Torture, sham trials and life sentences: Erdogan’s ferocious justice in the story of Ayten Öztürk

REPORTING FROM TURKEY. Torture, sham trials and life sentences: Erdogan’s ferocious justice in the story of Ayten Öztürk
REPORTAGE TURCHIA. Torture, processi farsa ed ergastoli: la feroce giustizia di Erdogan nella storia di Ayten Öztürk
by Eliana Riva –
Pagine Esteri (Foreign Pages ), 17 March 2023 – “I am Ayten Öztürk, I am 49 years old, I spent 13 and a half years of my life in prison. I was tortured for 6 months. I have been under house arrest for 2 years and risk being sentenced to 2 life sentences.”
Ayten is kind and reserved, shy and affectionate. She welcomes us into her home with the emotion of one who finds distant sisters, with the gratitude of one who is looking after a special guest so long awaited. And with her to receive us is the whole neighbourhood, that of Armutlu, not far from the heart of Istanbul. The Alevi community living there is extremely close-knit. Ayten is never alone. There is always someone with her, two people during the day, including a nurse, and one at night. Many stop by for coffee, tea or lunch. It is so that she does not feel alone, but also so that there are witnesses in case one of the many police searches her house. These are acts of intimidation, of this they are sure in Armutlu. Because here it often happens that the police raid houses, day or night, with guns drawn. One day they are looking for a hand grenade, another for a weapon, yet another they say they have followed the trail of a fugitive. There are not a few cases in which these raids have ended in tragedy, as Aysel Doğan, mother of Dilek Doğan, who was killed in cold blood at the age of 25 during a search in 2015, tells me.
Dilek had asked the policeman to put on shoe covers because she was getting mud on the carpets (in Turkey it is customary to remove shoes when entering houses, out of respect and hygiene). The policeman shot her. There is even a video on YouTube, taken by the security forces themselves. Thanks to a tough battle, her family found out the name of the murderer and took him to court. Sentenced to 45 days in prison, he did not serve any of them. In contrast, life imprisonment was demanded for Dilek’s brother, who shouted and accused the judges of injustice after the verdict. On trial, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He served four. The father is currently on trial and faces six years in prison. They say they are dangerous and might try to take revenge.

Aysel Doğan, mother of Dilek Doğan, murdered in cold blood at the age of 25, in 2015, during a search – Photo by Eliana Riva [Pagine Esteri].

In Armutlu I talk to many women. Many mothers, many elderly. All have been in prison. All have a son or daughter in prison on hunger strike, or killed by the police, or escaped to another country. Many are members of the Tayad (Tenacity) association, which brings together relatives of political prisoners. The aim is to keep ties with their children alive, even if they are in prison, and to send them some money (apart from the consumption of a light bulb, electricity and gas in the cell are paid for), books, clothes. On 12 December 2022, at 2 a.m., in a joint raid, the police raided the homes of 23 Tayad member families. As of today, 14 people are still in prison, 3 are under house arrest and all the others are under house arrest. Among them is our translator, Lerzan, who is constantly online and overlooks our conversations from a computer. Many of those parents in prison are elderly, two are seriously ill. They receive no care in prison.
Ayten anxiously asks us when the time will come for our long interview. She will have to tell everything again. The kidnapping, the prison, the torture. Especially the torture. She knows that with each story, each newspaper article, each interview, the prison loop for life tightens tighter around her neck. But she does it anyway. With great sighs to give herself strength and courage. “Why don’t you withdraw the statement that you have been tortured? Have you suffered enough already? Say that you were wrong, that it wasn’t true and maybe you can live at home and not in a prison the rest of your life.” She looks at us with the patience with which you look at children when you have to explain something obvious, obvious: ‘Systematic torture is an expression of the political system, fighting it means fighting this system of abuse and oppression. I have suffered a lot, it is true, and perhaps I will suffer even more, but I want people to know about the secret centres and what they do to people there. I was the first woman to denounce. But not the only one, others did it after me. Another woman reported that she suffered the same torture as me, they faked it for her too after locking her up in the secret centres. I do not want anyone else to suffer as I have suffered. My fight will continue until the secret centres are closed and the torturers are judged’.

Ayten Öztürk – Photo by Eliana Riva [Pagine Esteri].

