B.D. (Age 45)
“JULY 15, 2016”
They say there are three turning points in one’s life. Birth, marriage, and finally death. For in all three, one enters a significant moment of change. Yet, when the calendars hit the date July 15, 2016, another turning point was added to hundreds of thousands of people’s lives including mine and my family’s. On that day, we experienced a so-called coup attempt, but the real attack came afterwards.
In the early hours of July 16, more than two thousand judges were dismissed. A terrible witch hunt was then launched nationwide, as the government began targeting anyone deemed to be affiliated in some way with the Hizmet Movement which the government accused of planning the military coup. Anyone who had sent their children to government-approved schools that were affiliated with the movement, anyone who deposited money in a bank that was completely legal yet affiliated with Gulen Movement, or even people who had books by certain authors in their homes or who subscribed to dissenting newspapers were first sacked and then imprisoned, sometimes with their babies. Without trial, without indictment, without any reasonable charge.
Right now, fifty thousand people are being held in jail without fair trial. Some have been subjected to torture and rape, while others have been killed while in custody, and there is no platform for them to demand justice. Those who were able to flee the country are trying to survive abroad.
It all started with a terrible polarization of society after the so-called coup attempt. Politics was all that was discussed in family gatherings, during holidays, at weddings, in coffee shops. As this pathological situation spread in waves throughout the society, we heard news of people getting divorced and family members not seeing each other for these reasons.
The president of Turkey encouraged citizens to spy and inform on one another. He even offered rewards for reports, but then abandoned the practice, as it was a huge catastrophe that resulted in hundreds of people taking advantage of the opportunity to reveal their hatred and repressed violence. They began to apply their own methods of justice by reporting people, many of whom they disliked for personal reasons. The police made demands regarding the reliability or rationality of these reports they were receiving.
The jails grew more and more crowded with each passing day. Teachers, lawyers, doctors, journalists, and students – that is, hundreds of thousands of civilians were crammed into prison cells, which had been made vacant by releasing the actual convicts just to make room for the newcomers. Watching all this, we were left with astonishment and anxiety.
“IT ALL HAPPENED ALL OF A SUDDEN, EVERYTHING CHANGED ALL OF A SUDDEN”
I had a good career and a happy family. My husband and I were in the aviation business. We used to provide private jets to distinguished people ranging from CEOs of big holding company to politicians, as well as train students in our private aviation school. Living in our villa in one of the affluent suburbs of Istanbul, we used to enjoy life with our son and adolescent daughter.
Although the escalating tension after 15 July worried us, we were comforted for two reasons. First of all, we had close relationships with many politicians through our business ties, and we believed that they knew us as harmless people! Second, neither I nor my husband had any criminal record whatsoever, not even a minor traffic offense. And surprisingly, back then we could not see that the people arrested were just as innocent as we thought ourselves to be.
On July 1, 2016, we had travelled to the US for the Eid holiday and stayed there for ten days. We left our two kids there to help them improve their English speaking skills. It happened just a few days later. I will never be able to wipe away the memory of that Friday evening. I had just gotten off of work and was enjoying the evening in my backyard sipping my coffee and puffing on my cigarette. All of a sudden I was startled by the sounds of jets coming in low, screeching over the Istanbul sky. I was scared because I was alone at home. My husband was still not back from work. And just like 99.9% of the people living in Istanbul – or Turkey, for that matter – I had no clue as to what was happening.
I will never be able to understand what actually happened that night, just like I will never understand what happened in the days that followed. First, they arrested my brother-in-law, who used to work with us in our company, during a road block inspection, and sent him directly to prison for months.
A little while later we learned that they had also ordered a detention warrant for my husband. They presented neither a real reason nor a reasonable charge, yet they came to our door anyways to ruin our lives. My husband decided to go abroad since he did not want to be tried by a jurisdiction that was hardly independent in a country under a so-called state of emergency where there was no implementation of law. He was lucky, because unlike many others who have attempted to settle in another country because they had been deprived of the right to live or work, and were not even able to make sense of why they are detained at the airport, my husband took his private jet and left his homeland. Nevertheless this was not an easy decision to make.
I was totally left alone when he was gone. Both at work and at home. I didn’t even have the chance to feel sad about this, for 10 policemen raided our house one morning. They searched every single corner of my house without letting me ask why. They confiscated all of our electronics including our computers, phones, cameras, and even my children’s iPads, which they used to play games on. They even took away forever the machines that had nothing on them except our personal memories. We lost all our memories that day!
I was unhappy. I was going back and forth to work, and living like a robot. I did not smile, except during the moments I was able to Facetime with my husband and kids. I was anxiously waiting for the day when everything would be reset back to normal again. But two weeks later, 3 policemen knocked on my door again very early in the morning. That day I learned the charges behind my husband’s search warrant. A writer named Haydar Meriç had been murdered and for no obvious reason or connection they were looking for my husband in connection with that case. Like me, this was the first time my husband had heard this name.
I was overworking myself so that I could cope with these difficult days of my life. I was working stubbornly hard as if nothing happened. I was thinking that I could overcome my loneliness by working so much, and I was not planning to slow down until I put my scattered family back together. Unfortunately the authorities were not going to allow that to happen.
On September 26, a huge group of policemen raided our company’s office. They asked me to evacuate the premises and hand my company over to them within the hour. When I asked for a written search warrant and the reason for the evacuation, they threatened me. I had no other choice than to follow their orders. We were kicked out of the office building. I stood with a hundred personnel of mine, as we helplessly watched them slam shut before our eyes the doors of our source of income.
