The KCK arrests: ‘Let’s not talk about it’

I recently read a moving account by Jeff Gibbs in which he describes the recent arrest of his Kurdish father-in-law, Kemal Seven. He was seized in the scope of the ongoing KCK investigation, targeting the civilian wing of the PKK Kurdish separatist rebels.

You can read the two-part account of the arrest and first court appearance here and here on his blog. This is an extract in which he describes the moment he and his wife delivered the old man’s diabetes medication to the police headquarters in Fatih:

…We were let into Ward C, the anti-terrorism department. They took the diabetes medicine, but would not promise to give it to him without a doctor’s note, which we didn’t have. A bushy-haired old sergeant manned the information desk. ‘Don’t be scared,’ he told us. ‘If anything happens, they’ll run him immediately to the hospital. It’s right across the street. We have heaters in all the rooms. We have pillows and comfortable beds. No one gets beaten or slapped around here anymore. They’ve passed laws against all that. He’ll be fine! And who knows? He might be released in just a few days!’  ‘Can I ask you what they’re going to do with all the stuff they took?’ Delal asked.  ‘All the books and CDs and everything? Are they seriously going to look at all those things? It could take forever.’  ‘No, dear,’ the old man answered. ‘They already have some kind of evidence or they wouldn’t have arrested him.’

According to rights groups, a staggering 5,000 people have now been arrested as part of the KCK case. I’ve written in detail about the trial before here. It is a sprawling investigation relying heavily on telephone wiretaps. No one doubts that the KCK is real, and I can’t blame the government for pursuing it.

But there is often a worrying lack of evidence that people arrested under Turkey’s anti-terrorism laws have committed any crime at all. The connections to alleged conspiracies are frequently tenuous or opaque. Other times, the terrorism laws themselves, broad and vaguely worded, are to blame for criminalizing comments, speeches or articles that would be considered, in most democratic countries, to fall within the bounds of free speech.

Kemal Seven is a member of the legal pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party [BDP], and a lecturer at the party’s political academy in Istanbul. The government often accuses BDP politicians and activists of being suit-and-tie wearing terrorists. From Gibbs’ account:

When the prosecutor decided to accuse the BDP academy of terrorism, they had the police sweep the entire school for fingerprints. Anyone who had been there within the past few days was taken—students, visitors, teachers, and even a man from a shop on the first floor who’d gone up one afternoon for tea. 

This stuff has more or less become the mood music of Turkish politics, so familiar that it barely warrants a mention in the press. Every month, more people are arrested – academics, politicians, journalists, political activists, students – all on terrorism charges relating to one or other of the mass trials currently taking place.
What’s really depressing is the standard of the debate surrounding these arrests. There is powerful pressure not to make a fuss about them, coming both from the government, the pro-government media, and some who style themselves as liberals.I’ll run you through some of the arguments commonly employed – all, in my opinion, execrable.1) The arrests are not political, they are about terrorism. We are constantly reminded of this by the government and its supportive media. The term ‘terrorism’ is a pretty useful weapon in the lexicon of the powerful: a scary and serious word the mere utterance of which should immediately silence any kind of critical debate on whatever topic it happens to have cropped up in. This is particularly the case in Turkey.

2) There must be strong evidence that they’ve done something wrong, or why would they have been arrested? This is the most hilariously naive argument of the lot, and all the more so because Turkey is a country in which mistrust of state institutions is generally so deeply ingrained.
Occasionally, the police seize someone who is both well known, and obviously not a terrorist: the investigative journalists Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener, for example, or in the case of these latest arrests, Professor Busra Ersanli and the publisher Ragip Zarakolu. Then, just about, people sit up and start to take notice, but for this to happen, the arrests have to reach a truly astronomical level of absurdity.
Sik and Sener- detained on terrorism charges related to the Ergenekon network- had spent their careers fighting and exposing the kind of ultranationalist conspiracies in which they are now accused of complicity. Busra Ersanli, a 61-year-old academic, accused of conspiring with the Kurdish separatist PKK, is not even Kurdish. In both these example, journalists often knew these people and so were personally shocked by the arrests.
In these circumstances, the first two arguments are not quite enough, and the debate enters an even more depressing phase:
3) Let’s just sit back and trust our phenomenal judiciary to puzzle it all out. No matter how absurd the case appears, we are supposed to reserve judgement, and ideally not even discuss it while the infallible judicial process takes its course. The government particularly likes doing this, harping on about the separation of powers and rule of law whenever it’s getting heat for some dodgy arrest or other. When it suits them, Turkey’s leaders can be heroic in their refusal to cross the sacred line between government and courts.
Of course, it’s boring to wait several years for defendants to be convicted or acquitted. Concerned citizens may, if they so wish, fill the time with other milder forms of criticism that are more or less OK. These include complaining about the length of the judicial process, or of pre-trial detention. Work away, by all means – just don’t call the arrests themselves into question.
4) OK, there may be problems, but look how much better things are than in the past.This is the most subtle, and the most often encountered of the arguments put forward by those exhorting us to silence. I’m sure we can all agree it’s a good thing that prisoners are no longer routinely tortured in custody, as in the 1990s – but is it really enough? In some ways I can understand where they are coming from. Many of the AKP’s opponents seek to make these cases part of a disastrous, green-tinted slide into autocracy from the sunny uplands of the secular past. Obviously this is wrong, but you can only give the AKP credit for the progress they’ve made for so long, and for me at least, this point is wearing very, very thin.What’s interesting about all these arguments (which are frequently put out for foreign consumption), is that few of them attempt to justify the arrests themselves. The lack of evidence in many of the more flagrant these cases makes it hard to do. These are primarily arguments against discussing the cases. And when people start routinely saying ‘let’s just not talk about this please’, it’s when you know something’s up.
I feel very sorry for the some of these people who have been arrested, as well as their families, who must feel like they’re staring (either literally or metaphorically) at a brick wall.
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