Turkey’s ‘softening’ of oppression may be illusory

It was one of those rare moments when a small group of parliamentary deputies, members of the Human Rights Investigative Commission, visited the notorious Silivri Prison outside Istanbul.

The facility is notorious because thousands of political prisoners — Kurds, intellectual dissidents, journalists, reformist liberals and Gulenists — are kept for years behind its bars.

The deputies wanted to meet with Ahmet Altan, a former editor of the independent Taraf newspaper and an internationally renowned author. Atlan was recently nominated for the Baillie Gifford Prize for his book — written while he was in Silivri Prison — titled “I Will Never See the World Again.” Altan is serving an aggravated life-in-prison sentence after being convicted of “crimes against the state.”

The commission members almost missed him because he had a visitor but, by coincidence, on their way out, they bumped into each other. Altan, an extremely strong-willed dissident, was in his usual joyous state of mind, despite having spent three years in prison. “Hey, how come you are leaving without seeing me? Come in, let me offer you some coffee,” he joked. They entered his 4-metre-long cell.

“How are you?” asked Huseyin Yayman, chairman of the commission and who is also a deputy of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Thanks to you, we all keep in good shape in here,” Altan laughed. “Come and spend some time here. You’ll love it, too! Don’t ever worry why your party locked so many people up in here. It’s not as bad as you think,” he winked and laughed.

The opposition deputy, Ali Haydar Hakverdi, asked about his case. “These people are like the ruthless criminal gangs in Mexico,” Altan said. “They may not even abide by the top court rulings if it disagrees with my prison sentence. Prison steals from your life but I reject this. Here, I write. Many of us had, once upon a time, supported the AKP. Now you are out and I am here.”

When Yayman murmured something like “But your case was decided by the judiciary,” Altan was as sharp as ever: “Come on, let’s not kid each other, we all know who decides over us all.”

Hakverdi suggested Altan write a manifesto for democracy but Altan was still full of jokes. “You know that this is a reason for ending up here,” he laughed, adding: “Is there anything you need from out there, just let me know!”

The episode, as tragicomic as it is, reveals the suffering and urgency for Turkey’s never-ending ordeal with a deeply crippled justice system. As a result of Erdogan’s ruthless, brutal campaign to crash civil dissent and political opposition, the past years saw nearly 50,000 people sent to jails, qualifying as “political prisoners,” Human Rights Watch said.

More than 150,000 people, including many academicians, lost their jobs, were subjected to criminal investigations, had their passports held, which means they live in a de facto open-air prison. Prominent politicians, such as Selahattin Demirtas, and civil rights campaigners, such as businessman Osman Kavala, and senior journalists such as Nazli Ilicak are among them.

As the oppression remains consistent, the general wisdom at home and abroad is that Turkey will only be able to recover from the pitch-black state of things by a general amnesty and, if ever possible, a new constitution. This is what the opposition utters more frequently, as Erdogan and his clique seek new ways to cling to power.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s heavily politicised Constitutional Court is sending out signals in favour of some human rights after a long time of paralysis. It ruled, for example, that the reporting about corruption pointing to Erdogan’s family five years ago was a “constitutional right.”

It overruled lower court decisions on hundreds of academics accused — and some sentenced — to prison because they signed a petition for peace between the state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. As a result, the lower courts are busy dropping the cases and issuing acquittals in completed ones.

As parliament is to open in October, Erdogan issued signals on a “judicial reform package,” calling for the opposition to support it.

Because the pressure in Turkey is so constant, some opposition circles, while welcoming these moves, claim “the regime is softening.” It may be yet another illusion, leading to a new disappointment.

There are several reasons for utter caution. First of all, Turkey’s top court was far too late in delivering justice. When cases more than two or three years old are handled, it raises the suspicion of deliberate delay.

The damage, in terms of “stealing lives away” through prison, is done in all the cases of sheer breach. In other cases, such as the massive, chain of prosecutions of “peace academics” that more or less destroyed the academic freedom in Turkey, the belated ruling of the top court cannot hide the fact that hundreds of academicians are so deterred from what they did that many of them will never dare engage in reform actions.

The so-called “judicial reform” package seems equally illusory, signalling a stillborn baby. The proposal is full of half measures, shying from a comprehensive amnesty and amendments of restrictive “police state” type of laws.

It simply aims at “partially pardoning” the prisoners, probably singling out Kurdish and Gulenist inmates as continuing the sentences; ties the permissions to unblock passports to the “mercy of government” and says almost nothing about granting back jobs those affected.

It seems Erdogan, keen on brinksmanship for survival, stages a new series of manoeuvres to dazzle the opposition and the actors abroad who stand for appeasement in whatever he does. This, perhaps, explains why imprisoned heroes such as Altan or Demirtas remain so much in disbelief and irony.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

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