“My house was seized and I couldn’t go to the tax office to pay off the debt,” says Nesibe Baransu, who was newly-wed to journalist Mehmet Baransu when he was detained in 2015, “I could do nothing at public institutions. They told me I appeared to be under legal disability because of my husband”
CANSU PİŞKİN, İSTANBUL
Mehmet Baransu, a former correspondent for the now shuttered Taraf newspaper, was arrested on 2 March 2015 for allegedly “obtaining and publishing” classified state documents in connection with the disclosure of a military document called the “Egemen (sovereign) Operation Plan.”
Detained on the charges of “Possession of documents classified as state secret,” “Exposing classified information crucial to state security and interests,” and “Damaging, procuring or stealing documents concerning the security of the state or using said documents outside their intended purpose,” Baransu is one of the longest-imprisoned journalists currently in Turkey.
Mehmet Baransu, however, is not the only one who has had to experience the strain of seemingly arbitrary unlawful practices for more than five years due solely to articles published under his byline in the daily Taraf; Nesibe Baransu, who was married to the journalist for five months at the time of his detainment, received her share of judicial harassment, as well.
Born in Germany on 18 June 1984 and raised there, Nesibe Baransu came to Turkey and studied business management and administration of justice. Nesibe Baransu, who was there for her husband Mehmet Baransu right from the start, not only as a witness and a tireless supporter but also as a vigorous advocate of his efforts to seek justice, recounted her side of the story and how judicial harassment has taken its toll on her life for the Expression Interrupted video essay Under Watch: Stories of Judicial Harassment.
“For about 3 years, I was under technical and physical surveillance”
Nesibe Baransu and Mehmet Baransu tied the knot on 13 September 2014. Mehmet Baransu was detained on the fifth month of the married couple’s happily ever after. Nesibe Baransu, newly pregnant at the time of detainment, suffered a miscarriage soon after. Four months later, she was diagnosed with early-stage cancer and had to undergo operation for recovery.
It didn’t take long for judicial harassment cycle to absorb Nesibe Baransu; in fact, it began much earlier, before her husband was even detained. Her phone was tapped on false pretenses the moment she started seeing Mehmet Baransu. Following his detainment, she was placed under physical surveillance:
“For about three years, I was under both technical and physical surveillance,” says Baransu, “Not only me, my family and my extended family were under audio and physical surveillance. The physical surveillance ended after 2016. After, you know, the coup attempt. But the technical surveillance, wiretapping, that continues to this day.”
“Our house was seized; we were imposed fines”
Nesibe Baransu describes her pungent experiences in the aftermath of her husband’s arrest as falling into two categories: pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages, the former including criminal fines, litigation costs, and all they needed to get by barely:
“We suffered financially and emotionally. On the material side, on top of the fact that neither my husband nor I could work to sustain ourselves, the cases brought against us had strained us financially. Our house was seized on the grounds of legal expenses. We were imposed fines in some cases, which were later split into installments. Apart from these, all detainees have certain expenses in prisons, so one has to cover those. We suffered enormously in terms of our financial situation.”
Baransu, who cannot be employed currently due to her circumstances, lives with her parents to make ends meet:
“I had some savings, I relied on them for some time. My husband, when he was first detained, had a rather humble saving, which he left to me and I had to make use of that. Besides that, I currently live off my parents. I live with my parents nowadays and they provide for me. My husband’s family pitched in considerably before the coup attempt. But after the coup attempt, they, too, were sent down and suffered financially, and consequently felt the crunch. Thus, as you can imagine, no more support from that side of the family. Since 2016, I’ve been living off my parents.”
“I couldn’t have anything done in public institutions for four years”
That, however, was not the end of financial deadlock for the Baransu family. Nesibe Baransu states that she was unable to make a job application and that she was denied the right to receive services in public institutions without any official justification for four years:
“I couldn’t apply for a job. How could I? How in the world can a person who could not take out a state insurance on herself apply for a job? Say, you have applied for a passport and were later denied the right, can you apply for a job? They don’t give you any reason. It’s just, when you give your identity number, it sets off a red alarm. They told me it said, ‘The staff who provides services to this person will face legal action.’ I asked which the relevant institution was, and they said it was the Ministry of Justice. Of course, I don’t know whether it’s true or not. That continued for four years after the arrest of my husband. It came to the point where I couldn’t have anything done in public institutions for four years.”
“It was humans, at the end of the day, who threw us out of the water”
“I’ve come to believe that some people are just evil,” says Baransu, who in time secluded herself from social life and became more and more engaged with the land due to moral distress sustained during the arduous process.
