This article originally appeared in a shorter form in German and in Turkish in Taz Gazete on Press Freedom Day, 3 May 2018
Ŕenas Süsem is only nine. Yet his awareness of the situation of political prisoners in Turkey is higher than many adults. When teachers at school ask him what his parents do for a living, he responds: “My mom works at the municipality and my dad is a journalist in prison, because he is against the government.”
Ŕenas’s father is a journalist named Erdal Süsem -- one of the 181 journalists and media workers in Turkish prisons. Like the majority of the Turkish journalists in prison, his case has not received much attention from outside observers. His imprisonment dates back to days long before the coup attempt in Turkey, which makes it even more difficult for press organizations to bring up his case in Turkey’s post-coup turmoil.
Erdal, who is the founder and chief writer of Eylül (September), a magazine created by current and former political prisoners, has been imprisoned for 17 years. He was given a life sentence on charges of “attempting to change the constitutional order,” about a decade before the same punishment was handed down to four journalists in the post-coup Turkey. The evidence against him, however, is no less flimsy than what we are witnessing in the post-coup trials of journalists. His case is very telling in the sense that nothing has changed in Turkey -- except for the immensity and scale of injustice.
From Erzurum to Istanbul
Erdal was born in 1977 as the third son of a family from Erzurum. In the words of his wife, Eylem, he is a kind-hearted journalist “who can see the suffering of others as his own and who cannot remain indifferent to injustices.” At eight years of age, his family, like many other Kurdish families at those times, had to move to Istanbul. Erdal got admitted to Diyarbakır University department of mechanical engineering, but he dropped out. His love of literature won over his interest in mechanical systems. He started a literary/political fanzine titled “Demokrat Gençlik” (Democratic Youth). Erdal is 41 and he has spent almost half of his life in prison. Yet, he was able to create a space for love, a marriage, his son Ŕenas, dozens of Eylül editions and six (yet unpublished) novels in his life.
Caught in the net
Erdal was very well aware of the perils involved in being a journalist -- especially a critical journalist -- in Turkey. In a letter he wrote from the Edirne High-Security Prison, he says: “When I started journalism publishing a fanzine, I knew perfectly well that journalism passes through courtrooms, flying the flag of freedom of expression. Fanzines are insolent: they like to uncover what’s hidden; they scream to tear the insides of everyone in places where silence is seen as a virtue. Fanzine words are free, using the language of the streets.” Erdal adds: “It was impossible for my journalism which I started with a fanzine not to get caught in the net of the state. That’s exactly what happened. I was detained for the first time on 21 March 2000.”
Erdal was detained on charges of “overthrowing the constitutional order” which is an increasingly common accusation directed against journalists in post-coup Turkey. He was later put under arrest and sent to prison, where he started the literary inmate magazine Eylül in a fanzine format and also began corresponding with a young woman who sent him letters. In 2007, Erdal was given life imprisonment but released pending the appeals process -- which was still possible at the time. His pen-friend, Eylem, learned about Erdal’s release as the result of a coincidence. She reached him, and they met at a Kadıköy café. After that first meeting, they got married in the same year, as, in Erdal’s words, “love cannot be postponed.”
In the years Erdal was out of prison, Eylül became a “proper” literary magazine available in print. Its issues featured poetry, book reviews, articles, essays and commentary from political prisoners as well as contributions by some well-known academics and writers. In 2009, the couple’s son Ŕenas was born. It was also in that same year when Erdal was arrested one more time.
What has he done?
If one looks at the ruling issued by the 12th High Criminal Court, which gave life to Erdal for “overthrowing the constitutional order,” he is a militant of the Communist Party of Turkey/Marxist–Leninist (TKP/ML), which is outlawed in Turkey. However, his complicated proceedings and the thick stack of case files show that he was pursued for political reasons. Prosecution witnesses who first counted him among TKP/ML members changed testimony in court sessions, ballistic reports proved one after another that he had nothing to do with a firearm that was put forth by the prosecution. More significantly, his “life” sentence was overruled not once but twice by the Court of Cassation due to lack of evidence, with the local court insisting on the initial sentence both times. The third time -- after Turkey changed the structure of its Court of Cassation in a referendum in 2010 -- this time the high court upheld the ruling. Erdal currently has an application before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).
But why didn’t Erdal leave when he had three years where he could have fled the country? In his own letter, he explains: “The world is a global village. Where will we run to? Won’t there be exploitation, oppression and cruelty in those places we will go? I was born a dissenter; how am I supposed to accept silence in a new land?”
Journalists forgotten in prison
The proceedings against only a few journalists have captured international, or even national, attention after the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. The situation of nearly 200 journalists is rarely talked about, but the indictments and verdicts clearly demonstrate that Erdal’s persecution is neither the first nor the last of its kind. On Feb. 16, four journalists including Ahmet Altan were given aggravated life sentences, only for writing and speaking on television? But as courts are more punishing and as the only chance those in prison have is pressure from the international community, why don’t we hear more about other journalists like Erdal?
According to Özgür Öğret, Turkey representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) this is not a coincidence. “There is no principled solidarity between different social and political groups that go beyond the boundaries of personal relationships. For many, concerns such as ‘who does he speak for, what is his ideology, if I support that person, then it will be good for this other person’ get in the way of standing together in solidarity. We just don’t know how to operate outside this.”
Öğret notes that this applies particularly to the Kurdish media. “Journalists working for Kurdish press outlets have always been at a disadvantage in this sense. This was the situation before Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule and after.”
However, Öğret notes that pressure from the government, technical difficulties in trial monitoring and collecting court documents also play a role in how we “forget” the many journalists in prison.
In Erdal’s case, as in the case of many others, there seems to be nothing to do but hope for a retrial. In the words of Erdal: “There is no reason to despair, as late Çetin Altan, who has paid such a high price in his own adventure of journalism. I hope and wish that all of us imprisoned journalists will join you outside very soon.”