September 1, 2016
Turkey’s treatment of novelist Aslı Erdoğan is causing her “permanent damage”
by Ian Dreiblatt
One of Turkey’s most prominent writers is currently in police custody, where she says she is being treated “in a way that will leave permanent damage on my body.”
Over the past month, we’ve reported several times on the increasingly nasty media crackdown that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has declared following a failed coup on July 15th, which has seen, among other things, the closure of twenty-nine publishing houses, and the arrests of dozens of journalists — a worsening of a situation that was already bad, with Turkey’s journalists described as among the world’s least free, and official efforts ongoing to suppress international discussion of Ankara’s struggles against the Kurdish liberation movement, and in particular the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Now one of those arrested, novelist Aslı Erdoğan (no relation), has issued a statement through her lawyer, Nesrullah Oğuz, to Hürriyet, one of the nation’s major news dailies. Erdoğan was arrested on August 19 in a raid on Özgür Gündem, an Istanbul-based paper on whose advisory board she sits, along with editor-in-chief Zana Kaya and news editor İnan Kızılkaya. Özgür Gündem has been described as pro-Kurdish, and has been shuttered by the government more than once before. The three are charged with crimes including “membership in a terrorist organization,” “propagandizing for a terrorist organization,” and “undermining national unity.”
Erdoğan—who wrote a column for Özgür Gündem and is internationally respected as a novelist—is being held in solitary confinement. Her statement at least confirms that she has not been subject to physical torture, but also details some appalling conditions that she’s enduring, forced to sleep on a urine-stained mattress and denied medical care:
I’ve been experiencing problems in my intestines for 10 years. My pancreas and digestive system doesn’t work properly, but my medicine has not been given to me for five days. I am diabetic and I need a special nutrition. But in jail I am only able to eat yoghurt… Also, even though I suffer from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, I have not been allowed access to open air [since entering prison].
The Turkish government’s lack of affection for the PKK is a matter of public record (and a story we’ve covered before), but if it remains unclear how authoring a column in a newspaper amounts to “membership in a terrorist organization,” one immigration scholar, speaking to Pinar Tremblay of the DC-based Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, offers the following explanation:
[Aslı] Erdoğan fights against discrimination. She has been the voice of even African immigrants to Turkey. Going over Erdoğan’s writings, you cannot find any arguments specifically supporting the PKK or encouraging any sort of violence. However, she dares to do what even most of the upper middle class Kurds would not do, and that is not good news for [Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party]. Erdoğan in jail sends a message to all of us to be silent — and, in a sense, to be complicit with the atrocities of the state.
Writing at the Guardian, Alison Flood has collected some responses from the literary world, including Sahar Halaimzai, campaigns manager for PEN International, who called Turkey’s current wave of repression “unprecedented in the country’s modern history,” and Maureen Freely, president of English PEN, who wrote that “no poet, novelist, or playwright is safe in [President] Erdoğan’s Turkey.” Writing for The Bookseller, Natasha Onwuemezi notes that the German Publishers and Booksellers Association has called for the governments of Germany and Europe to offer their “uncompromising commitment” to the cause of free speech in Turkey, with managing director Alexander Skipis asserting, “The German government and the EU Commission simply cannot be silent on this subject any longer. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and, as such, is non-negotiable.” A headline at France’s L’Express declared, “Aslı Erdoğan has become the symbol of anti-Kurdish repression.”
PEN International has issued a statement calling the conditions of Erdoğan’s confinement “wholly unacceptable” and demanding that Turkish authorities “immediately provide better conditions, [and] ensure immediate access to medication and to her doctors as a matter of extreme urgency.” A change.org petition (in Turkish, German, Italian, and English) currently has nearly 29,000 signatures; add yours here.
Of the international support her case is receiving, Erdoğan said:
I’m aware that great efforts are being spent. I’m aware of the sincerity and feelings in the messages that I receive. It may sound very vain, but I thank you very much.
Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.