“It’s a whole different story emotionally,” asserts Nesibe Baransu, “Whatever it is, those precious snippets of life that are indeed beautiful, that I was able to enrich myself with spiritually in my inner world for the past 36 years, or 32 years if we say until my husband was detained, I mean, they all just evaporated. My view of humanity has completely changed. I’ve always been a humanist, and I’m not just talking about humans when I say that; I’m talking about all living things. But I’ve come to restrain myself to a very close circle of people. Because, it was humans, at the end of the day, who threw us out of the water.
“I’ve come to realize that your love does not really mean anything to anybody. It’s not enough to love, it never is. Those you love, they should be affectionate in return as well. And I’ve come to realize that some people are evil. It’s funny if you think about it, I had never even encountered an evil person before in all my 32 years. Maybe I was just lucky.
“But when I saw with my own eyes how evil people can be after the arrest of my husband, I’ve withdrawn myself from people and leaned towards other living things,” she adds, “I’ve been grinding away at the land for the past three or four years, for example. Whatever you saw in the land, if you really love it, it comes back to you and you reap it. I am utterly amazed by that. That’s why I find it rehabilitating to engage with the land. I’ve grown reclusive, sure. Once you see people for what they really are, you build a barrier between them and yourself.”
“They impose on you this strong feeling of guilt”
Nesibe Baransu recounts community pressure and constant feeling of guilt among reasons why she withdrew herself from the society:
“Then, there is paranoia. They impose on you this strong feeling of guilt. You come to feel guilty whenever you go out for a cup of coffee with a friend and immediately start keeping an account of your surroundings and the people around your table: who was there when you walked in and who came in later, who are these people now, things like that build up when you constantly think about it.
“What am I doing right now? I am just having a cup of coffee with a friend. Why would I feel such discontent, such restlessness, why would I have such a crippling sense of guilt? The smallest social activity that I engage in comes back to haunt me, and I said O.K., no more of this, and I’ve gone socially reclusive. It doesn’t make you happy. So, one drawback of this process is you become a loner. Your social life comes to a halt, and your outlook on future, which was once pearly white, becomes gradually gray, and then turns completely black.”
“Prisoners inside and outside the walls”
“Prisoners are doing time inside the walls, and those on the outside, they feel like they are doing time in open prisons,” says Baransu, as a result of feeling marginalized, pressure from state actors and community, and financial troubles.
“You want to know why I feel like this? I have a profession and yet I cannot get employed; I have medical problems and yet I cannot get state insurance on my own life. I am a citizen of the Turkish Republic; I have a medical problem on this land; why can’t I have a state insurance and benefit from the same advantages this country offers its citizens? I am not a prisoner, nor am I a convict. There is not a single investigation launched against me, and yet I couldn’t go to the municipality building to pay off my property tax.
“My house was seized, and I couldn’t go to the tax office to pay off the debt; I could do nothing in public institutions. I appeared to be under legal disability. I asked countless times, whether there was an indictment against me or not. No, there was nothing. Was there a conviction? No, there was nothing. So, why am I under legal disability? You are under legal disability because of your husband. Is there a legitimate reason for that? You come and seize my house, you put my property on the market, and I, as a citizen, come to pay off the seizure even though I live in drastic conditions, and you refuse my payment. I was hard up to pay off the seizure on my house because of legal expenses at Eminönü Hisar Tax Office for six months. Six months, I say, during which, of course, the interest piles up, which must be paid as well. Imagine yourself in my position: you cannot take advantage of any of the benefits of citizenship, how would you feel? I would feel like I was in an open prison. Of course, I would feel like I was in an open prison if I couldn’t take part in various things that I should be able to do to sustain myself, let alone the moral distress of it all.
“If you are hung out to dry on your own, it becomes extra hard. There is a certain sense of void, a sense of disappointment that comes with that, and I have it even more than my husband, I must confess. I wasn’t permitted to have a full grasp of his take on humanity. We weren’t permitted to get to know each other. But I used to believe that people were perfect, bar none. To feel myself isolated was an utter disappointment.”
Nesibe Baransu asserts her evolving conviction that even the most outspoken advocates of democracy have no concern with core civil liberties associated with liberal democracy, and call for democracy as a blanket term only when it matters to them:
“Democracy, however, is universal, that much we know. We know that democracy does not discriminate against any person, identity, ideology, and whether you are right or wrong, democracy makes sure of that. However, people who claim to be hardcore democrats have in this process approached the matters through their own ideological lenses. That causes me to lose my confidence in humanity by and large. Because what this means is that we will always have a staggering democracy problem however the tables turn. Turkey has always suffered from this same problem, but we as a society once believed we could change it for good and have a robust democracy. Now to see that nothing has changed, and to suffer through all these because of the very people whom I considered to be sharing the same virtues as I did was absolutely devastating.”
