A view of Silivri Prison, near Istanbul,Turkey, 2014. Wikicommons/CeeGee. Some rights reserved.When the anti-terror squad raided the hotel on the island of Büyükada near Istanbul in the morning of July 5, the door of the meeting room was open. It was the fourth day of a training workshop, in which eight Turkish activists and two trainers from Germany participated. They were all arrested in the conference room of the hotel for their alleged association with an unspecified terrorist organization. The eight activists were Günal Kurşun (IHGD, Human Rights Agenda Association), İdil Eser (Amnesty International), İlknur Üstün (Women’s Coalition), Nalan Erkem (hYd, Citizens’ Assembly), Nejat Taştan (Association for Monitoring Equal Rights), Özlem Dalkıran (hYd, Citizens’ Assembly), Şeyhmus Özbekli (Rights Initiative) and Veli Acu (IHGD, Human Rights Agenda Association).
In addition, the two trainers Ali Ghavari and Peter Steudner were also taken into custody. The workshop was organized by IHOP (Joint Platform of Human Rights NGOs). The aim of the workshop was to increase awareness about the risks and threats that human rights defenders face, including information security and high-stress, and to develop the skills necessary to deal with them.
The case reflects the sort of power relations and the particular conception of morality that dominate the so-called ‘New Turkey’– that is to say Turkey as it is re-constructed under Erdogan’s ‘strong-willed’ leadership. In this ‘New Turkey’ a form of violence that disregards human rights, even including the right to life and the manipulation of reality and morality to suit the interests of power holders, are part and parcel of everyday life.
Nowadays the power holders of Turkey don’t need to go to great lengths to fabricate evidence or elaborate legal justifications to be able to arrest people, hold them in prolonged periods of pretrial detention, or even deprive them of their right to life. The power holders have almost unrestricted control over people’s freedoms and lives, as well as over how they perceive reality – for almost all media outlets with an oppositional stance have been driven into virtual non-existence.
An international conspiracy on Büyükada
This mass media-driven obscurity notwithstanding, however, for those whose compass is calibrated by a quest for truth, the reality has never been this obvious. And it is because of this clarity that different actors in the mainstream, pro-government media as well as in the judicial establishment are forced to approach the matter in different ways reflecting their different styles of ingratiating themselves with the powers-that-be.
Thus for example, in the pro-government media the training workshop in question was initially presented as a meeting of international coup plotters and the fact that the arrests took place just days before the first anniversary of the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016 allowed them to concoct a new `glorious` history in which yet another sinister international conspiracy against the nation has been thwarted by heroic public authorities. There was, however, no shred of evidence to support such wild allegations and this absence of evidence soon became obvious even to those who have no wish to see the truth.
Hence, after a while, even some pro-government columnists and AKP politicians started to question the arrests, this time suggesting that, perhaps, it was not the arrested human rights activists who were involved in an anti-government conspiracy after all, but the officials who decided to detain them on such flimsy grounds! In the television program Media Critic broadcast on TV channel TGRT on August 18, 2017, embedded journalists Cem Kucuk and Fuat Ugur made comments to that effect. Unfortunately, in the New Turkey, even a truth that is obvious for anyone to see, does not guarantee that justice will be done. Thus, 8 of the 10 human rights activists are still in jail and all motions to release them on bail are still being denied.
This is why these arrests give us an excellent opportunity to analyze power relations in contemporary Turkey. First – a closer look at the process of the arrests themselves.
The police found no evidence
The fact that the activists were arrested in the morning was discovered only in the evening of July 5; in the meantime they were all denied access to their families and lawyers. The official report of the arrests was prepared hours after the raid and since the police could not find any evidence against them in the first seven days in which they were held in custody, the period of custody was extended to 13 days.
During that period, the police went to a fishing expedition searching their houses and going over their computers with a toothcomb in an attempt to find the slightest shred of evidence that can remotely justify their arrests. None was found, yet on the 13th day of their custody a court committed four activists and their two trainers to pretrial detention on suspicion of alleged association with unspecified terrorist organizations! The court initially released Ilknur Ustun, Nalan Erkem, Nejat Tastan and Seyhmus Ozbekli, on bail pending trial.
But the injustice of this court order was not the end of the story. It was only the beginning.
Later on, on the objection of the public prosecutor, two more activists, Ilknur Ustun and Nalan Erkem too were remanded, and thus now eight activists are in detention pending trial for an unspecified time, and the indictment against them has not yet been prepared. Ilknur Ustun is held in Sincan Prison near Ankara. The remaining seven activists were sent to Silivri prison near Istanbul, which, since its opening in 2008, has become famous for its political inmates.
