War on Media
Turkey’s ‘Oz’ for British Journalists
The prison Vice News’s gonzo journalists were sent to on bullshit ‘terrorism’ charges was the closest thing to a supermax.
On August 27, a four-person crew from Vice News—two British journalists, Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury, an Iraqi translator Mohammed Ismael Rasool, and their driver—had the chance to experience the harrows of the Turkish legal system.
The crew was detained while reporting the clashes between the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) militants and the Turkish police in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. The driver was the luckiest; he got released in two days. The two Britons were arrested by the court and put in a maximum security prison, dubbed F-Type, only to be released five days later. Rasool is still held by the Turkish authorities. Not quite Midnight Express, even a brief stint in an F-Type is enough to make someone never want to visit Turkey again.
And what triggered the incident was nothing more than an anonymous tip to the cops. The source claimed the Vice journalists were ISIS supporters. The police acted quickly and detained them when an anti-terror squad raided their room at the Hilton Hotel in Diyarbakir and confiscated their belongings, including notepads and computers. The police were able to see some of the footage the team had shot earlier, mainly of PKK fighters—considered terrorists by both Turkey and the U.S. But the real legal clincher was the computer belonging to Mohammed Ismael Rasool, the translator. It was encrypted by a program that the Turkish prosecutor said that was also commonly used by ISIS militants. This would become the main evidence in the court hearing two days later.
Even though their lawyer was sure the team would be released promptly—a quick Google search was enough to show they were legitimate journalists—the judge nevertheless decided to arrest them. The charge was “supporting a terrorist organization without being a member.” As any terror suspect would, they were sent to a maximum security prison.
While it is shocking that an anonymous tip can escalate into a terror charge just in two days, with barely any evidence, it is nothing out of the ordinary in Turkey’s legal system. Turkey’s legal system derives from a constitution written by a junta government in the 1980s, which is based on protecting the state against threats from its citizens. Security of the state comes first, then due process and then, finally, human rights. In a 2007 survey, 51 percent of judges agreed: “Human rights can pose a threat to state security.”
Gulcin Avsar, a human-rights lawyer, recalls cases she defended in 2009. One was a 15-year-old who was convicted of being a PKK member. The only evidence was a picture in his phone— of Abdullah Ocalan, PKK’s jailed leader. The only evidence against another teenager was a photograph of him in a protest. There was a call for the demonstration on a pro-PKK website. The court decided he answered the call, therefore he was a PKK member.
Avsar said things were getting better after 2010, with the conflict between PKK and Turkey ebbed, thanks to a renewed peace process. Both the police and the courts started to be much less active in pursuing terrorism charges, while there was no major change in the laws. Since the peace process had all but evaporated within the last year, the hardball approach has returned.
Explaining how the system works, Avsar said all the police, prosecutors, and judges are obsessed with security. They don’t want to leave the possibility of letting a terrorist go free, so the first instinct is to arrest a suspect on the thinnest grounds. Court cases can take months to years, before ending with a not-guilty verdict. All the while, the suspect does extremely hard time.
“Halil” (not his real name) is one such former inmate of an F-Type prison. He told The Daily Beast that he was one of the lucky ones: He served time in a three-person cell. Different from American supermaxes, the cells are duplexes: a 270 square-foot “upstairs” where the bunks are kept; and a same-sized “downstairs” where the toilet, shower, desk and TV or refrigerator are held (assuming the inmates can afford the TV or fridge). There’s a 540-square-foot yard for each cell, surrounded by 27-feet-high walls. Inmates can spend the daylight hours in the yard where the only thing they’ll see, besides the walls, is the sky.
Life is confined mostly to quarters; communication restricted to fellow cellmates. There are rare opportunities to leave the cells, such as for workshops or team sports, but these are limited to one to four hours per week. They can have hour-long visits per week, either with a close relative or someone off a three-person priority list. (There are single inmate cells, reserved for those serving hardened life sentences. These are 160-square-foot single-floors. Conditions are otherwise similar.)
Halil said there is no violence or physical torture, but the confinement with two other inmates amounts to psychological torture. It is common that two gang up on the other. The smallest dispute escalates into fights. “If you lock a father and a son there, they will end up hating each other,” he told The Daily Beast. Every toilet visit, footstep, even the sound of a chair moving can end up in an argument.
An inmate also leaves the F-Type with bills to pay: 100 liras ($33) a month is the bill for food; the tab goes up for additional electricity to operate the TV or fridge.
While critics say the case of the Vice crew was an effort to limit the international coverage of the clashes in the Kurdish parts of Turkey, state officials claim otherwise. A senior official commenting on the subject said “We are very concerned about the situation, but we cannot interfere with judicial proceedings. We hope that they will be released ASAP.” The official recognized that the publicizing of this case damaged Turkey’s image, but defended the government against allegations of intimidating the press. “If we wanted to intimidate, we would be going after the journalists by alleging that are really pro-PKK. We don’t do that and it would not be right to do so.” The official added that he personally enjoys Vice news for trying a new way of reporting.