• Murat Çelikkan: Another Turkish Journalist in Prison for ‘Unspecified Reasons’

    A Day in the Life of a Jailed Writer and Human Rights Advocate

    Kırklareli is an unassuming city. It is a big change from Cihangir, the heart of artistic Istanbul, and the place of colorful coffeehouses, where famous leftists and intellectuals hang out. Kırklareli is located on Turkey’s border with Bulgaria. It is famous for its monuments, mosques and fountains. If you asked a local to show you some tourist attractions, they would probably point to a bridge from the 17th century. It is called Babaeski. They could also point to Hızırbey, a 14th-century mosque recently restored. Or they could recommend the city’s graveyard.

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    During Byzantine times, Kırklareli was known as Saranta Ekklissies, the City of Forty Churches. Then the Turks conquered Istanbul. Mehmed the Conqueror ordered a foundry to produce cannons. He used those cannons to take Istanbul away from Christian hands. Murat Çelikkan, a journalist who has devoted 25 years of his life to journalism, did not know about this history before he arrived there. He came to serve an 18-month jail sentence.

    Çelikkan is the most cheerful journalist I know. He is also the most conscientious. His roaring laughter is famous among Turkey’s investigative journalists. Çelikkan has commissioned and edited their work over many years. When one comes across Çelikkan in Cihangir, where he lives, he strikes one as a big character. His face is red with the joy of the latest joke he has told. His lips reveal a mischievous smile.

    But on the morning of September 16, Çelikkan woke up in his cell at Kırklareli Penitentiary. He thought of grimmer subjects. He realized how much he had learned during his time there. It was only 7:40 am according to his wristwatch. Smartphones were not allowed in prison. So he went back to using his beloved watch.

    “Rojbaş,” or, “Good morning,” a fellow inmate said in Kurdish. Çelikkan already knew the phrase. He now used it daily. In the large cell he stayed with four other Kurdish inmates.

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    Çelikkan decided to sleep a bit longer. For 15 minutes his eyes were closed. He enjoyed listening to the sounds of the cell. Half-awake, he heard the conversations of his fellow inmates. Finally, at 7:55 am, he got up from his bunk bed. He put on a shirt and trousers. He wondered what his wife and newly born daughter were doing back home.

    Çelikkan had married Meltem Aslan, director of an NGO called Anadolu Kültür, in 2012. Its chairman, Osman Kavala, had attended his wedding. At the time Çelikkan was an editor at a mainstream Turkish newspaper. But in the five years that followed, Çelikkan retired from the paper. He showed solidarity with Özgür Gündem, a prosecuted Kurdish paper. His gesture did not go down well with state prosecutors. Although he never worked for, or edited, the paper, his one-day-long “guest editorship” was considered a terrorist activity. The paper was seen to have favorable views about the armed militant group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The PKK has been waging a war against Turkey since the 1980s.

    On August 16, 2016, the day the paper was raided by the police, I heard the sound of sirens in Cihangir. I didn’t know where Özgür Gündem was located. In fact I’ve never bought a copy of the paper but I knew about its place in the history of Turkish censorship. Özgür Gündem’s offices were in a building a minute’s walk away from my studio. The office was concealed inside a building. Understandably there was no sign outside for safety reasons. Watching the footage of the raid, I noticed that I had walked past Özgür Gündem almost twice every day in the past five years.

    If such a senior editor could be put behind bars, what were the chances of young journalists who covered human rights issues?

    In March 2016, I made a similar discovery in another Istanbul neighborhood named Mecidiyeköy. I used to live there with my parents before I moved to Cihangir. Ortaklar, a street that I walked along every week to visit their apartment, has a supermarket, pubs, restaurants and a small park. It also hosted the headquarters of a television network named KanalTurk. Once owned by a Kemalist businessman, it was purchased by an industrialist with ties to the Gülen movement. During the clampdown on the Gülenists, a few months before the coup attempt of 15 July, the TV channel was raided by the riot police. I remember my surprise at seeing activists at the heart of this middle-class neighborhood where I had never come across protests of any kind in the past.

    Çelikkan had been following news of raids on newspapers and television channels over the past year. There were many other journalists who became guest editors of Özgür Gündem. But only Çelikkan was jailed. In the words of the judge, “he had shown no remorse.” Instead, Çelikkan penned a lengthy defense of his decisions. He gave a point-by-point account of why all the articles published in that paper were legitimate in terms of journalistic ethics. Most other editors who guest edited the paper were sentenced to prison. Those sentences were postponed. Many assumed Çelikkan was ordered to serve his sentence because of his defense.

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    Çelikkan had been jailed twice in the past. In 1978, as an undergraduate, he served almost a year in prison. In the aftermath of the 1980 military coup, he was again jailed, this time for six months. Exactly 40 years after his initial confinement, Çelikkan was back in jail.

