Asli Erdoğan on trial in Turkey: “They kept me in solitary confinement”

Asli Erdoğan recalled the day she was arrested. It was about 3pm on 16th August, 2016; she was taking a nap in her Istanbul flat when she heard a loud knock at the door. “Who is it?” she asked. A voice shot back, “It’s the police.” She told them she was not dressed, but they knocked again and threatened to force their way in.

I spoke to Asli, one of Turkey’s most celebrated writers and human rights activists, on the phone recently. Her repertoire includes novels, short stories and literary journalism. She is known for her defiant voice, and two of her novels have been translated into English. Today, she is due in court, having previously been arrested for “disrupting the unity” of the Turkish state. Her voice quivered a little as she considered this prospect.

Then she continued with her story, explaining that when she relented and opened the door, several masked men came into her apartment. A man in black mask put a gun to the back of her head: “I had to put my hands up,” she told me. Up to 30 security officials ransacked her apartment.

“They searched my flat, and my books, and they took letters I had written years ago.” These were to be used as evidence against her. She was taken to court on 20th August and jailed for pretrial detention. “I am a 50-year-old woman, I have never been to court except for my divorce, so you can understand my shock.”

Her crime was, the police told her, membership of a terrorist organisation. Her writings for Özgür Gündem were the real extent of her transgression, she explained. This was an opposition newspaper with links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which for decades called for an independent Kurdish state within Turkey. The paper was shut down during the state of emergency in Turkey following last year’s failed coup against President Tayyip Erdoğan.

In her words, Asli was arrested because she “crossed the line” in writing about human rights violations in Turkey. Her case has prompted an international outcry over freedom of expression in Turkey. Erdogan came to power in 2002, and his already authoritarian style of government has lately taken an even more extreme turn: the country is now jailing more journalists than China. (Alev Scott wrote on the country’s “fearful descent” in these pages earlier this year). Thousands of writers and academics have been targeted as part of a great purge.

As for Asli, she has paid for her work as one of Turkey’s most prominent human rights activists with her freedom. But her cause has drawn international support and in May she won the prestigious European Cultural Foundation’s Princess Margriet Award for culture, though she was unable to travel to Amsterdam for the ceremony.

After her court appearance on 20th August she was, she said, taken to a prison in Istanbul used for Kurdistan Workers’ Party prisoners. “They kept me in solitary confinement for five days, they did not give me water but the other women in the prison helped me.” She was held with many other women who had been arrested following the failed coup. Eventually Asli was moved into a cell, which she shared with another woman.

“There is no more law in Turkey, this whole thing is fake, what they have done is illegal,” she told me.

After 136 days in pre-trial detention, she was released in December, but since her release has been unable to leave Turkey. But she is not alone in her predicament. “Every night thousands of people wait to be arrested.” Of her own arrest, she said that it: “shows more about Turkey than me, it’s a show of power, saying they can do anything.” She was surprised by it, however. “There’s no rational answer, many people were surprised, I write on human rights violations and I am sure the Turkish state does not like it, but many people do this also.”

Now, she faces a trial that some see as a sham. She is due in court today, and could face life imprisonment.

Her trial shows just how far Turkey has regressed in recent years. “10 years ago life was much more vivid and free in Turkey,” she explains. But now, there is a visible shift in society: “as a woman Turkey has become more and more traditional.” And following the crackdowns since the failed coup, “there’s a psychological change in the minds of the people.” People are afraid. In her neighbourhood in Istanbul people minding their own business in cafes now look out for someone eavesdropping. The fear, she says, is “palpable.”

Asli is anxious about her trial—but tries to not think too much about it. “If I get a fair trial then I should be acquitted.” At least, that’s her hope. By Ismail Einashe