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Newly released journalist offers insider view of victims of purge

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Briefly detained for taking photos of the street next to Istanbul’s Gayrettepe Police Station, journalist Tuğba Tekerek has talked about her time in detention, shedding light on what people jailed as part of the government’s ever-increasing crackdown on the Gülen movement suffer behind bars.


“I was wondering if I would be by myself or with an inmate in the cell. When the iron gate was opened, I saw tens of shoes. And a heavy smell… Twenty-seven people were living in three cells, which are supposed to accommodate only three to five people each,” Tekerek said in a candidly written article, published after she was released from her one-day detention.


Turkey survived a military coup attempt that killed over 240 people and wounded a thousand others, on July 15. Immediately after the putsch, the government along with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pinned the blame on the Gülen movement and launched a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.


Some 82,000 people have been purged from state bodies, nearly 40,000 detained and 20,000 arrested from all walks of life since the coup attempt. Arrestees included journalists, judges, prosecutors, police and military officers, academics, governors, teachers, court personnel and even a comedian.


What follows is a translation of Tekerek’s article that was published by the Istanbul-based Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) on Aug. 26.


‘Exchanging curtains during a state of emergency’


The period allowed for exchanging the curtains I bought a few weeks ago was about to run out. I left my home in the Gayrettepe neighborhood and headed to the Cevahir Shopping Mall at about 7 p.m. on Sunday evening. I was planning to exchange my curtains and take a walk at the same time. I saw people waiting for their relatives in custody, outside the Gayrettepe Police Station. I also had been here for my colleague, journalist Bülent Mumay, and my mentor, the poet Hilmi Yavuz, three weeks ago. It seems as if this place has kind of turned into a grief station. Women with babies as well as elderly people were among those standing there that Sunday evening. Some were carrying folding picnic chairs. They were desperately awaiting a crumb of information. I took some photos of the people there in case I wanted to use them in future stories or in a tweet, and I moved on. I had to exchange my curtains.


After a while, a man ran up from behind and stopped me. He said he was a police officer. He asked for my identification card, and I showed it. Then he asked why I was shooting photographs. I said: “I’m a journalist. I wanted to photograph the situation the people were in.” Then he replied, “Maybe there will be an attack on the police station and you were there to case the joint.” I said I just took pictures of the people and that the station wasn’t caught in the frame anyway. Other journalists had already taken millions of photos outside the station. Without daring to check my photos, he said, “Come with me!” He also wanted to seize my cell phone, but I said I would do hand it over only if an official report was prepared for it.


Thus, I suddenly found myself inside the police station. While they were searching for my name in their records, they began talking with me. I didn’t look like a [suicide] bomber, but I guess I was not quite an acceptable journalist for them, either. They asked if I was writing a story about the schools shut down by the government and if I worked for the critical daily Taraf. I was held for hours under surveillance without undergoing any official process. Nobody would know where I was or if anything had happened to me since no official record was made.


When I said “You can’t hold me in custody without any record,” a police officer slammed the door shut, banged his fist on the table and said: “There are emergency rules in force. We can keep you in here without any record until morning and do whatever we want, if we want to do so. And you file a complaint once you are set free.” As they had no record, they did not let any of my relatives know about the situation, either. He added something like: “If you are worried about your relatives, you don’t take photos in the middle of the street. I ignore any such incidents even if they take place right next to me. I don’t dare look behind, thinking of my loved ones.” The shopping mall had already closed, and I felt like I was about to be thrown into a well.


Then, they said somebody was calling me, and things started to change after that.


I was lucky that I had had enough time to call my lawyer friend from P24, Veysel Ok, when the police officer first took me inside the building. Veysel reportedly phoned me back but failed to get an answer. When out of curiosity he called the Gayrettepe Police Station, he was told that there was no record of any “Tuğba Tekerek.” My friend did not believe the response and stopped by the station. I was really lucky that somebody from the outside knew I was there and that it would not be that easy for the police to do anything to me.


Police officers somehow contacted the prosecutor only after my lawyer showed up at the station. And then, they let my relatives know about the situation and interrogated me. Meanwhile, they found my latest tweet and decided to accuse me of insulting the president, thanks to their super (!) intelligence efforts. The photographs, the main reason why I was there, had already been forgotten. In the tweet, I quoted a tweet of the Cumhuriyet newspaper which has a video embedded in it. In the video people were chanting: ‘Murderer Erdoğan!’ in protest of AK Party deputies’ condolence visits to the families of victims of the recent ISIL attack in Gaziantep. I summarized it in my own tweet, saying: “This is where we stand now. Erdoğan is ‘Murderer Erdoğan’ for many Kurdish citizens from now on.”


This tweet was found to be sufficient for them to detain me, and that was the time for me to go to jail.


In jail, with clerks of the court


I was wondering if I would be by myself or with an inmate in the cell. When the iron gate was opened, I saw tens of shoes. And a heavy smell… Twenty-seven people were living in three cells, which are supposed to accommodate only three to five people each. All were on the floor, lying down with their legs curled up since they didn’t have enough space to stretch their legs. Later on, I was told that there had been 43 people a few days ago and that some of them even had to sleep in the corridors.


