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A Turkish Winter

The recent murder of Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink shocked many in Turkey and sent a chilling message to the country's writers and academics. In an atmosphere of growing nationalism, Dink had received a number of death threats and, in 2005, was prosecuted for "insulting Turkish identity." Dink broke the Turkish taboo against writing about or discussing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in Turkey between 1915 and 1917, during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. Armenians and many historians consider this to be the first genocide of the 20th century. The Turkish government denies the genocide charge, saying the killings were part of a civil war. The dispute continues to stir ethnic tensions.

Journalist Nicholas Birch, who lives in Istanbul, has been reporting on Turkish issues for the past five years. He says that, for years, newspapers have faced censorship or been shut down for questioning the state's version of the truth too openly. But today the situation is subtly different, according to Birch. "Dink's 17-year-old murderer wasn't acting on anybody's orders. He was an amateur footballer and high school dropout. He's the product of the virulent nationalism thathas been stoked over the last two or three years by those opposed to a more open society."

Birch and photojournalist David Gross, also an Istanbul resident, recently traveled across the country to meet with Turkish writers, editors and academics, many of whom now live under police protection or have spent years in jail for their views. Listen to excerpts from their stories.-- Jackie Bennion

Atilla Yayla

Atilla Yayla
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Listen (1:46, QuickTime & Windows Media)

Professor Atilla Yayla got into trouble in November 2006 after he noted that visitors to Turkey are surprised at the ubiquity of images of Turkey's founder, Kemal Atatürk. Described as a "traitor" in a local newspaper, Yayla caused a national media storm and was summarily dismissed from his teaching position at Ankara's Gazi University. He was recently reinstated, but now faces charges of "insulting Atatürk's memory." If convicted, the 50-year-old could spend three years in prison. He is the president of the Association for Liberal Thinking, an organization promoting civil society and freedom of expression. He lives in Ankara under police protection.

For one week, some newspapers conducted this lynch campaign. Physiologically, I had some problems because the first five days I couldn't sleep, and in the end I collapsed physically.

But psychologically, I was up because I believed I was right. I said, "I am an honorable man." I compared my situation with the Moscow courts in Stalin's times, you know? People were charged with artificial crimes. First they admitted that they committed those crimes and they were criminals, and they were executed. I said what is the cost, the maximum cost for this? It is to lose your life.

There was a letter put in my room at university threatening to kill me, to put a bullet in my neck. But I didn't take them seriously until Mr. Hrant Dink was killed. Now I have a bodyguard hanging around with me all the time.

It is really difficult to live with a bodyguard. He is protecting me, but I have to take care of him, you know? I have to feed him. Now I am thinking to buy some gifts for him and his family because he is like a part of me.

You know, in many times you don't understand how valuable what you have is until you lose it. Also it was interesting to see which of your friends would stand by with you. Some of my friends lost the test. They couldn't pass.

Freedom has a cost; it comes at a cost. We don't have so many freedom fighters in Turkey. That is my aim. I want to raise new defenders of freedom.

 

Baskin Oran

Baskin Oran
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Listen (2:25, QuickTime & Windows Media)

A professor of political science in Ankara, Baskin Oran, 62, drew nationalist ire in 2004 when his government committee released a report urging Turkey to recognize the ethnic diversity of its Muslim majority, which includes Turks, Kurds, Arabs and other ethnic groups. Only Christians have minority status in Turkey today. He was accused of "inciting hatred and enmity" and "denigrating the judiciary." As well as writing books, he writes columns for Agos, Hrant Dink's Turkish Armenian weekly newspaper. He lives in Ankara under police protection.

You see, my friend, in this world, in this Turkey of ours, you can say everything provided that you use the appropriate words. Now what I am doing is, four articles out of five I show to my attorney. Yes, beforehand. He says they can go to the court for this expression or this word. Instead of saying "the court of cassation," use "the judiciary." And I delete "the court of cassation" and I put, I put "the judiciary." This is how I censor my writings.

I say the same things with different words.

One of the reasons why I personally didn't expect such a savage reaction was the fact that this was the very first time that everything started. Everything started with the reaction shown against the report. I mean, before that, everything went so smooth. Turkey did in three and a half years what Europe did in 400 years.

Now we understand it was too fast. We have an unbelievable upsurge of ethnic Turkish nationalism.

He who fears the bird does not plant corn. That's it. If you're afraid of it, you should stop. But that's not the way an intellectual does things. How can I lecture my students? How can I look into the mirror in the morning if I do stop? Therefore, you are threatened, you are insulted, and you do whatever necessary, and you write and say whatever necessary, but with the reservation that you go less into the street and you hope that the state will give you a bodyguard. These are the things that have to be suffered, and that's the way it goes.

The road to paradise passes by the hell, and we are walking.

 

Abdurrahman Dilipak

Abdurrahman Dilipak
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Listen (2:24, QuickTime & Windows Media)

Abdurrahman Dilipak, 58, is a columnist for Vakit, Turkey's most conservative Islamist newspaper. He is also the founder of an Islamist human rights association and is best known as an outspoken defender of human rights. Turkish courts have threatened him with a total of 500 years of jail time for criticizing the military and the country's secularist ideology. He lives under police protection in Istanbul.

At times of crisis, I speak out louder because stepping back only encourages the other side. "Ah ha! They say. He's affected. He frightened. Let's attack him."

After 1997, when the army removed an Islamist party from power, I came under big pressure, constant attack. My TV programs were shut down, a whole series of criminal cases were opened against me.

So I sat down and wrote a letter to the Chief of Staff, Kivrikoglu. "I'm responsible for all this fundamentalist activity," I said, "and I want to explain you why I'm doing it. Could you grant me an interview?" I asked. And he did! So I took along a suitcase full of books I had written criticizing this country's official Kemalist ideology, I signed them, and I offered them to him as a gift.