She was in Beirut when she was kidnapped by the secret service and taken to Turkey. Kidnapped, because officially this police operation never existed and during those six months she simply disappeared. She was in Syria before the outbreak of war. Then, on 8 March 2018, she tried to reach Greece via Lebanon. After the stopover, she was pulled away from the other passengers on the pretext of a passport check, detained for six days and then handed over to Turkish agents who blindfolded and with her mouth taped up put her on a plane and flew her back to Turkey. She only realised she was in Istanbul when she got off the plane, still blindfolded, and heard voices. Her friends did not know where she was. They did not know for the next six months, while she was detained and tortured with inconceivable brutality. “As soon as I entered the secret centre, three or four people completely undressed me in seconds and put me naked in a cell. “We already know everything” they said to me, “but we want to hear it from you, speak!” I immediately went on hunger strike. They asked me what I wanted, My freedom! I replied, Then you must speak, they demanded, Then I don’t want anything, I said. They gave me electric shock. With my hands tied to a tube above my head, all naked and blindfolded, I only touched the ground with the tips of my toes, when my wrists bled too much they sometimes threw sandbags at me to keep me upright. They would shoot me with an electro gun and I would shake all over, I didn’t control my body and when my mouth would open by involuntary reflex due to the discharges, they would force soup down my throat. I felt I was choking.
Ayten is a revolutionary. What she, like other Turkish revolutionaries, demands is democracy, recognition of minorities, release of political prisoners, an end to torture, respect for human rights, condemnation of police brutality, equal trials for officers who have killed or tortured. Revolutionary movements are part of the history and the very fabric of Turkey. So is the repression and violence of the means used to crush them. Arbitrary detention and torture are among them, as the Council of Europe’s European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) confirmed once again in 2020. But since the UN Special Rapporteur’s visit to Turkey in 2017, things seem to have worsened considerably. Even then, the UN denounced and condemned the arbitrary use of terrorism charges against those defending human rights or simply expressing dissent.
Turkey is the country where 120 prisoners died of hunger strikes in seven years, from 2000 to 2007. In 2020, the deaths in prison, also due to hunger strikes, of two members of the music group Grup Yorum and the lawyer Ebru Timtik caused a particular uproar.

The Grup Yorum band

Helin Bölek and Ibrahim Gökçek, members of Grup Yorum, died on hunger strike

“With my hands tied behind my back, they shoved me inside a tyre, completely immobilising my arms, and raped me with a truncheon and lashed me with a horse whip. After three months of torture and hunger strike I became ill. They stopped the violence and treated me with syringes and medicine and force-fed me with a tube. I felt increasingly better. But I soon realised to my horror that they were taking me to the point of exhaustion and then healing me only to be able to start again without risking me to die’.
The anti-terrorism laws, which allow the arrest and detention not only of political opponents but also of lawyers defending them, human rights activists, artists, singers, students, professors, are still widely used. As are the charges of attempting to ‘overthrow the government’, something Ayten is accused of and for which she faces one of two life sentences.  The accusation revolves around the statement of a secret witness who allegedly saw her at the headquarters of the Freedoms and Rights Association. An association considered legal by the state itself but dangerous for its demands for justice.

Seda Şaraldı, Ayten Öztürk’s lawyer – Photo by Eliana Riva [Pagine Esteri].