    In Cihangir, journalists were saddened by the news of his conviction. At a goodbye party, many broke down in tears. If such a senior editor could be put behind bars, what were the chances of young journalists who covered human rights issues?

    To prepare for his imprisonment Çelikkan read a book. It was issued by a human rights organization. He learned how inmates were treated at Kırklareli Penitentiary. In August, on the day before he began to serve his sentence, he filed the manuscript of a book he had worked on for the past five years.

    The book consisted of an extensive interview with Deniz Türkali, a famous Turkish actress and Çelikkan’s closest friend. Türkali is the daughter of Vedat Türkali, one of Turkey’s leading novelists of the 20th century. Türkali was also an influential screenwriter. Atıf Yılmaz, an auteur director of Turkish cinema, was Deniz Türkali’s husband; her brother, Barış Pirhasan, is a scriptwriter. With these connections, Türkali became one of the most powerful figures of Turkey’s left-wing cultural scene in the past three decades. Çelikkan, a confidant, was happy to devote years to recording her story. But while he was working on the book, he heard from the court.

    His family history set Çelikkan apart from other Turkish journalists. He is the great-grandson of Recaizade Mahmud Ekrem, author of the first novel in the Turkish language.

    Çelikkan was forced to leave behind two of his great passions. Over the years, as a board member of numerous organizations, including Amnesty International, Helsinki Citizens Assembly, and the Human Rights Foundation, he spearheaded the struggle for human rights in Turkey. He was also known for his versatile journalistic career. He was the editor of leftist newspaper BirGün. Many leftists found his stance too liberal. He then worked as a columnist for the now defunct Radikal.

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    His family history set Çelikkan apart from other Turkish journalists. He is the great-grandson of Recaizade Mahmud Ekrem, author of the first novel in the Turkish language. The author of A Carriage Affair had been such an esteemed figure in Ottoman public life that on the day of his funeral in January 1914 all classes in Istanbul schools were cancelled.

    Ekrem was also an influential editor. But it was his defense of realism in the Turkish novel that distinguished him from others. His artistic and political progressivism disturbed many, even members of his family. But Ekrem insisted on his agenda. Today, his A Carriage Affair remains a Turkish classic. It stands as a reminder of the bad influence of “over-Westernization.” Its hero, Bihruz Bey, is in love with European culture and condescending toward Ottoman traditions. He can’t command either Turkish or French fully, and, in the hands of Ekrem, he has become a symbol of the spiritual degradation that comes with Westernization. At 8 am, Çelikkan made his bed. He went downstairs to check if the toilet was occupied. He washed his face. He put on his shoes. He walked toward the white plastic table where he had eaten all his meals during the past month. On television he watched a news bulletin. But then someone muted the audio.

    At exactly 8:15 am, the doors of their cell were opened. Two guards entered. Three others waited by the door. One guard walked to the door that opened to the alley. He unlocked the padlock. The other guard started counting inmates. “Five,” he shouted. There was no further conversation. They exited the cell.

    The guards were very young. They were around the same age as the Kurdish inmates. Many came from Thrace. They were blue-eyed immigrants with Roman roots. Most of the inmates serving time for petty crimes had Roman roots. Some guards had beer bellies. Kırklareli was close to Lüleburgaz, Vize and Çanakkale. These Turkish towns are famous for their bars.

    The door of the cell remained locked until 11:20 am. Then lunch would be brought in. In the intervening three hours, inmates relaxed. They took off their shoes. Back home Çelikkan took off his shoes only before going to bed. But in prison they were associated with “political activities.” Inmates put them on when faced with authorities. They were sending a message to the Turkish state in this way. Their imprisonment was political in nature. The jailer and the jailed were involved in a political struggle. This was not an ordinary living space. The cell was the heart of politics, both in the way it constrained their freedom and in its failure to control their minds.

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    An inmate turned up the volume of the television. Another brought breakfast. Every morning a different inmate was tasked with preparing the day’s first meal. That morning’s menu consisted of white cheese, tomato, cucumber, jam and molasses with tahini.

    Bread arrived daily. It was nothing like the crunchy bread Çelikkan enjoyed back home. He put jam on a slice of bran bread. He took a sip from a glass of freshly brewed Turkish tea.

    Tea was a serious business. They devised rituals to smooth its preparation. An inmate poured hot water from one glass into the other. The warm glasses made drinking more enjoyable. Watching his hand movements made Çelikkan nostalgic for his wife. He missed their newly born daughter.

    Not much happened in Kırklareli. This was a slow city populated largely by retirees. Sweet and considerate elderly Turks spent their time drinking and chatting in silent teahouses. The cops who drove Çelikkan from the prosecutor’s office to the hospital for his medical checks were polite and civilized. They did not force him to wear handcuffs. On the way to prison, they asked him about his kids. “I have a two-year-old daughter,” he said. “But I thought you were an older man,” one cop laughed. “That is why we did not make you wear handcuffs. If I had known you had a two-year-old daughter, I would have made you wear them.”

