The Words Behind Bars

September 21 2017 Text: Elisabeth Åsbrink Image: Zulal
It was an obvious decision to devote this Dissident Blog to Turkey. Since July 2016 we have seen a steady stream of writers, publishers and journalists, as well as teachers, academics and others opposing the government, being arrested on unclear and false grounds and put in prison. The dismantling of free expression and free press is shocking, both to its extent and concerning the speed of events. The failed coup in 2016, in which more than 200 people lost their lives, gave president Erdoğan a pretext for declaring a state of emergency and thereby obtaining the authority to weed out remaining dissidents.
 
Swedish PEN is proud to publish texts of some who are at the focal point of persecution: poets, writers, journalists, people whose thoughts, words and experiences the Turkish state is actively trying to silence.
 
Here is a magnificent text on resistance by the writer Sema Kaygusuz.
 
Here is Ahmet Şık’s speech in court - the investigative journalist who wrote an sharp, critical book on the Gulen movement and now is accused of supporting it.
 
Here is publicist Can Dϋndar’s disillusioned analysis of Turkey, written from his exile in Berlin.
 
Here is lawyer Nazan Moroğlu’s account for how the legal position of women has deteriorated under Erdoğan’s government.
 
Here is the writer Tuba Ҁandar’s presentation of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, as well as her experience of the conditions of exile. 
 
The artist Pinar Öğrenci testifies to what happened to her when she marched for peace, and the writer and journalist, Ahmet Altan, describes a legal system so perverted that Kafka would have laughed in tears.
 
Several citizens of other countries have been apprehended on dubious grounds: for example, the Swedish citizen, Ali Gharavi, IT expert and human rights activist; the German journalist, Deniz Yϋcel and the German human rights activist, Peter Steudtner.
 
We now know that whoever criticizes the Turkish leadership is not safe - not even in exile, not even if he or she is a citizen of another country. The international police organization, Interpol, has become a political tool in Erdoğan’s hunt for regime critics abroad - in contempt of Interpol’s own statute. The German author Doğan Akhanli was arrested during a holiday in Spain after Turkey had given him a “Red Notice” via Interpol. The same thing happened to the Swedish citizen and writer, Hamza Yalcin.
 
There is an evil brilliance in exploiting Interpol. Such misuse means that government critics cannot be secure anywhere, even if they have left the country and received asylum elsewhere. 
 
Since the state of emergency was introduced in Turkey, the definition of terrorism has become so broad that all and everything can be included. Another problem is that the European system has weak points which make it vulnerable to misuse by Turkish interests.
 
Professor Christian Kaunert is an expert on security and terror at the Institute for European Studies in Brussels. In an interview for the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen, he states that “the international system has not clearly defined terrorism. EU has one definition, but the UN does not - to give one example. Such gaps make it possible for Turkey to exploit the international system.”
 
It is impossible to disregard the fact that since the failed coup last year, Turkey has forced over 110,000 jurists, university teachers and lawyers to abandon their work. It is equally impossible to disregard Turkey’s imprisonment of over 50,000 people since July 2016, and impossible to disregard that it is writers, journalists and people working for human rights who are now on the police wanted lists.  It is obvious that the imprisonment of approximately 200 authors and journalists is about hunting for regime critics and about frightening everyone else into silence.
 
Interpol must not be used for political, religious or racist purposes. According to Articles 2 and 3 of its charter, Interpol should be neutral and not driven by political motives; it should act with respect for human rights. 
 
Russia, China and Venezuela have previously been accused of labelling people “criminal” for political reasons. Now it’s Turkey. Earlier this year, in April, the European Parliament maintained that:
 

In several cases in recent years, Interpol and the system of “Red Notice” has been abused by several member states for political purposes in their efforts to suppress freedom of expression or to pursue political opposition outside the country’s borders.

 
At the end of August, the EU commission stated the same thing and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) admonished Interpol to “carefully consider” detention enquiries from Turkey, especially those applying to journalists, and warned Interpol against becoming an instrument to “strangle freedom of expression”.
 
On 6 September, the Ministers for Foreign Affairs from Sweden and Germany, Margot Wallström and Sigmar Gabriel, sent a letter to their EU counterpart, Federica Mogherini, saying “We are afraid that Akhanli and Yalcin may be extradited to Turkey for political reasons.”  Professor Christian Kaunert at the Institute for European Studies calls the letter “a rather unusual step”.
 
But it is no coincidence that Turkey’s actions now are the main topic of discussions within the EU’s leadership. According to Kaunert’s analysis, the Turkish leadership is consciously provoking EU countries in order to trigger a reaction where EU is the party who breaks off negotiations on the Turkish membership. Erdoğan simply seeks a worsening of the relations in order to change the country’s´ political direction towards the east, and then blame the EU.
 
Turning regime-critical words, thoughts and opinions into criminal acts is one of the most serious threats to the foundations of democracy. The fundamentals of democracy include the right to express critical, uncomfortable opinions, the right to criticize those in power, and the right to give protection to those who are persecuted for their words, thoughts and opinions.
 
Who else is on Turkey’s list? How many more writers, journalists and human rights activities risk being arrested when they are on holiday?
 
Swedish PEN is proud to present some of the courageous people who are in the vanguard of the struggle for freedom of expression in present-day Turkey. This issue of the Dissident Blog contains voices from trials and from prisons, voices from those who are still in Turkey and from those who have been forced to flee.
Read them, publish them, spread them. In this way we oppose persecution, we refuse to let these voices be silenced.
 
Elisabeth Åsbrink, President, Swedish PEN