Baransu stresses how little effort it takes to manipulate people through perception management: “They stigmatized us with this perception, you see, as a result of which people have a certain prejudice against us, and we try and try to contest that to no avail. As if that’s not enough, they confiscate everything you have while you are trying to challenge those misconceptions. So, at the end, there is no way you can prove you are right. When you see that those people who put you through all these are appreciated and even applauded left right and center, you begin to feel that people are indeed evil, and that they have bad thoughts.”
“You face community pressure in social life. People keep asking, no, that is not true, they never ask; they just take their part in extrajudicial execution. Nothing comes of nothing, they say – ‘there’s no smoke without fire.’ Even people who don’t have the slightest clue as to what’s happening have these things to say, and to see them kill you with extreme prejudice confirms the lingering doubt you have that they are indeed bad. There are people who feed on evil. They say, I am not happy, so why should they be?”
“My husband was stripped off his rights after the coup attempt”
Noting that the pressure on families of inmates has more or less diminished following the 15 July coup attempt, Baransu mentions that the drastic chain of subsequent events registered a counter-effect on the prisoners as a consequence of which her husband’s basic have further been restricted:
“I had a sense of relief after this damn coup attempt; I am speaking for myself. I didn’t have a chance to go over these in detail with my husband, so I am expressing my own observations. I’m saying this because the pressure, the surveillance, deterrence policies, abuse etc. that I had to endure outside the walls had somewhat proved to be unsustainable, and yet my husband was facing the wrath of the wardens inside the walls, had his rights as a prisoner stripped off of him after the coup attempt. If there weren’t any disciplinary proceedings, you could -- under normal circumstances -- have an open visit with him for as long as 2 hours, and he was allowed to have phone calls more often; these practices were no longer applicable. He was denied doctor visitations. Our petitions were swept under the carpet for as long as possible. It came to a point where we couldn’t even have any legal claims. He was denied the right to exercise. We were already permitted only about one third of the rights afforded to prisoners under normal conditions, and what little we were permitted to have were shelved completely after that damn coup attempt. This went on for more or less 2 years.”
“How can these people adjust to social life after prison?”
Baransu asserts that people in prisons are pushed forward to an almost complete detachment from social life:
“Criminals stand trial, receive sentences, and atone their crimes -- I am not even talking about the innocent -- in prisons and suffer through rights violations, at the end of which, after their release, their whole lives come in tatters. There is not a single thing they do to rehabilitate criminals after they pay their dues. These people can’t find jobs, and they are isolated from society. How can these people adjust to social life after prison?
“I am not talking about my husband. This is a severe case of trauma that everybody under arrest in prisons, whether they are guilty or not, go through. Isn’t it possible for the Ministry of Family and Social Policies to look into this problem? Isn’t it possible to open rehabilitation centers in prisons? [Rehabilitation] does not just mean you have people put to work in a professional capacity in prisons, you have to motivate them to adjust to social life. These people already do what they can and are of benefit to the place where they are provided with employment. What good would it do [for the imprisoned people in their reintegration] to social life?”
COVID-19 related restrictions
Nesibe Baransu used to attend all courtroom hearings of her husband’s trials and closely monitor the judicial process before the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic, which brought about strict measures in courthouses and rigorous restrictions on visitation rights. In Baransu’s words, the effects of the coronavirus on the process are as follows:
“It was the second week of March when the [coronavirus] pandemic spread rapidly, wasn’t it? For about four months into that, we were not allowed any visits, contact or non-contact. We could have our visitation rights back in July, if memory serves me right. That is to say, we still cannot have any open visits, but only biweekly non-contact visits. We used to have phone calls for 10 minutes a week. The Ministry of Justice announced that we could have phone calls twice a week because of the pandemic, and yet we only got one call for 20 minutes a week.”
Nesibe Baransu filed a petition with the Ministry of Justice, requesting to hear from her husband twice a week, but at the time of this interview, she had yet to receive a response.
Because of COVID-19, Mehmet Baransu has been addressing the courts overseeing his trials via the judicial video-conferencing network SEGBİS, which, according to Nesibe Baransu, contravenes the right to a fair trial: “Audio is delayed and there are communication gaps, which eventually frustrates you to the point where you plead your case only superficially where you could really delve into it. We had final hearings and judgments issued in two separate trials during the pandemic. However, the last hearings were not entirely robust as the depositions were conducted via SEGBİS.”
“My husband faces about 140 cases”
Mehmet Baransu has faced approximately 140 cases to this day, Nesibe Baransu says, all of which are for his reporting in public interest:
“At the time of his detainment, he had almost 80 cases against him. Many more were opened in the last six years, totaling it up to approximately 140 cases, I would say, 20 or 30 of which are still ongoing. The rest are pending to be reviewed by either the Court of Cassation or by regional courts of appeal. Several decisions were upheld; these must be the cases from 2007-2008 that were adjourned at the time. What they did was they took the adjourned cases off the shelves, reopened them, and imposed fines on us for TL 20,000 (approx. US$ 2,880) each, which was later converted to 200 days for TL 20,000 and two hours of community service for each day, unless the fine is paid. We took it to the Constitutional Court, where our applications concerning five separate upheld convictions are currently pending review.”
