We have been covering the detention of Steve Kaczynski in Turkey since he was arrested on April 1st. We have been part of the campaign to get his release (republicancommunist.org/blog/2015/08/07/free-steve-kaczynski/). Steve was freed on September 18th. This article has been written by Steve and describes his experience and the current political situation in Turkey.
MY IMPRISONMENT IN TURKEY
I was in Istanbul, Turkey to help prepare an international symposium against imperialism due to take place in the middle of April. At the end of February I had travelled to Beirut, Lebanon where a similar symposium had been held.
On March 31 two DHKP-C (Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front) fighters got inside the Istanbul/Caglayan “Palace of Justice” (reputedly the largest court building in Europe) and took a prosecutor hostage. The police laid siege and that evening the two DHKP-C fighters and the prosecutor were killed.
On April 1 I moved from another location and went to the Idil Culture Centre in Okmeydani. Early the next morning armed police raided it and I and four other people present in the building were detained. We were kicked around (at one point a policeman was standing on my head) and handcuffed, then hauled away to the Vatan (Fatherland) Security Department. Other people arrested at other locations at the same time were also there. There was a certain amount of verbal abuse.
Although the police had confiscated my UK passport, they at first seemed to think I was German, probably because I was overheard speaking in German to another detainee who, though Turkish, had been born in Germany. Police demanded that people remove their shoes. I noticed others resisting this and so I did the same. I was hurled to the ground and my shoes forcibly removed. Later people were taken to have their fingerprints taken. They resisted, so I did too and was again roughed up, held down and my fingerprints taken forcibly. Prior to this we were taken to hospital to give the impression we had not been tortured, but like so many things in Turkey this is just for show. I mentioned to the doctor I had been beaten up and indeed had some bruising on the side of my head, but he was not interested.
Although I had no access to the media I was able to talk to a lawyer who said that the media, especially the more pro-government parts of it, were going to town about the “British/German/Polish agent”. They were undoubtedly being fed stuff by the police. One daily newspaper, “Akit”, entranced by my Polish name, was claiming I was Jewish (anti-Semitism and related conspiracy theories are popular in Turkey) and it was also being claimed in some sections of the media that I had travelled from abroad to give the “order” for the Caglayan hostage situation.
On April 4 we were brought to court in Caglayan. Most of us were released but after being grilled by a prosecutor who seemed mainly interested in how often I had visited Turkey, I was brought before a judge and an imprisonment order was issued – I was charged with membership of the DHKP-C. I was told I would be held in prison until I appeared before a court but it was not yet known when that hearing would take place. Plain-clothes police took me to Maltepe L-3 prison on the Asian side of Istanbul, where I was to spend nearly five months.
This prison specialises in holding foreigners. A high proportion were Syrians (a by-product of the war and refugee crisis in that country) but after the first few days in a “quarantine dormitory” I had little contact with other prisoners as I was moved to an isolation block of five cells. At the time of my arrival there was just one other prisoner on the block, an Iranian Kurd named Hossein, arrested in Semdinli near Turkey’s border with Iraq in 2012 and charged with being a guerrilla of the HPG (Hezen Parastina Gel, “People’s Defence Forces”, the armed wing of the PKK). We became friendly but association was limited – the five cells were on the ground floor and shared a common exercise area, but you had to ring a bell and guards would let you into the exercise area for an hour. In my first month or two it was one hour, later it was one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon. Only one prisoner could be in the exercise area at any time, though it was possible to go up to the windows of other prisoners and chat.
In May a Georgian prisoner (non-political) was added to the block. In the first month or so I was thoroughly cut off from the outside world, other than a visit from a lawyer on April 9, but in the middle of May I began receiving letters. Books and magazines started to be sent by well-wishers, but as early as May 20 the prison administration announced to me by letter that a book sent to me was not to be given to me because it was deemed harmful, and this began to be applied to other books and magazines, although I was told I had a right to appeal against these decisions.
By the latter part of June, I was becoming severely annoyed with these petty restrictions and my continued imprisonment in isolation conditions, and on June 25 I began a hunger strike in protest. I specifically cited the withholding of books and magazines as the reason for the hunger strike. I accepted lemons to make lemon juice with, and on the advice of my lawyers and the prison doctor I also took vitamin B pills. These are common practices in prison hunger strikes in Turkey, some of which have been very prolonged indeed, and the vitamin B protects against damage to brain functions. Also I was hopeful of being released within a few months or before the end of the year at the latest and so did not conceive of my hunger strike as a fight to the death but as a protest, and this also influenced me to accept some vitamin intake.
Prison guards continued to offer food and especially on Wednesdays I would be brought before the prison governor and a few flunkies and harangued, “Why are you on hunger strike? Think of your health! Your family will be worried about you” etc. At other times I would be told that hunger striking was a disciplinary offence and was I aware that “the terror organisation DHKP-C” was using my hunger strike for propaganda purposes? I said I did not know and I was largely cut off from news of the outside world anyway. Basically this was a kind of psychological torture. I learned from my lawyers that on a number of occasions people held sit-down protests outside the British consulate in Istanbul. They would typically be attacked by the police and detained.
