Chicago Turks Protest Book Ban In Turkey’s Prisons

Turkey’s prominent novelist and journalist Ahmet Altan is behind bars nearly a year. He is facing 3 aggravated life sentences for his journalistic works. Authorities do not allow sending books to prison, deprive the writer and other journalists of what they most like in the world: reading.

But his book, Endgame, was distributed 6,000 miles from the prison on Father’s Day in a symbolic gesture to the imprisoned fathers.

In downtown Chicago, a group of Turkish-Americans marked the Father’s Day with a colorful event to pay tribute to their beloved ones who are languishing in Turkey’s prisons.

But it is also a homage to Turkey’s prominent novelist who, during his lifetime, faced many trials, investigations over his unwavering criticism of the establishment, military-led or civilian governments for their authoritarianism, and gutting freedoms.

What landed him on the list of public enemies was his apparent disregard for red lines drawn by the Turkish state, his thrust to political minefields such as Armenian Genocide and the Kurdish question, themes that brought trouble for critical journalists.

“We are a group of young people whose fathers are now in prison in Turkey. Our fathers are businessmen, academics, doctors, and teachers. They are victims of persecution, started in Turkey following the coup attempt on July 15,” said a statement on behalf of the sons and daughters of jailed fathers at Millenium Park in Chicago.

After noting that 50,136 people have been imprisoned in Turkey, the statement offered a bleak assessment of their still ongoing ordeal. “Thousands of people have been deprived of not only their liberty, but also their most basic and human rights.”

The arrested people, whether they are doctors or journalists, “are not allowed to exchange letters with their loved ones.” The connection between prisoners and the outside world is extremely limited, any form of communication is subjected to overbearing surveillance of the prison authorities through methods that include audio record of the talks between inmates and their lawyers, presence of guards during their meeting with families.

No Access to Books

“Even sending a book to prison is forbidden.”

In what seems to be the confirmation of draconian measures at place, none of the journalists are able to obtain books from outside. This was the central theme of the protest on Sunday.

“If there were no prohibitions, today we would send books as Father’s day gifts to our fathers in Turkish
prisons,” the statement said, addressing the abiding problem that makes the imprisonment unbearable for the very people of books, for cultured men and women.

To highlight this, the Turkish-Americans came up with an elegant idea and distributed Ahmet Altan’s well-acclaimed novel ‘Endgame’ for free to other Americans to protest the ban on books in Turkey’s prisons.

“Although symbolic, we thought this event may raise awareness for the dire situation in prisons across Turkey, where political prisoners are not even allowed to read a book,” Emre Yilmaz, secretary general of Huddled Masses, who is one of the organizers of the event, told The Globe Post.

As most other journalists, Ahmet Altan was remanded in a larger crackdown on media. The accusations against him sometimes bordered on absurdity and reflected the zealous targeting of press members to stifle any critical voice. Along with his brother Professor Mehmet Altan, the novelist Altan was accused by authorities of disseminating “subliminal messages suggestive of a coup attempt” during a TV program a day before failed July 15 coup.

“To make such a claim about ‘consciousness’ makes as much sense as to claim we were speaking with aliens or could fly up to the night dressed as Superman or move mountains with the power of magnetism,” Ahmet Altan said in a statement, denouncing charges as “nonsense.”

The host of the program, Nazli Ilicak, had also been arrested.

The statement by Huddled Masses, a Chicago-based group that represents Turkish Americans, evoked Altan’s message from prison sent to an exhibition in Brussels in early May.

“I am happy and hopeful in the prison of a country where the courts have turned into legalized slaughterhouses,” he said in a statement read at Exhibition “Expression Interrupted” to mark the “World Press Freedom Day.”

“My confidence in people and in humanity has never been shaken and never will. Whatever happens, I will continue to live my life happy and hopeful in prison because of my trust in them,” the statement quoted Mr. Altan’s words.

“We, like Altan, continue our lives in the light of hope that someday we will have human rights, due process, freedom, democracy and fatherhood,” the statement said in an expression of dim optimism.

But their hopes for better future are overwhelmed by spasms of concern over the suffering of their beloved ones. To illustrate the scale of the ordeal families endure in Turkey, the statement documented daily hardships.

Any attempt to highlight their agony repeatedly backfires. “Any voice that we raise to protect their rights turns into putting more pressure on them.”

“Our mothers are being threatened with detention, our brothers and sisters are getting fired from their jobs, and almost everyone related to us is getting subjected to serious harassment,” the statement said about social mobbing and alienation that have become commonplace since last summer.

Even children of persecuted families “face harassment in their schools and struggle with depression,” other mental problems.

A Coup And A Fractured Society

On July 15, a group of Turkish military officers commandeered tanks and fighters jets in a failed attempt to remove President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government from power. The abortive coup rattled the entire nation, exposed lasting social divisions between the government’s most ardent supporters and President Erdogan’s opponents.

The failed putsch unleashed a purge of tremendous proportions unseen in Republican history. More than 150,000 public servants, including generals, judges, prosecutors, police, doctors, and teachers have been summarily sacked by government decrees without due process.

It has left a fractured society and a civil service in a state of disarray. Some segments of opposition have systematically been persecuted in aftermath of the failed coup.

The Chicago event was a testimony to the overseas fallout of the Turkey’s political tumult. It was also an expression of love and tribute that defies bounds and boundaries no matter how far the distance is.

“It shows that even the actions of the most vicious tyrants cannot stop love… Love transcends borders and breaches prison walls,” Buzz Hunter, who read the statement on behalf of the Huddled Masses, said in remarks to The Globe Post.

“On this Father’s Day, we are leaving the books here for people to take home and read; books we cannot send to our fathers,” the statement read.

“We are sure that if people take these books and read them, our fathers will be happy. We thank you for reading these books on their behalf.”

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Nesrin Gulkesen in Chicago contributed to this report.

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