And after that, the number of cases opened against me went down.

In a sense, I'm lucky. I'm a well-known defender of freedom of speech. Even those who don't like me respect me because they know I will always defend their right to speak out. Being a good Muslim means defending the rights of your enemy. And I'm trying to be a good Muslim.

That hasn't stopped prosecutors calling for over 500 years of prison sentences for me. Much of that comes from the civil disobedience campaign I've been involved in for 15 years, where I repeat crimes other intellectuals have been punished for and demand to be prosecuted.

In the latest case, just a few months ago, a prosecutor asked the judge to jail me for 69 years.

Even the courts are used to me now. "You're mad," they say. "Get out of here and leave us alone."

 

Etyen Mahçupyan

Etyen Mahçupyan
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Listen (1:47, QuickTime & Windows Media)

Armenian Turkish Etyen Mahçupyan, 57, took over as editor of the weekly Agos when his friend Hrant Dink was murdered this January. A prominent intellectual who has written widely on politics and history, Mahçupyan lives in Istanbul under police protection. Agos's offices are also under constant guard.

It's difficult to say "real" to those threats because you don't know what real is, you know?

For example, we had a letter. It said we have only one month, and we will blow the place up, meaning this building. The question becomes, "Is this a real threat?" It's not. It's like a garniture; it's a side dish. So it's there, but after a time you become accustomed to it. When the threats go down, you ask the question, "What is happening?" So it's a part of your normal daily life.

And that's why I think that [Hrant's] murder was a real shock. Because I mean, you have so many threats every day and nothing happens.

I know many friends -- all of them, really, they get threats. So you are in it with the others as well, so you are not alone in this. So that gives you a feeling of solidarity, and it normalizes things. When you see that everyone is getting threats, the meaning of "threat" kind of dilutes itself. And then you understand that the whole thing is not against you personally, but you are a small part of a bigger contradiction or conflict that is going on in Turkey.

In many people there is a kind of an auto-control, when they write. You know, one learns over time how to write so that without knowing you protect yourself. You say what you have to say, but also you know how to say it.

After Hrant's killing, you cannot be cautious anymore. I mean, it's immoral to be cautious, in fact.

 

Ismail Besikci

Ismail Besikci
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Listen (2:12, QuickTime & Windows Media)

Ismail Besikci is Turkey's best-known dissident. The 68-year-old's brief career as a university lecturer in sociology ended in 1971 when he was imprisoned for writing about Turkey's Kurds. He has spent 17 years in and out of jail since then, but has managed to write more than 30 books about modern Turkish history and the Kurds. Many of them are still banned. He lives and writes in Turkey's capital, Ankara.

I've been in prison 17 years since 1971, at different times and in different places, of course.

I was in jail between 1971 and 1974. Then I began writing again. I was in jail again in 1980, briefly. When I got out, I carried on writing. 1981 brought another prison term, till 1987 this time. I went back to writing afterward. Then, from 1991 to 1999, I was in jail again. But you know all of this, I think, don't you?

My life is normal enough. You do what you have to do from day to day. You can walk in the street without stopping and looking behind you the whole time. But if you are investigated for expressing your thoughts, that's a threat. You can't plan. You don't know when you might have to go to the police station or to the prosecutor. You might even get a jail sentence. Planning becomes impossible.

And then, a writer has to be able to live off his books. But that hasn't been possible for me because you write a book and it's taken to court, banned. This publishing house -- Yurt Kitap -- has published 33 of [my] books. Thirty of them ended up in court. Some got let off, but others were banned. So what happens? Neither I nor the publisher can make any money.

Turkey is stuck. It can't give up on Europe, but it can't give up these thought crimes either. What happens? It leaves everything hanging. [laughs] No solution, always the same problem.

 

Sanar Yurdatapan

Sanar Yurdatapan
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Listen (2:16, QuickTime & Windows Media)

Sanar Yurdatapan, a former composer and songwriter, is the spokesman for the Initiative for Freedom of Expression, an Istanbul-based civil rights group. Forced to flee Turkey after the military coup in the 1980s, the 66-year-old returned to Istanbul in 1991. In 1996, he led an investigation into a military massacre of Kurdish villagers. The courts replied with a conviction against Yurdatapan for "insulting the military." Since then, he has worked with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other international human rights organizations.

But shouting out loud the reason why you've been threatened -- if you keep on shouting it louder and louder, this may be the best thing to protect you in the same way, and you will feel so good inside.

Ever since the day I made that decision for myself, I felt much better.

Most of the people do not have the experiences I had. This is why, normally, when you first feel that threat, of course, you don't know what to do. Should I escape here? I don't want to die, of course! Again it came down to, "What if they kill?" But I got used to that.

It is a normal part of my life. Just like a bad smell: You change your place a little bit and you don't smell that bad thing anymore.

I understand the people who are silent after those threats. This is understandable. Fear is something human -- a human feeling we really need in order to protect ourselves. Of course. I understand those people. I do not blame them. [Shouting out loud the reason for the threats] was my own practice --- the lesson I got -- and I am happy this way.

I guess I'm more happy than the others because living with that fear must be something terrible.

david gross

David Gross began his photojournalism career in 1999, driving into Kosovo behind a column of German NATO tanks. He graduated in 2000 from U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied writing, radio and photography, with a strong emphasis on human rights issues and reporting. He is working on a long-term project about the search for people who have disappeared in wars and disasters.

 

nicholas birch

Nicholas Birch has lived in Istanbul for five years. He has written about Turkey, Iraq and Iran for The Washington Post, the Guardian and The Christian Science Monitor. This is his first audio story.

 




Translations by Uveys Akinci