My brother Brian tried to visit in early July but there was some kind of bureaucratic hurdle and he was not allowed to see me. Later on that month he was able to. In the course of my imprisonment an official of the British consulate visited on three occasions. He was helpful in the early weeks in making contact with my family but I wouldn’t say he or the consulate made extraordinary efforts on my behalf. He told me they could not interfere in a foreign country’s legal processes, but I suspect that if I had been jailed by a state that was not a NATO member and Western ally such inhibitions might have been less strongly felt. I also wonder whether the “terrorist” label was a factor in making them keep their distance.
On July 9 Hossein was moved to a dormitory. The guards had noticed we were quite friendly and that was probably why they moved him. Towards the end of July, after the Suruc massacre on the border with Syria, they moved the alleged head of the Islamic State in the Istanbul area into the neighbouring cell. I spoke to him and found it gave me quite an insight into the jihadi mind. He came from Daghestan in the eastern Caucasus and could only speak Russian. Presumably the prison authorities viewed us both as “foreign terrorists” and for this reason put us in neighbouring cells, although the ideological gulf between us was vast.
After a vague hint that my conditions would be improved, I paused my hunger strike on August 10, but then the prison authorities started withholding letters as well as books and magazines so I resumed the strike on August 17. A few days later I was brought in for the usual harangue about my hunger strike but received one piece of welcome news – the indictment against me was about to be issued. This was welcome, because in Turkey you generally make a first court appearance a few weeks to a month after the indictment is issued, and my lawyers were reasonably confident I would be released and probably deported after the court appearance. So potentially the end of my imprisonment was in sight.
On the morning of August 25 I was suddenly told to collect my things and was moved from Maltepe to Silivri Closed Prison. A guard said “Silivri is much better suited to you” – so it seems Maltepe had found me too much to handle. Although Silivri is still in Istanbul the journey took over three hours – Greater Istanbul is about the same size as the Scottish Central Belt, though with a much bigger population, and the roads and traffic conditions are worse. A young man charged with PKK membership was put in the vehicle after it stopped at another prison. He was quite ill, vomiting several times during the journey.
In Silivri I was held for a few days alone in a temporary dormitory, then I was put in an isolation cell that was larger than the Maltepe one and which had a small exercise area but which was more completely cut off from other prisoners than the one there had been. I was still on hunger strike as conditions seemed if anything worse than Maltepe. On August 28 a lawyer visited me and said the indictment had been issued and my court appearance would be on Friday September 18. A little later I was handed the indictment by a prison guard. On September 1 another of my lawyers, Sukriye, came and there was a kind of three-way negotiation between me, her and the prison governor. As a result I ended my hunger strike that evening and the following day I was moved to a three-person cell, with the other two prisoners being Muharrem Cengiz of Grup Yorum and Ahmet Atilgan of the Youth Federation. So for the first time in my imprisonment I was no longer in severe isolation conditions.
We were also able to receive, among others, the pro-Kurdish daily newspaper Ozgur Gundem. During this time there was a pogrom against pro-Kurdish institutions in Turkey. In my last weeks in Maltepe I was able to buy a television and was able to take it to Silivri, so with that and the newspapers I found it much easier to follow the news. Although still a prison and not without repressive aspects, I found the shared cell in Silivri to be a holiday camp compared to Maltepe. But I only experienced it for 16 days because on the 18th I went on trial. One of my fellow defendants, Asaf, was in the same vehicle taking us to court – he was held in another prison at Silivri. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis but had not been released. In the Caglayan court building we waited for a few hours and then were taken upstairs.
The indictment had mentioned me and about 20 other people and most of us were there. The great majority had been out of prison – only myself, Asaf and another young man named Veysel were brought from prison to court. I read out a statement denouncing my arrest and imprisonment and saying that despite everything I would continue my commitment to socialism and internationalism. At the end of the session everyone was released, though not acquitted. (Outright acquittal is rare in Turkey – court cases can go on for years.)
Asaf and Veysel were freed, I was taken back to prison, said goodbye to my cell-mates and then was taken to the security department’s foreigners’ block by plain-clothes police. The foreigners’ block was grossly overcrowded – there were nearly 200 Syrians, Nigerians, Iranians and other nationalities on one office block floor, and the conditions were not far from being like a concentration camp. It reflected the refugee crisis gripping Turkey and indeed European countries.
The police who collected me had not taken my passport with them – it was still held at Silivri Prison and it took a lot of work by Sukriye and my brother to prise it out of them. Finally they were able to and I travelled to London with my brother on Monday September 21. At Heathrow British plain-clothes police came on board and we were questioned under the Terrorism Act 2000 – my brother for about 40 minutes while I was questioned for about two and a half hours. Finally I was released and met by friends at the Arrivals section.
My experiences were typical for the rather broad swathe of society in Turkey who are left-wing/pro-Kurdish and so considered “terrorist” by the state. The only remarkable aspect of my case is that I am not from Turkey – hence the “agent” smears. Inevitably international solidarity can entail risks, especially in an unstable environment, and during 2015 Turkey has become considerably more unstable.