“Our right to defense has been violated”
Mehmet Baransu was sentenced to a total of 19 years and 6 months in prison in Mersin for his critical reporting in 2013 on an alleged customs fraud involving the import of genetically modified rice to Turkey. According to the reasoned judgment in writing, Nesibe Baransu claims, the court in Mersin found her husband guilty of “membership in a terrorist organization” without presenting concrete evidence and issued a penalty increase despite any trace of reprehensible conduct in the courtroom: “The reasoned judgment in writing makes it clear that they decided on a penalty increase for something so frivolous as ‘redundant use or overuse of the right to defense.’
“This person has been behind bars for the past six years, and not under very healthy conditions at that, either” continues Baransu, “So, if we take into account how much he was wronged in this period of six years; of course, he can raise his voice at hearings every now and then; of course, he can make accusations. It is insensible to expect such a wronged person to give his defense statement in a dispassionate manner.
“Is it normal to have such a blatant disregard towards basic human emotions and be completely unconcerned about it? Of course, after a while, you cannot help but realize that those people who are judging you are not independent either. You just can’t believe they are judging you fairly or with a view to protecting human rights. How can you assert yourself unless you trust your judge is the one judging you? It is all set up; the decision is predetermined, the proceedings are predetermined, even the time they give you to defend yourself, your right of defense is predetermined… Say, there is a scrap of evidence in your favor, you ask the court to evaluate it, and they just deny it. You say there are irregularities in the indictment, they shut down the recorder and turn off SEGBİS. They don’t even write what has occurred to minutes. How can we express ourselves? How can we prove we are right? You are the ones charging us, you must present conclusive evidence. But you can’t present any evidence, and we have a matter in our favor and would like to present it to the court, and you deny us that.”
Charge of violation of privacy for a story published in 4 newspapers
Nesibe Baransu insists there were several procedural errors at the “MGK headline” trial, where Mehmet Baransu was on trial for a news report published in 2013, which maintained that the Fethullah Gülen network was listed as a threat at a National Security Council (MGK) meeting in 2004, and was recently sentenced to 17 years and 1 month in prison. Claiming the trial was “a dead case from the get-go,” along with the genetically modified rice case in Mersin, since the Press Law clearly states that criminal investigations should be opened within a period of four months for daily periodicals, Baransu says: “You go out of your way to press retroactive charges for a long gone accusation, and you already make it illegal by deciding on acceptance of the case. We claim the procedure is undue at the time of the hearings, but you refuse to take the minutes down. It is not taken seriously. You charge [us] with violation of privacy, procurement and disclosure [of classified documents]. It is not classified at all. ‘MGK news’ had been in the headlines in four different newspapers before my husband got a chance to cover it. Not a single investigation. There were investigations into one or two papers, but to the others, there was nothing. How can you claim violation of privacy, procurement, and disclosure of classified material about a news story that was already of public knowledge?”
“They charged us with 4 separate articles in the case, not only that, but they charged us with different subsections of the same article, one of which is less than and the other is more than 5 years. You can challenge sentences that are less than 5 years in appellate courts, the ones more than 5 years should be appealed to the Court of Cassation. Two charges for the same story are less than 5 years, and the remaining two are more than 5 years. How can you appeal these charges, and to where? There is no higher authority I can go to once the appellate court upholds the sentence, even though I am accused of the same news story and on the same charges. We have brought it up many times, but nothing has changed.”
“There is no room for frustration in my fight”
“It was a turning point in my life when my husband was targeted, it turned everything upside down,” relates Nesibe Baransu, who does not feel the least frustrated as a result of the judicial harassment she was made to suffer for years. She is a survivor and says she will not back down on her legal struggle to the end:
“My priorities in life have changed completely. I was never daunted. I attended each and every visitation for six years, I never slipped once; I never left my husband alone. I never felt defeated because of my obligations in the process. The hardest thing to bear, though, is to have a desperate longing. That hankering brings with it a certain sense of resentment, but I was never frustrated in my fight. I am not frustrated by life, because I am, just like my husband, a fighter. It is just a phase in our lives. It is not going to last forever, of course it won’t, there will come a day when we will show that we were right all along, when we will show the wrongs we had to suffer, for sure. The people who think we were guilty will then feel they were deceived all along, as it happens to those who feel deceived at any given time, and we will know that we succeeded. It is a phase. It is a fight. There is no room for frustration in my fight. Of course, we will fight for it to the end. I must confess though: I have suffered much more emotionally. My biggest fear is that I will never again get a hold of all the feelings I once had. If I fail to put all those beautiful feelings back to where they belong, that’s when the frustration will take me hostage.”