“They watched me 24 hours a day and wanted me to wash myself, naked, in front of them. I refused until they made me. They subjected me several times to baton rape, they tried to rape me in every way, they left me naked on the ground and hurled themselves at me, touching me everywhere with brutality, with their hands and with objects, humiliating me with insults and abuses. The torture that made me suffer most of all was the electric shock they gave me through plates slipped under my fingernails. It is a different torture from the ‘stun gun’. The marks remained with me for more than a year. I would faint every time, they would take me to the bathroom and put my head under water. Then they used the gun again: with the water the pain was intensified’.
The role of a secret witness (who later received a severe sentence reduction) is also crucial for the second charge: he stated that he saw Ayten Öztürk witness an attempted lynching. The victim of the lynching did not die and did not press charges. She denies the allegations, she was not there. But even if she had been there, as the lawyer following her case, Seda Şaraldı, explained to us, even if she had indeed witnessed it from the pavement, the fact remains that there is no law in Turkey that provides for life imprisonment for this. “We are waiting for the Supreme Court prosecutor’s decision,” explains lawyer Şaraldı. Our first appeal to the district court has already been rejected. The court could rule at any time and if it confirms the guilt, Ayten will remain in prison for the rest of her life, alone in a cell from which she will be able to get out for one hour of air a day’.
The court in Istanbul decided on the acquittal. However, when a complaint was lodged about the torture she suffered, the Ankara Court requested and obtained the reopening of that trial, stipulating that it be combined with the new investigation into “attempts to overthrow the government”. Instead, the court in the capital decided to close the file on the kidnapping and torture.
“We submitted a petition signed by lawyers from 105 different countries. We defend Ayten but not only her. Torture is used to intimidate people, people who fight for rights. Torture is a crime against humanity and we fight not only for our clients but for all humanity. The team of lawyers Seda Şaraldı works with, two of whom were themselves arrested, is also defending Gülten Matur. The family has not heard from her since the morning of 20 November 2022. The police registered her arrest on 28 November. She reported that she had been abducted and tortured for eight days and then abandoned in a field, on which shortly afterwards the police faked an accidental discovery, an element common in all cases of torture. The medical report confirmed injuries consistent with the torture Gülten claimed to have suffered.

Gülten Matur, arrested and tortured in a secret detention centre

“In Turkey there are secret detention centres. Executioners kidnap people in the streets. We are fighting for Gülten to be the last person in Turkey to have been tortured,’ Seda Şaraldı tells us in a clear, calm and firm voice.
The High Council of Judges and Prosecutors, the Hcjp, which is responsible for appointments and disciplinary proceedings for all organs of the judiciary, is chaired by the Minister of Justice, who has enormous powers of appointment and control. So does the president, who in turn appoints the minister. In response to an investigation uncovering, in 2014, vast corruption rings involving members of the judiciary, civil servants and businessmen close to the prime minister, the Turkish parliament adopted a series of laws and amendments, forced removals, forced transfers and reassignments of important cases that severely limited the independence of the judiciary, which is subject to government control. After the attempted coup in 2016, the attack on the judiciary unfolded in all its violence: 4560 judges, accused of terrorism, were removed by emergency decree. More than 600 magistrates were arrested (and more than 400 convicted of terrorism), some of whom died in prison. Proscription lists were drawn up and the arbitrarily used anti-terror law led to the arrest of 282,790 people, including lawyers, critical voices, intellectuals, human rights defenders, artists, political opponents. Approximately 11,000 new magistrates were appointed from 2016 to 2020, with fast-track procedures deemed worrying and non-transparent by numerous international organisations and observers.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan with Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag

“Did they ask you to betray your friends? How did you manage to resist despite all this pain and humiliation?”
“‘Betraying would make me suffer much more. Because the physical suffering may pass but how could I then look my friends in the face? My people? I could not betray our struggle. I thought that torture would end anyway: either dead or liberated. I controlled my emotions, I stopped thinking about my loved ones whom I missed so much. And then I gave myself new rules. At one point, for example, I decided not to say a single word any more’.
After the six months of torture, Ayten was again treated by her torturers and then abandoned in a field, where the political police picked her up. The warden of the prison where she was taken refused to admit her because of the terrible physical condition she was in: she had lost 20 kilos, now weighed 40, despite the fact that she had been treated, medicated and force-fed during the last days of her imprisonment. She was then taken to the hospital where a medical report was prepared showing every injury. She remained in the ward for days. Taken to prison, her cellmates counted 898 scars on her body. After three and a half years in prison, she was sent home on 10 June 2021 under house arrest, where she remains today, awaiting final judgement.
“My brother Ahmet was killed in 1994 during a police raid on his house. Ahmet’s wife, my sister-in-law Yazgülü, was burnt alive in 2000. My sister Hamide died in prison in 2002 due to a hunger strike. If I end up in prison, I will continue to fight from there. In or out, I will always resist and fight, because I firmly believe that in the end we will win. And in our country you can’t win without paying for anything’.

Ayten Öztürk, under house arrest at her home in Istanbul – Photo by Eliana Riva [Pagine Esteri].

Original article in Italian on Pagine Esteri webpage:

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