Punishment Without Trial: Pre-trial Detention in Turkey

Ragip Zarakolu

Ragip Zarakolu

Years ago, Tom Lehrer sang “when correctly viewed, everything is lewd.”  In today’s Turkey, one might well sing “when correctly viewed, everyone’s a terrorist.”  How else do you explain the recent incarceration of Ragip Zarakolu, currently being held in a prison designed for hardened and dangerous criminals?

Zarakolu, 65-year-old and in ill health, is a book publisher and human rights activist who has been accused of terrorism– apparently because he gave a talk at a legal Kurdish political party’s Politics Academy.  Professor Büşra Ersanlı was also detained and records of their interrogation by prosecutors show that both Zarakolu and Ersanlı were asked about their participation with the Politics Academy.

As of now, both Ragip Zarakolu and Professor Ersanli can only speculate about what the evidence against them is, but both know they are being charged under Turkey’s flawed Anti-Terrorism legislation where the definition of terrorism is overly broad, vague and lacks the level of legal certainty required by international human rights law. Fundamentally, it defines terrorism by its political aims rather than its tactics.

Provisions criminalizing membership of a terrorist organization have also led to abuses. Persons can be found guilty of membership of a terrorist organization without being a member of the organization if found to have committed a crime ‘in the name of such an organization’.

Zarakolu most likely won’t hear the evidence against him until his trial.  Meanwhile, this ailing 65 year-old publisher must spend a year or more  in a prison reserved for “dangerous convicts and criminals.”

As detailed in a previous blog, Ragip Zarakolu and Ersanlı were  arrested and remanded to prison for their alleged connections to Kurdish nationalist groups.   Others awaiting trial under Turkish anti-terrorism legislation are being charged with being part of an organization called “Ergenekon,” which is accused of plotting to overthrow the Turkish government.  Over time, the Ergenekon trials have seemed to be as much about settling political scores as protecting democratic institutions.

Recently, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Turkish Parliament’s main opposition party, went to another Turkish prison to visit two of his party’s elected deputies–Mustafa Balbay and Mehmet Haberal—both being held in pre-trial detention for allegedly participating in the Ergenekon plot.  Afterwards, the party leader angrily stated,

“In countries where there is no logic and wisdom, where there is no developing concept of democracy and freedom, those who speak out about their opinions are being held in concentration camps.”

Kılıçdaroğlu is not, of course, a neutral commentator.  Still, the elected deputies he visited in prison have spent years behind bars, and still haven’t had a chance to defend themselves in a court of law.  Perhaps “concentration camp” is not just hyperbolic political rhetoric after all.

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