Necmye Alpay greeted me warmly. Dressed casually in a workout-style jacket and sneakers, her spirit of optimism stood in stark contrast to the spareness of the setting: the Bakirkoy Women’s Prison in Istanbul.
Alpay has been held in Bakirkoy since the beginning of September. I met with her when I was in Turkey this month on an official mission as the United Nations’ monitor for freedom of opinion and expression worldwide. The government invited me to visit back in February, before the July 15 coup attempt, before the state of emergency declared by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that same month, but well after a crackdown on government criticism had begun.
Alpay is a prominent translator, linguist and writer based in Istanbul. She was detained along with her friend, Asli Erdoğan, one of Turkey’s most accomplished novelists and essayists. The government refused my request to meet with Erdoğan (no relation to the president), but allowed me to spend an hour with Alpay on Nov. 17.
Both women were detained in late August, apparently because of their association with Özgür Gündem, a pro-Kurdish newspaper shuttered by the government that month. Ankara claims their work – guest editing, writing and membership in a symbolic advisory board – amounted to membership of or propaganda for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which the United States, the European Union and Turkey have designated a terrorist group. The women reject the idea that their writing, suffused with an intense pro-peace talks orientation, could constitute terrorism or incitement to violence.
In a letter she asked her lawyer to send to me, Erdoğan calls her detention a “witch burning,” without basis in law or reason. Alpay, in a letter she gave me when we we met, calls it “irrational, illogical and unreal.” Prosecutors are threatening the two women with life in prison.
Across Istanbul at the Silivri Prison, a massive detention complex for over 13,000 prisoners, the story repeats itself. There, among dozens of writers and thousands of public servants (judges, prosecutors, government workers, military servicemembers, and others), authorities are detaining 13 writers, staff and board members of Cumhuriyet, one of the most important critical media institutions since modern Turkey’s founding.
At Silivri I met five Cumhuriyet writers and executives: Hakan Karasınır, Bülent Utku, Güray Tekin Öz, Mustafa Kemal Güngör and Onder Celik. The government denied me visits with several others, including the famous writers and academics, Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, cartoonist Musa Kart and columnist Kadri Gursel.
As with Alpay and Erdoğan, the Cumhuriyet staff have no access to the evidence against them. But those I met have been told that their articles or advertisements constituted propaganda or fundraising for Fethullah Gülen, the ally-turned-enemy of President Erdoğan whose movement is widely believed in Turkey to be responsible for the coup attempt.
These are just a few of an estimated 155 writers, editors and media executives in prison in Turkey today, most awaiting trials for apparently doing nothing more than practicing their profession. Authorities have arrested reporters in the field as well, as they did over the weekend by detaining (and releasing a day later) BBC reporter Hatice Kamer in the Kurdish southeast.
Under the same kinds of terrorism charges, the government has launched a widespread attack on critical voices. It has closed at least 12 television and 11 radio stations. Kurdish media has been decimated. Web pages are regularly blocked, communications networks taken down, social media platforms censored. Political opposition leaders have been harassed or arrested. Erdoğan himself has initiated some 1,900 defamation lawsuits, often solely on the basis of ironic, mocking, or even obnoxious social media posts.
I met with dozens of others caught in the vortex of the government’s repression. Several academics told me how they, like thousands of others, were removed from their positions, accused of being Gülenists or pro-Kurd operatives without any opportunity for challenge. Representatives of several of the hundreds of non-governmental organizations and cultural centers shut down by the government told me they’d been given no reasons for their suspension.
Meanwhile, approximately two percent of Turkey's civil service – at least 110,000 employees – have been removed from their jobs on the basis of mere assertions of Gülenist connections. Thousands of prosecutors and judges, including two members of the Constitutional Court, have been removed on similar grounds. And lawyers who defend any of these people are themselves often investigated and detained.
My UN role gave me the opportunity to meet not only those crushed by the crackdown, but also those dozens of officials responsible for implementing it. In meetings with senior officials and parliamentarians, I heard a common refrain: Turkey faces real threats. Still reeling from July’s failed coup and major Islamic State and PKK attacks on civilians, one official after the other claimed that it is essential to take extreme measures.
I also met judges who expressed a deep commitment to the rule of law. I met bureaucrats who seemed genuinely committed to protecting their institutions. I came away feeling that much of the government merely implements the decisions made in the offices of the presidency and prime minister, whose officials I sought unsuccessfully to meet.
Since July 15, Erdoğan has enacted nearly a dozen decrees under the state of emergency. His government has told the UN and the Council of Europe that it would not meet its fundamental human rights obligations while seeking to protect its citizens and democratic institutions. The Constitutional Court seems hamstrung in its ability to consider claims that Ankara has overreached.
I asked officials to justify their steps, for instance, to shut down media and arrest vast numbers of journalists on the basis of the emergency laws and counter-terrorism statutes. One official captured what I found to be a consensus: “We are concerned merely with media that no longer functions as media but as propaganda for terrorists.”
I get that many in the government feel traumatized by the coup, particularly those in Ankara who watched F-16s bombing Parliament. The government has every right to confront security threats. But I cannot avoid the conclusion that the government’s response goes well beyond what is necessary or proportionate.
Until recently, Turkey's allies in Europe and NATO, cowed by Turkey’s strategic position on the borders of Iraq and Syria and its leverage over Europe’s refugee crisis, have said little about this downward spiral of repression. Last week the European Parliament took the important but symbolic step to urge suspension of the discussions over admitting Turkey to the EU. Not surprisingly, Erdoğan’s response was to threaten to call off last year’s refugee deal with Europe, saying, “If you go any further, these border gates will be opened.”
Turkey’s friends in the West need to do more to convince Erdoğan to recommit to the rule of law. At a minimum, they need to make clear that, while they will support Ankara’s efforts to confront the threat of terrorism, the country risks its place in the Council of Europe and other institutions of global governance and human rights when it persists in such draconian actions.
Erdoğan also needs to initiate a change in direction by releasing all caught up in the frenzy of collective punishment, dialing back on Turkey’s emergency laws and revising Turkey's overbroad terrorism laws.
In her letter to me, Asli Erdoğan suggested, “As far as I know, I am the first writer in 21st century to be tried with ‘life sentence’ and I will not tell you how I feel.” She concluded, “We, all the victims of this Mid-Eastern version of dictatorship, desparately need the help of international organizations that protect basic human rights and values as ‘freedom of thought and speech.’”
Not long ago Turkey was on a path of commitment to protect those very rights and values. It’s not too late to return.