    At 8:35 am an inmate cleared the breakfast table. He carried plates to the sink in the corner. Yesterday’s papers had been used as a tablecloth. Çelikkan folded and threw them into the trash bin. He wiped the table with a clean cloth. He went outside to smoke a cigarette.

    Çelikkan’s best friend in Istanbul was Deniz Türkali, the actress whose life he chronicled in the book he had been working on. She loved his disdain for patriarchy.

    The alley outside their cell was 5 to 7.5 meters wide. Three walls, 12 meters high, surrounded it. The alley received almost no sunshine. But in its corner that morning there was a tiny square of light.

    Çelikkan noticed that spot. He rushed there to warm his body. Abdülkadir, a 26-year-old political inmate asked Çelikkan to walk with him. Over the next 20 minutes, they changed direction every nine and a half steps. At nine o’clock they went back inside. Just above them, in the observation room, the shadow of a prisoner could be seen. Those sentenced to life imprisonment were sometimes put there as punishment.

    Now Çelikkan had to prepare his notes for his English language course. Other inmates were grateful for his efforts. Every morning he checked their homework. He handed them new exercises he prepared the previous evening. He asked them questions about grammar and syntax. The course went on until 10:30 am. During the break Çelikkan drank the first, and last, coffee of the day. Unfortunately it was Nescafe. He did not particularly like instant coffee. But it tasted okay in prison, when coupled with a cigarette.

    When he came back in, the inmates had already taken their seats. Çelikkan read from a book by Agatha Christie. He loved detective fiction. He enjoyed imitating characters from Christie’s books. The listening section was good for their diction. He asked an inmate to continue reading from where he left off.

    Some days they read lives of famous women. Those were stories about Isadora Duncan and Helena Rubinstein. Çelikkan told them that those women had one thing in common. They refused to accept society’s norms. They did not marry or have kids. Instead, they advanced their careers.

    Çelikkan’s best friend in Istanbul was Deniz Türkali, the actress whose life he chronicled in the book he had been working on. She loved his disdain for patriarchy. “I have never seen a man who struggled against his manhood this much,” she once said. “To see someone coming from a patriarchal family doing this fills me with happiness.” They had been friends for decades. They supported each other in the direst of times. They trusted each other. Çelikkan often asked Türkali about her finds in feminist literature. Türkali thought the feminist struggle was left in the shadow of other struggles. She fought to keep it relevant in Turkey. Çelikkan supported her in this endeavor. The best he could do now was to discuss feminism with his fellow inmates.

    The lunch arrived at 11:30 am. It was placed inside bento boxes. They were excited to have it in the cell. They set the table, prepared salad, enjoyed the food. By 12:45 pm, they were done. A few moments later newspapers arrived. Çelikkan looked at the headlines. He set to solving a crossword puzzle. It was his favorite pastime.

    For years he has struggled to transform Turkish journalism. His keen eye discerned any trace of discrimination in articles published in Turkish papers. He patiently removed all sexist headlines from pages that he proofread. He instructed young reporters who worked for him to put public interest above the interests of state. He told them not to act as defenders of the Turkish government. Through workshops and handbooks, he attempted to create compliance with journalistic standards among reporters and editors. In the mid-2000s he felt he was partly succeeding. Editors of mainstream Turkish newspapers began to use a more careful, neutral tone in their coverage of news concerning human rights, LGBTQIA Turks and the Kurdish issue.

    He did not know whether he would ever be free again or wander Istanbul’s streets. Would he drink boza again?

    But such progressive changes began to diminish in 2013, during the environmentalist protests at Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Because of previous improvements in journalistic standards, Turkish editors attempted to cover the protests in a neutral way. But the Turkish state considered Gezi a coup attempt designed to topple the legitimate government. Journalists who struggled to cover the events in an objective way were sacked. For the pro-government press, protesters were terrorists. Columnists who attempted to comprehend the reasons behind the unrest lost their jobs.

    The opposition press was similarly unforgiving of nuance. Many romanticized the movement, and were deaf to some of the nationalist currents that existed underneath Gezi’s environmentalist surface. Activists from Çelikkan’s generation advised protesters to be careful. They reminded them that the Turkish state could be vicious while taking its revenge. Gezi was a single event. It couldn’t transform Turkey on its own. One had to consider it in a historical context. They had to plan for future battles. Many young activists, engulfed in the narcissistic and instant gratification of social media, did not listen to them.