Yet as a citizen who still wants to believe in the justice system I was determined to correct this unlawful treatment. And so I continued to submit dozens of petitions the following week in order to learn what the problem was. The result was negative. There was neither a reason, nor a hope for the possibility of even learning if there was any.
We were in a scary trap. There was a smear campaign against our company all over the media, and one by one the lawyers whom we offered to pay armloads of money were refusing to work with us. It was hard to believe, but I could not even find a lawyer to defend us.
“THEY ARE PUTTİNG HANDCUFFS ON ME”
I was arrested when I went to give Power of Attorney in a notary office. As soon as the notary entered my ID number into their system, the information was sent to the police and a police team was dispatched to my location to arrest me. The notary officer approached me and said that I should flee because a police team is coming for me. But I was not going to escape like a criminal; I was going to deliver myself to the judiciary. I still wanted to believe that there was a free and independent justice system in Turkey. I was not afraid, telling myself, “Let it happen, whatever it may be!”
Until that day I had only seen handcuffs in movies. When I felt those cold iron bracelets on my wrists, I used my right to call a lawyer. More accurately my lawyers. One, two, three, four – they all refused to respond to my phone call except a few new lawyers. As they were afraid of becoming targets themselves, they only accepted whatsApp calls.
I had been encountering many firsts in my life recently, and that day I passed through the door of a police station for the first time. In the following 4 to 5 hours I kept watching the walls of the detention room. The new lawyer who I was able to find spent a mere ten minutes explaining to me why I was being detained: I was being charged with being a member of a terrorist organization, financially supporting a terrorist organization, and laundering illicit money. I could only smile at these charges. Normally I would have lost my mind, but when there is no logical explanation to be made, all that is left is humor. Yes, I was smiling. How were they able to make a criminal out of an ordinary business woman and a mother?
Later on, as I spent the whole night in the detention room all alone, I understood that there are things in life that you cannot joke about. I also learned how long a night can actually last, and that neither of these things are a laughing matter. I am also a diabetic. I was trying to overcome hypoglycemic attacks with the crackers I had in my bag, all the while unable to stop my constant tears. I tried to fall asleep many times. I wished that everything was just a nightmare. If only I were to sleep, maybe I would wake up in my bed, go to the kitchen to get a glass of water and be grateful that I was in my home. While I was thinking I was going through such a nightmarish ordeal, I was not aware of the hundreds of people who were being tortured under detention.
“I COULDN’T LOOK MY CHILDREN IN THE EYE”
I sat handcuffed on a cold bench for 6 hours in Istanbul’s Kartal Courthouse waiting for the prosecutor to see me. At the end of the the 6 hours, I received the news that he would not see me and that he had ordered the officers to take me to Vatan police headquarters on the complete opposite side of the city.
Shortly before I was arrested, I had brought my dear daughter and son back from America. Even though my husband was forced to leave, we had never intended to abandon our country. This was our home, and we were a part of it as people who were born and raised here. When I saw my daughter and my son in front of me, I wanted to run towards them and embrace them really tight. However, I felt so humiliated before those eyes staring at me as if I were a criminal. I could not even look them in the eye. I was not guilty. I had not committed any crime against my state and my home country, yet it hurt my honor to stand in front of them with my arms handcuffed like a petty criminal, even though I knew they had no doubts about me.
A security director interrogated me for hours. The charges against me were making a money transfer to a school in Brooklyn, and transferring money to a private school in Turkey. I said yes to both accounts; I did make the money transfer to a school in Brooklyn that was accredited by the Ministry of Education, because I sent my children there to learn English. When they returned to Turkey, I enrolled them in a college that was also accredited by the Ministry of Education. And that day they asked me at the office of the public prosecutor, where I was brought handcuffed, about the school tuition of my children.
My husband and I have been to various countries in the world together because of our jobs. They even interrogated me about the Dubai trip my husband took me on by surprise as a birthday gift. They even asked me about the bill of a thermal hotel in Ankara where we stayed because my daughter had wanted to. “Yes!” I said. “I went there. All the ministers in our cabinet were there and they stayed longer than we did.” The questions were really funny at times, and I asked the prosecutor, “Is this why you have arrested me?” My lawyer was so sure that they would correct the mistake they had made that I found myself thinking about what I should cook my kids for dinner that night.
They sent me to a detention center again, saying, “We will inform you soon!” I stayed in this detention center for seven days. I waited to receive news in a tiny room with twelve other people whom I had never met before. They were facing the same charges as I was. We either sat on benches or on a piece of fabric spread over the ground. Seven days went by in a small room with no air, no windows, no clock, no bathroom, with not even a light. Among us there were women who had just delivered a baby or women who were counting the days to their delivery. Their situations were unfortunately much worse than my own.
I was in a horrible state. I would learn much later that some of my friends had to stay for a month in such inhumane conditions in similar detention centers waiting for their court date. Nevertheless, we were in a state of emergency and nobody was following the law.
They finally took me in for more questioning by the end of the 8th day. They continued to ask similar funny questions. I told them everything with patience thinking that they would eventually realize that I was innocent, and that my patience would pay off. I was thinking this way because there was nothing in my entire life that I could not explain. In the end, they sent me back to prison instead of letting me go on the pretext that my husband was abroad.
I still had hope. Perhaps I could explain to the judge that there was nothing to my life other than being an ordinary citizen and a businesswoman.
The judge knew much better than I did that there was not a single truth in the charges they brought against me. I explained this to the judge so many times in so many ways. While I was hoping that somebody would understand me and this whole comedy – or should I say tragedy! – should end already, the judge made his decision and I WAS ARRESTED.