All activists have been subjected to at least one day of solitary confinement. Ali Gharavi, Gunal Kursun, Peter Steudner and Veli Acu, for their part, remained for longer periods in solitary confinement, so much so that there were worries about their health. Meanwhile, Nalan Erkem has not been provided with the necessary medication for her health condition, and was brought for medical examination in handcuffs; and Idil Eser, who was under observation for a suspected cancer diagnosis, has not been examined properly. Veli Acu, who lives with a medical implant that needs to be cleaned every two days, was denied that opportunity for 20 days.
Later, it turns out that the initial arrests were based on information probably received from one of the interpreters employed for the workshop. It transpires that this person harbored nationalistic sentiments and was repeatedly pulled up by the English-speaking participants of the workshop for making false translations and asking manipulative and provocative questions. Other evidence used to justify the decision to detain the eight activists includes a childish map drawn by one of the participants in an exercise designed to reflect the most pressing issues that stress her out, and correspondence regarding the “No” campaign in the presidential referendum of April 16, 2017.
So there is no reasonable motive for arresting the participants. There is no evidence to justify their detention. And there is no indictment yet. But the clock of their time in jail is still ticking.
New values of the ‘New Turkey’: bad times for human rights and civil society
IHOP (Human Rights Joint Platform) consisting of hYd (Citizens’ Assembly), IHD (Human Rights Association), IHGD (Human Rights Agenda Association) and Amnesty International, are all specialized organizations in the field of human rights advocacy, with longstanding experience in promoting democratization, equality, freedom, feminism and lgbti rights. Similarly, the participants of the workshop are all well-known and well-respected for their work in the field of human rights, and each of them represent their respective prestigious institutions.
The fact that the participants are all reputable human rights activists, well known for their contributions to the promotion of democracy and democratization both inside and outside Turkey, gave the power holders an excellent opportunity to make an international showcase of what they deem to be the new `local and national` values of what they call the new `New Turkey.`
It allowed them not only to stage a glorious celebration of the anniversary of the failed coup, but also to divert public attention away from the 24-day Justice March from Ankara to Istanbul organized by the main opposition party, CHP, which took between June 15 and July 9, 2017. The march was a protest against the arrest of CHP MP Enis Berberoglu. In addition to CHP supporters, many civil organizations and other opposition party members, including the Kurdish ones, participated in the march and the march ended with a big rally of more than 1 million people in Maltepe, Istanbul. Of course the accusations have no foundation in reality. But it is very important for Erdogan to keep what he calls “local and national” sentiments aroused, until at least the 2019 presidential elections.
At this point, not only 10 human rights activists, but also a very large number of other Turkish and International rights advocates and journalists, including such international names as Deniz Yucel, are held in jail as hostages. The most recent executive decree which allows the government to exchange international inmates in Turkish prisons for Turkish political refugees abroad, is the clearest manifestation of this approach of using judicial processes as a means to political ends.
Meanwhile Erdogan is aware of the need to keep transnational economic relations as relaxed as possible. Thus for example, the Turkish National Intelligence Agency’s alleged list of German companies supporting terrorism precipitated an international crises and formal protest from Germany, upon which Turkey gave the huge bid for renewable energy to a consortium including the German giant, Siemens.
While Erdogan’s responsibility in all this is undeniable, it would be a mistake to think of him as the sole perpetrator. The German media in particular signals him out as the real culprit, but this hides the fact that he has secular-nationalist partners within the state bureaucracy in devising and implementing his hardline policies. And it is impossible to understand Turkey without understanding this relationship which has its roots in an almost century-old statist tradition.
Presenting Erdogan as the only perpetrator also allows Europe in general and Germany in particular to hide the indirect support they gave to Erdogan through such political acts as Merkel's pre-election visit to Turkey on November 1, 2015 or doubling the number of arms sold to Turkey in recent years, or the shady refugee deal Merkel struck with Erdogan.
To summarize, then, while human rights activists, journalists and Kurdish politicians are held as hostages, and the tension between democracy and authoritarianism is translated into an international tension between Turkey and the European Union, the economic necessities of the neoliberal world are still met. And this allows the naked truth to be seen by those who have eyes to see.
 More information about the raid can be found in http://www.ihop.org.tr/en/.
A German version of this article has been published in Südlink 181 www.suedlink.de.