It was about 3 in the morning when I was put into the cell. Women in custody asked me if I was a clerk of the court. While I was still trying to understand the question, they said: “We are all clerks. … We used to work at the Anadolu Courthouse.” Twenty-four out of 27 were clerks. They had all managed to type 90 words in three minutes in the exam to become clerks. But now, they were detained for being members “FETÖ” [an abbreviation coined by the government to describe the alleged terrorist network of the Gülen movement within state institutions].


They surrounded me although it was almost midnight. They were longing for any small news and asking me “What is happening?” They had been there for the past seven days and were denied permission to see their family members. They had no lawyers. Attorneys appointed by bar associations as legal aid were not willing to meet with them, either. (Rumor even has it that police officers from departments other than counterterrorism units are also involved in operations against “FETÖ.” When police officers call for lawyers for any detainee, they willingly show up thinking that they will be defending a murder suspect. When police officers tell them that they will defend members of “FETÖ,” they don’t come.)


I can’t describe what I saw on their faces when I told them that I was detained because I took photos near the Gayrettepe Police Station because the people I took pictures of were their relatives, who they had been longing to hear from. “Did you see that boy?” “Was that woman there?” and similar questions rained down on me. The inmates are mainly between 25 and 30 years of age. Most of them have babies. A 7-month-old baby was brought to its detained mother from Sultanbeyli, a district two hours away, twice a day for breastfeeding. But she is among the luckiest ones because the other women, even if they have 15-month-old babies, are not allowed to see their children. Whenever this woman sees her 7-month-old baby, others sit back and weep softly. They think of their children or mothers as missing themselves.


There was a pregnant woman who often stayed out of the conversation, dealing with her own problems. The difficulties she is undergoing are written all over her face. Back in normal life, she had been studying law while working, but she now hates the law. She was on maternity leave when she was detained. When she learned about the search warrant issued for her, she went to the prosecutor and said: “I want to surrender myself.” She has another daughter who is three-and-a-half years old. ‘I have almost forgotten the face of my baby. I wish I had brought one of her pictures with me,’ she said in tears. Another one interrupted: ‘They would not allow you to do so anyway. There isn’t even a mirror here.’ Yes, this is a place where people may forget even their own faces.


The light inside the cell was always switched on regardless of whether it was night or day. We didn’t know the time as our watches were taken away upon entering. The sunlight reflected on the wall across from our 10-centimeter window was the only way we were able to know what time it was. I was told that the police let women go into the shared courtyard only when they feel like it. They let them outside for five minutes the other night, for example. They allow toothpaste at their own discretion.


We were like stuck in the motor of an air conditioner that makes constant, scary noises. I tried not to think about the high temperature and the fact that I was having trouble breathing. We didn’t know how long all this would take.


I couldn’t say a single word when they asked me “Is there any reaction to our arrest out there?” Then one of them replied: “What did we used to say when others were being arrested? We used to say ‘Ah, those innocent will be released inshallah!’ That’s it. Now others probably wish the same for us.”


One of them said: “I tried to get a credit card from Bank Asya in 2014. Bank Asya was the only lender that would give me a credit card. That is my only fault.” Another one was thinking that she was detained because she had been answering phones at a dersane [preparatory class] affiliated with the Gülen movement seven years ago. And yet another other woman said: “I have never gone to their dersanes, I have never taken out loans from Bank Asya. I have never attended any of their meetings, and I have never read the Zaman newspaper. Why, then, am I here?”


The authorities’ intention was to drag them down and wrangle words out of them. Nearly 20 of them who had earlier been interrogated by a prosecutor were told that they were under arrest. But I learned after my release that almost all of them have been set free.


They were held in custody without any news from outside, and they were misled as well.


I was called by the police at about 11 the next morning. I left the cell burdened with a guilt that I still feel. I know that independent media outlets, even if only a few are left, including P24 and Ben Gazeteciyim İnsiyatifi [the “I Am a Journalist Initiative”] looked out for me. I was able to resist the situation with their help. But it is much harder for the women inside to do so.


The courthouse: Journalist grinding machine


I was released from custody and first headed to a doctor. (Before my detention, a doctor had examined me in front of police officers in violation of regulations. She didn’t really examine me but asked if I was battered or not.) My lawyer Veysel Ok was waiting for me at the Çağlayan Courthouse when I got there. We went up to the prosecutor. He picked up my file from among a pile of others, took a quick look and started to write something on it without asking any questions. Veysel and I looked at each other. I can be arrested taking into consideration that I was detained while on my way to exchange my curtains. “What are you writing?” I asked anxiously. “You are free, you are free,” he said. Meanwhile, I had a new case for insulting the president, but we could deal with that later.


When I was leaving [another journalist] Fehmi Koru walked into the prosecutor’s office. [The recently closed daily] Özgür Gündem’s Editor-in-Chief Zana Kaya and its managing editor, İnan Kızılkaya, were on the line as well. As Veysel summed it up, the courthouse was working like a “journalist grinding machine.”


You may ask “What’s up with the curtains?” Well, I exchanged them despite several warnings from relatives, though I sweated bullets and took the same road… What’s more is that I brought messages from the people with whom I shared the same fate for a night to their families. They were in the 10th day of their detention, and they were still waiting to be interrogated.


P.S. I took one clear lesson from what I went through: Solidarity is of crucial importance. In this respect I thank P24, Yasemin Çongar, Veysel Ok, Fatih Polat, friends from Ben Gazeteciyim İnsiyatifi and those who lent support to me and spread the word on the agenda.


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