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Physicist retained sanity in Turkish prison by writing research papers

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Ali Kaya, a theoretical physicist and professor at Turkey’s Boğaziçi University, has said he kept his sanity during 440 days of pretrial detention by continuing work on fundamental topics in cosmology and writing three research papers.

Kaya was jailed in October 2016 over alleged ties to the faith-based Gülen movement and in December was convicted of membership in a “terrorist organization” and sentenced to six years in prison.

The Turkish government accuses the Gülen movement of masterminding a failed coup in July 2016, a claim strongly denied by the movement.

Kaya was released due to time served before trial. He was suspended from his job at Boğaziçi University but does not yet know if he will be fired or if the university will await the outcome of an appeal filed against the verdict.

Leading science magazine Nature interviewed Kaya days after he published three research papers he wrote during his time in prison.

“This work, which has been done…without any possibility of using references, is dedicated to my friends at rooms C-1 and E-10 who made my stay bearable at hell for 440 days between 7.10.2016 and 20.12.2017. I am also indebted to the colleagues who show support in these difficult times,” Kaya wrote in a footnote in all the papers.

What follows is the full text of Kaya’s interview by Nature.

What access did you have to research materials while in the prison?
Of course there was no Internet. Nothing digital — not even a pocket calculator — was allowed. No books could be brought in. Nothing in a foreign language was allowed in the jail. One of my students Google-translated some research papers for me into Turkish, but they were held back on suspicion that they included secret codes — presumably because they contained so many equations.

I worked up the research ideas I had already in my head before my arrest. Of course, it took much longer than it would have done if I had been at my computer. I had to start from basic formulae and derive things myself.

But time is something you have plenty of in prison. OK, I could not do ground-breaking work, but I think the papers I produced are solid, and I expect to get them published in good journals.

What were the general conditions like for you there?
Probably the conditions were better than in some other prisons in Turkey. Prisoners came and went. At times there were as many as 30 people, but on average, there were around 20 of us in 140 square metres. The space was divided into several small rooms for sleeping and a larger area that had a television. We were allowed into an adjacent small yard during the day.

Presumably, these conditions were not as cosy for doing research as they might sound?
No. Sure, it sounds cool to say you did research in prison — but prison is a bad place and I wouldn’t recommend it! The worst thing was the lack of contact. We were only allowed family visits for one hour a week, usually speaking through a glass partition on the telephone. We were also allowed a ten-minute phone call every two weeks. And I could speak to my lawyer once a week.

The first night in jail was the worst time of my life. I never gave up hope, but in prison you do often get a feeling that you might never get out, and nights are the worst.

But I told myself “They can take my freedom, but they can’t keep me from doing physics.”

How did you find quiet time to work in such a crowded space?
I was fortunate in my cellmates, many of whom were facing similar charges to me. Many were teachers. There was another assistant professor, and a doctor. We all got on well and the atmosphere was peaceful and respectful. I could sit at a little table with pen and paper and do my work.

You were in prison for almost 438 days: how did you spend all of that time?
I tried to learn Arabic, I played volleyball with others in the yard and I watched soccer on television. And I worked for several hours most days: that’s what kept me sane.

How did your university respond to your arrest?
I was lucky that my university only suspended me. Many other universities sacked those arrested on suspicion of supporting the coup.

What were the grounds for your arrest?
Because of my appeal, I prefer not to speak too much about it. Basically I was accused of being a terrorist — officially, being a member of a terror organization. But I can say that the evidence was abstract and absurd. For example, one of the arguments in my official indictment was that I had visited the United States and Canada, countries favoured by supporters of the movement that the government believes was behind the coup. The reasons for my travel had been academic: I had been on sabbatical at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and I held a seminar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and Tufts University in nearby Boston.

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