“We were in prison 24/7 but in a prison within a prison. Phone, sports, courses, common activity rights… All these rights are denied to detainees and convicts,” says journalist Nedim Türfent, who was recently released after 6.5 years in prison
MELTEM AKYOL, SUR
In 2016 there was a curfew in the Yüksekova district in Hakkari. Images captured from a construction site rocked the agenda in Turkey, like a bombshell. In the images the Special Ops Team had more than 50 workers, young and old, lying on the ground with handcuffs behind their back and they were being told “You will come to see the power of the state of the Republic of Turkey. I know you all. Whoever betrays us will get what he deserves. Whatever did the state do to you? You will come to see the power of Turks.” Journalist Nedim Türfent, who reported on the news first received death threats on social media accounts with “JİTEM” usernames. He was detained on 12 May 2016 but it was not announced where he was being taken or that he had been detained. Upon backlash on social media, he was imprisoned pending trial on 13 May 2016 on charges of “membership in an armed organization.” The indictment concerning him was prepared 13 months after his imprisonment. His news reporting, and the interviews carried out for the reporting were considered “offenses.” There were also open and secret witness testimonies. Almost all of the witnesses later said they were forced to testify under torture. Some had been threatened with death and others with rape. Some among them apologized from Türfent. However, the court sentenced Türfent to 8 years and 9 months in prison for “membership in a terrorist organization.”
The sentencing was approved and Türfent was only released six and a half years, or 2392 days after his arrest, on 29 November 2022. We met in the streets of Sur in Diyarbakır right after he regained his freedom. Türfent said much had changed in Sur since he had last been. He also spoke of his years in prison.
“A person’s life should not pass in prison”
In an interview we carried out in the second year of his time in prison via his lawyers, Türfent told me he missed mingling with a crowd and hugging children. He has now hugged children aplenty. As for mingling with crowds, some of it he did in Sur, and some of it in İstanbul. When I ask him how he’s doing he says “Fine” and adds “I am trying to get used to it. Life in prison is completely different. You are always surrounded by walls. Not just the concrete walls of the prison but all the bureaucratic walls of the state, walls of the court. I have been in isolation for a long time. I stayed in a single-person cell for 18 months early on. Later, almost all my time in prison passed in cells with two or three people. Staying away from crowds, from socializing, it has harmed my faculties of speech and my social reflexes. Now I am out. Within a very large crowd…”
Türfent was 26 when he was arrested. He is now 32. He says, “One’s life passes, and you do not get back even a single day.” Seeing those sent to prison as children becoming young people has made him realize the passage of time once more. He says “There are people who serve time for 30 years, I would never compare myself with them. A person’s life should not be spent within confines.”
“I got to know Füruğ in prison, I wish I had encountered him earlier”
Türfent told me that he mostly read literature and poetry in prison. When asked whom he had read the most he said “Füruğ” and added: “I got to know Füruğ Ferruhzad in prison, I wish I had encountered her earlier. Füruğ seems incredible to me.”
“There is severe isolation”
The period in which Türfent was imprisoned was a period in which conditions for detainees and convicts in prisons got gradually worse. Following the coup attempt in 2016, a state of emergency (OHAL) was declared. During the OHAL process the rights of detainees and convicts in prison were curtailed and what little rights remained accessible were suspended. An environment of severe isolation was established. Furthermore, these practices continued after the OHAL officially ended. Even as its effects lingered, the pandemic began.
Türfent says the following about conditions in prison: “We were in prison 24/7 but in a prison within a prison. Phone, sports, courses, common activity rights… All these rights were denied to us. We spent all our time in our cell. A year after OHAL was lifted, our rights were still being entrenched upon, just as we were happy, we might get some breathing room, the pandemic began. It lasted two, two and a half years. So, the last six years have been a time of severe isolation conditions for people in prison.”
Furthermore, while pandemic measures were lifted for the general population, they continued in prisons. “Outside of prison they started playing football games in stadiums. People were free to play football in stadiums but in prison eight of us were not allowed to get exercise outside and this still continues.”
“Ill convicts are dying”
Violations are not limited to what has been said above. Türfent lists them: “People cannot access newspapers or opposition TV channels. There are incredible problems with nutrition, a meal that might be sufficient for one person is given to three. It is low quality, low in nutrients. The economic crisis outside is reflected very peculiarly inside the prison. Very low-quality products are sold for obscene amounts. It is very bad all around. But the most important issue is the issue of ill convicts. I used to report on this before I was imprisoned, it has been years now. Every month, people die in prison, and they get to leave it in a coffin. No measures are taken about this and people continue dying in prison.”
Impunity has perpetrators take selfies
To return to what happened regarding the video that led to Türfent’s arrest, the Office of the Prime Minister had announced that it had directed the Ministry of Interior to start an investigation and the Governor’s Office of Hakkâri had announced an investigation.
52 workers who were maltreated were detained, four were placed in pre-trial detention and two were released at the end of the first hearing. Two workers were convicted of “membership in a terrorist organization” and imprisoned. The workers had obtained medical reports showing they had been assaulted, but no investigation was launched into this.
Towards the end of our conversation, Türfent talks about the time he was kept behind bars: “For my detention period and what happened just before, a friend of mine said ‘Nedim yours was a very close call.’ That is true. I was detained, they would not announce it, they denied it. I was tortured in custody. A security guard stepped on my head and took a selfie. They put a black bag over my head and took me off the vehicle. They fired in the air. I did not think I would be placed back on the vehicle.”
Türfent thinks that impunity is the reason why some of these actions are possible: “They know very well that they will not be punished. They know it so well that they are comfortable with taking selfies. In fact, I told the court about this, I said I could identify some of them, but no measures were taken. They act the way they do because they draw courage from this.”
“Solidarity saves lives”
Türfent’s story once more underlines how important solidarity is: “After being tortured in detention I was put back on the vehicle. I later learned that many people, lawyers, fellow journalists, members of parliament, members of my family got involved. There was public pressure, and it was that pressure that ensured I was brought into the prosecutor’s room from where I was. Yes, I was then imprisoned pending trial, but I talk about this now because it was that support which saved me. Sometimes we complain ‘the level of support is not enough.’ And we are right to complain but my example shows what solidarity means. It saves lives.”
“I will continue”
In another interview we had while he was held in isolation, Türfent recounted the prison warden saying, “Nedim is a journalist and he will produce news every day if he is put in the normal wing.” As we finished our interview, I asked him what he planned to do. He said he wanted to take it easy for a while and added: “I need to rest for a bit to throw off the accumulated dirt and dust of the prison. I need to undergo some health checks and if I can, I would like to travel for a bit. But then, I will continue of course. I cannot imagine a life without writing from now on. It is a part of my life.”