Analysis

Turkey Not Only Jailing Writers, but Readers Too

Austrian journalist imprisoned on charge of ‘supporting terror’ after supposedly incriminating books found in his Ankara apartment

Erdogan waves to supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party, during a rally in Kizilcahamam, central Turkey, Sunday, October 7, 2018.
,AP

“It started as a normal raid. Shortly before 6 A.M. on Sept. 11, Turkish anti-terrorism police showed up at my apartment door in Ankara with an arrest warrant. They rifled through my books, found some supposedly incriminating titles (largely political works about the Turkish left) and took me into custody.”

This is how Max Zirngast, an Austrian journalist and social activist, begins his November 30th piece in The Washington Post, which he managed to translate and get out to the same newspaper Jamal Khashoggi wrote for.

“On my first day in police custody, nothing extraordinary happened. I was placed in a cell, where I slept on a piece of wood, with a thin blanket and no pillows,” Zirngast continues. “It was freezing, and the light bore down on me around the clock. The food rations were sparse and ice cold. After a few days, I had an upset stomach, cramps and diarrhea.” His interrogators sought to know details about books he had and his ties with the Kurds (because of one of the books found in his home), as well as with left-wing organizations in Turkey.

Max Zirngast
AFP

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Now Zirngast is waiting for a decision by Turkish prosecutors on whether to try him for “supporting terror,” that same vague charge that’s applied to most political prisoners.

Meanwhile, the Austrian government is trying to get him released. Although Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called last week for Zirngast’s freedom, Austria can’t exert the same pressure as the United States, which with one swipe of sanctions this summer managed to get Pastor Andrew Brunson released from a Turkish prison in October after he’d been held for two years.

Nevertheless, Zirngast has a better chance of being released than the 239 Turkish journalists who are currently in detention or in prison (as of October 31). Foreign journalists at least have a homeland attempting to help them, as opposed to Turkish journalists, whose homeland is imprisoning them.

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These journalists have difficulty gaining international support because Turkey rebuffs all questions about them by claiming that their detention is Turkey’s domestic affair or part of its war on terror. Any effort to challenge these claims gets this crushing Turkish response: “Anyone who criticizes Turkey for jailing terror activists is himself a partner in terrorism.”

It’s not only journalists who have become synonymous with terrorists. Last week a Turkish court sentenced one of the country’s leading neurologists, Prof. Gencay Gursoy, 79, to 26 months in prison for signing a petition three years ago calling for reconciliation with the Kurdish minority and renewing the national dialogue with them. The petition was signed by more than 1,100 intellectuals and professionals in response to the brutal military operation in the city of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey that destroyed large parts of its Old City. Gursoy could have received a reduced sentence if he had expressed regret, but he insisted he had nothing to regret. Until he was arrested he continued to write articles criticizing the government’s conduct, articles that “proved” to the prosecution that the defendant was not worthy of mercy.

The list of celebrities sentenced to prison terms for “terrorist activity” or “intent to violate the constitutional order” includes Saide Inac, a German singer of Kurdish origin who was arrested in the city of Edirne during last June’s election campaign for being supportive of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is defined as a terrorist organization. Last month she was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment.

The arrest of celebrities still manages to snare a few headlines in the Western press, but every such publicized arrest makes people forget the ongoing harassment of thousands of journalists, writers, judges, teachers and academics who are sitting in jail or awaiting trial. No one talks anymore about the destruction of 29 publishing houses over two years ago and the confiscation and destruction of tens of thousands of books. Thousands of libraries have had to remove books banned by the government from their shelves, and bookstores visited by police, who removed thousands of volumes, are now forced to scrutinize every new book that’s published, lest buying it put the purchaser in violation of the terror law.

As a result of this behavior Turkey ranks 157th out of 180 countries surveyed in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. Even Belarus and Russia rank higher. Under it are Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Iraq and several other countries that do not aspire to join the European Union.

When it comes to countries that are at the bottom of the table, there is mostly despair about anything ever changing in this realm. But with Turkey, efforts are still being made to persuade President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to adopt a more liberal policy. The European Union has warned the Turkish government that continued repression will reduce Turkey’s chances of joining the EU, but no country is threatening it with sanctions such as those imposed by several countries on Saudi Arabia, including the recent U.S. Senate decision to stop selling arms to the Saudis.