not just the rights and freedoms of one person, the result of the decision to uphold my sentence is a threat to all my journalist colleagues who break a sweat in order to practice journalism in this region.  This result is a punishment intended as to be a deterrent to others, intended to intimidate, suppress and subdue by making an example out of me. I think it is necessary to read it this way. Therefore, I have to express my debt of gratitude again to national and international organisations, primarily to PEN International and the International Press Institute (IPI) and we will look to them to play an active role as my case is reviewed before the Turkish Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights. The ECtHR still has not responded to the application filed on my behalf by the MLSA (Media Law Studies Association) last year. We should stress even more clearly the message that ‘Journalism is not a crime’ and to organise more effective, sustainable and results-focused campaigns as these organisations make interventions to my case before the Constitutional and European Court.

As of now, more than 130 journalists are behind bars in Turkey. Do you have a message you’d like to share with your fellow journalists in prison?

I have a humble message for my colleagues who have been silenced behind walls. Having said that, I don’t know how they’re going to receive this message, they are not in a position, after all, to use social media (this makes me crack a smile). My message is this: If a curtain is drawn between you and the sun, if your living space is made narrower and narrower, if your hope is under constant attack, then make sure that you do not give up.  As long as there is hope in your heart, you will not be the one who loses.

How do you interpret the decision made on your case by the Court of Cassation?  The European Court of Human Rights application that MLSA made on your behalf is still pending, what are your expectations regarding that?

The Court of Cassation gave a decision that is in keeping with the current political ‘climate.’ The law is absent in our country; the lack of rights and true justice that we suffer is on such a vast scale.  Every time they’re trying with even bigger scandals to make us get used to decisions that are outside the law, and not a part of it. In order to stifle the reaction of the general public they try to ‘inure’ people to these things.  We must not get used to these things, or stop being surprised at them. We must be shocked and we should show a reaction and continue to raise our voice.  

Of course one would expect the Court of Cassation to reverse the sentence against me, especially given that I was charged with reporting on rights violations before and during the time of the curfews, and my publishing of the story on the military officials who abused Kurdish villagers while shouting ‘Now you will see the power of the Turk.’ I received death threats from law enforcement for that story, which was described in my court documents as ‘disturbing’ . Furthermore, in my case all witnesses withdrew their testimonies and I was not granted the right of defence given that during seven hearings I never once was brought physically before the judges. When you take all this into account and also the fact that news articles were provided as ‘proof of crime’, you would expect the Court of Cassation, the highest appeal court in the land to reverse the lower court’s judgement. That is to say, under normal circumstances, when you expect there to be no political motivation behind these things. As soon as the justice system fell victim to politicisation, then in all judicial cases connected to the Kurdish issue or the region in general we see even high level judges caught in the talons of the nationalist impetus where they are not able to unhinge themselves from having to serve as a ‘seal of approval.’  In this blind vortex the principles of rights and justice become indistinct. It has to be stressed again that in my case, where I received a sentence of 8 years and 9 months, there was not one piece of concrete evidence in the case file. There was not even one piece of tangible evidence, for God’s sake. Leaving to one side whether my case was justly tried or not, this judgement is not even legal. The regional appellate court and the Court of Cassation chose to reach their decisions without a formal hearing, perhaps because they foresaw that we would highlight and disprove these many injustice. Almost one year ago, we filed applications with the MLSA to the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights. They still maintain their position as onlookers to the case. In the decision given by the Constitutional Court in relation to the Academics for Peace case, it was proved once again that the reporting of ‘disturbing’ new stories and statements fall within the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press. This Constitutional Court decision has become case law in Turkey.  Despite this ruling, the Hakkari 2nd High Criminal Court has listed ‘disturbing news articles’ as a legal justification for punishment in my case.

Today (October 13th) marks the 1250th day of my imprisonment. I would request that the ECtHR rules a decision on my application as soon as possible so that they may be able to stop this great travesty of justice and to say a firm ‘no’ to such painful injustices. The Court of Cassation has signed its name beneath this injustice and the Constitutional Court appears to have left my case file up on a dusty shelf.  The ECtHR can no longer make us wait with the ‘exhaust all domestic remedies’ card. It is very clear that pristine journalistic activities have been criminalised and terrorised in this case. This case file is filled with very clear violations that the ECtHR was established to overcome. Now the ball really is in the court of the defenders of human rights in Strasbourg.

Nedim Türfent, 13 October 2019, Van High Security Closed Prison, Cell A-44.

Translated from Turkish by: Caroline Stockford