    I remember coming across Çelikkan in the weeks after the Gezi protests. During Gezi, there was a massive barricade built to avoid riot cops reaching protesters at the park. It was later removed, but on the street where it was placed there was constant unrest between cops who tried to take back control and protesters who didn’t want to let go. He was surrounded by frustrated locals. He tried to walk past cops and reach Cihangir. His generation of activists knew how to deal with the Turkish state better. Their anger about what the state has done, and could do, was balanced by their foresight that there would be a government the next day one way or another. Inside his cell, Çelikkan thought about those days in 2013. He remembered the joy and the disillusionment of it all.

    Between 1 pm and 3 pm the inmates relaxed. Abdülkadir offered to walk with him again for half an hour. They chatted in the alley. Others studied. One read a book. Another wrote a letter. The television was turned off. They considered it a distraction. Just after 3 pm, Çelikkan went back inside for his Kurdish class.

    Enes, an inmate from Van, was 21. He taught Çelikkan how to read Kurdish books. Others drank tea while Enes and his student sat on opposite sides of a desk. Çelikkan was not the ideal student. One hour of studying Kurdish every day was enough for him. He was unable to go through more than one unit.

    Turkish authorities are afraid of prisons because they fear riots. In 2000, Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party introduced high-security prisons. It tried to sell the idea that imprisonment in single cells was necessary to combat terrorism in Turkey. Then hundreds of prisoners went on hunger strike. In the past, they had lived communally. But the Turkish state was interfering with that right. On December 19, the Turkish government began an operation named “Operation Return to Life.” According to the minister of justice, the aim was to save hunger strikers before it was too late. The operations were conducted in 20 different prisons with 10,000 security personnel. They ended with the deaths of 30 convicts and two soldiers. Hundreds were burned to death. Some were poisoned by gas. A few were shot dead.

    The fast continued for six years. When it ended on January 22, 2007, 122 people had died. The radical left tried to present the end of the hunger strike as a victory against the Turkish state. But in fact cellular imprisonment continued to be imposed. In 2016, the European Court of Human Rights found Turkey guilty for violating the right to life during the raid at an Istanbul prison in 2000.

    Çelikkan stayed in an E-type cell, rather than the disputed F-type cell. One to three convicts stayed inside F-type cells. There were no windows inside F-type cells. Inside E-type cells, they had windows and ten convicts could stay together. Most E-type prisons had around 600 prisoners.

    Kırklareli Penitentiary is 1 kilometer from the city’s center. It was opened in 1990 on an area of 15, 824 square meters. More than 700 convicts serve time there. There are 53 rooms and 20 single rooms. Every Wednesday a dental surgeon came to the premises. There was also a psychiatrist and a teacher working for the penitentiary. There was a library. There were courses for illiterate convicts. There was a gym. Occasionally convicts staged plays.

    Inmates went out to the alley for exercise. They had hot water only once a week. The administration was installing a natural gas heating system. Until its completion they needed to have cold showers six days a week. But Çelikkan couldn’t stand cold water. He shivered violently under it. Outside, winds howled. Kırklareli’s weather was harsh. It made Çelikkan worry about how he would spend his days in prison after winter set in. At teatime he asked for biscuits and milk. Inmates called him “Lord Çelikkan” because of his love for milk tea.

    The guards were scheduled to return at 8:15 pm. The inmates put on their shoes. They prepared for the day’s final confrontation with the authorities. A few moments later, two guards entered the cell. The first locked the door that led to the alley. The other waited until he heard the sound of the lock. He shouted: “Five!” They exited the cell. They locked the door behind them.

    If guards did not undertake a night raid (they had done that a few times over the past month) they would be alone, secure and isolated for the day’s remaining hours. Çelikkan felt freest during this interval when his confinement was complete.

    He climbed to his bunk bed. He began to read Orhan Pamuk’s novel, A Strangeness In My Mind. His mind followed the book’s protagonist. He was a seller of boza. He wandered Istanbul’s streets. The story was brutal in its realism; rich with details of Turkey’s transformation in the past 40 years. It was evocative of the world he was forced to leave.

    What would he do once he was out of this cell? He dreamed of the streets of Cihangir. Maybe near his home, a boza seller was shouting “Boozaaaa” right now. Maybe his wife had just heard him and decided to order a cup of the fermented drink.

    An hour later the great-grandson of Turkey’s first novelist stopped reading Turkey’s leading contemporary novelist in his jail cell. He did not know whether he would ever be free again or wander Istanbul’s streets. Would he drink boza again? Would he be able to talk to his actress friend? Would they be able to polish the manuscript and publish their book? Would he kiss his wife again? Around 10 pm, Çelikkan felt exhausted. He closed his eyes.


    lion and the nightingale

    From The Lion and the Nightingale: A Journey Through Modern Turkey by Kaya Genç. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury US. All rights reserved.


    Kaya Genç
    Kaya Genç
    Kaya Genç is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Financial Times, and New Humanist.

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