Lucy Popescu worked with the English Centre of PEN, the international association of writers, for over 20 years and was Director of its Writers in Prison Committee from 1991 to 2006. She co-edited the PEN anthology Another Sky published by Profile Books in 2007. The Good Tourist, her book about human rights and ethical travel, was published by Arcadia Books in 2008. She is the editor of A Country of Refuge, an anthology of writing on asylum seekers by some of Britain and Ireland’s finest writers, published by Unbound in 2016.
On 15 November, to mark the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, PEN centres around the world will be protesting the detention of Aslı Erdoğan, a Turkish novelist and journalist considered a ‘dangerous woman’ by the state for her journalistic activities. Aslı, 49, is a columnist and on the advisory board of the pro-Kurdish opposition daily Özgür Gündem, shut down under the state of emergency imposed after the failed military coup of 15 July 2016. Aslı was arrested at her home in Istanbul, on 17 August 2016 together with twenty other journalists and employees from the paper.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is increasingly intolerant of political opposition, public protest, and critical media. Restrictive laws are regularly used to arrest and prosecute journalists, while media groups who criticise the government are fined. Since the coup attempt, the silencing of critical voices has reached epic proportions. The government declared a three-month state of emergency (which has been extended for a further 90 days) and, according to PEN’s last count on 24 October 2016, 135 journalists had been charged and were in pre-trial detention; at least eight were detained without charge and others were in police custody under investigation.
PEN has long campaigned on behalf of dissident writers and journalists in Turkey, many of whom have been detained on charges under the country’s anti-terror legislation or its notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which makes it a crime to ‘insult the Turkish Nation’. Some dissidents have spent months, even years, in detention without conviction. During the fifteen years I worked for English PEN’s Writers in Prison committee, other women deemed dangerous by the state and persecuted for their work, included novelist and journalist Perihan Mağden, who stood trial in 2006 for ‘alienating the people from military service’ after writing a column entitled ‘Conscientious Objection is a Human Right’, defending the case of Mehmet Tarhan, a conscientious objector. He had been in prison for several years for having refused compulsory military service and requesting permission to serve his country in a way consistent with his humanitarian beliefs. Mağden had suggested that a modern country, with ambitions to join the European Union, should offer other options such as civil service or teaching positions. The indictment claimed that Mağden had alienated people from undertaking military service, rather than solely expressing criticism, and she faced up to three years in prison. After an international outcry, she was acquitted three months later.
At the same time as Mağden’s acquittal, author Elif Shafak was charged under Article for ‘insulting Turkishness’ in her book Baba ve Piç (The Bastard of Istanbul). Shafak’s book tells the story of two families – one based in Istanbul, the other an exiled Armenian family living in San Francisco. One of the novel’s characters refers to the deaths of Armenians during World War I as ‘genocide’; a subject off limits in Turkey. Shafak and her publisher argued that the book was a work of literature, and that the character who referred to the Armenian killings was fictional, and therefore not appropriate for prosecution. The case received widespread coverage and also ended in an acquittal in September 2006.
In December 2007, Mağden was back in court and this time she was given a fourteen-month suspended sentence for another article, entitled ‘The Arrogant Woman is the Wolf, the Fox, the Turkey of Women: She Eats and Leaves’. Mağden had written about Aytaç Akgül a former governor in the southeastern province of Muş and included quotes from local people. She was accused of insulting a public official and convicted for ‘injury to honour and respectability’.
Another victim of judicial harassment is writer and sociologist Pınar Selek. She was accused of involvement in an explosion that occurred in the Istanbul Spice Bazaar in 1998; a tragedy that caused the deaths of 7 people and injured 127 others. Selek was arrested in July of that year and then released two and a half years later after a team of experts concluded that the explosion had not been caused by a bomb, but by the accidental ignition of a gas cylinder. She was tortured under investigation in an attempt to make her confess to the charges. Despite the findings, the case against Selek and her co-defendants continued, and in December 2005 a new trial was opened against her. This trial ended with an acquittal six months later.
She endured repeated reviews and acquittals. Many believe that the prosecution of Selek was linked to her work as a sociologist researching and writing about Kurdish issues in the mid- to late-1990s, and her alleged contact with the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). No evidence has been presented that shows Selek to have been a member of the PKK or to have engaged in violent activities. Selek is a member of PEN, the founder of the feminist journal Amargi and has written about contentious subjects such as women’s rights, the Kurdish question, and gay and lesbian rights. On 24 January 2013, Selek, who was living in France, was tried in absentia and received a life sentence. Finally on 19 December Selek was acquitted of all charges by the 15th High Criminal Court in Istanbul, an extraordinary fourth acquittal in 16 years.
Aslı, herself a PEN member, is no stranger to the risks of free expression in her home country. A human rights activist since 1993, she has regularly defended freedom of speech and fought for the rights of ethnic minorities and equal rights for women. She has previously suffered harassment for her work and has been forced, on occasion, to live in exile. I met Aslı in Nepal in 2000 at an international conference of Writers in Prison committees, where she was representing Turkish PEN. This act in itself meant she was probably being monitored by the authorities. She was intense, serious and reserved, but evidently proud to be part of the PEN family.
Her first novel, Kabuk Adam (Crust Man), was published in 1994 and she has since published seven books. Her second, Kirmizi Pelerinli Kent (The City in Crimson Cloak), was widely praised and has been published in fifteen languages. In 2005 she was shortlisted by French literary magazine, Lire, as one of the ‘50 most promising authors of tomorrow.’ Her most recent novel, Tas Bina (The Stone Building), received Turkey’s prestigious literary award (Sait Faik) in 2010.
Aslı is currently charged with ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’ and ‘undermining national unity’ for her work with Özgür Gündem. She has been in pre-trial detention since her arrest, and no date has currently been set for her trial. PEN believes Aslı’s arrest is part of Erdoğan’s wider crackdown on the opposition media and that she is detained in violation of her right of free expression. Worryingly, she’s also held in poor conditions and suffers from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes.
Readers might like to use social media around the time of the Day of The Imprisoned Writer (November 15) to highlight Asli’s case. Please use the hashtag #ImprisonedWriter. You can link to this article or tweet: #Turkey release writer Aslı Erdoğan immediately & unconditionally #ImprisonedWriter @pen_int. You may also want to include Turkey’s Minister of Justice, Mr. Bekir Bozdağ @bybekirbozag and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan @RT_Erdogan.