Will he still see the world?

“We fell in love as teenagers and set out to explore the world. Last month we met again in a courtroom. I was in the audience. He was charged and now risks spending the rest of his life in prison.” Helje Solberg, News Director at NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Cooperation) and former Vice President of World Editors Forum (WEF) on why she is sharing this very personal story now.

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor | July 12, 2019

Together with 15 other community leaders in Turkey, Hakan Altinay is accused of planning to overthrow the government by force and now risks spending the rest of his life in prison.

It is a dramatic and highly politicized trial that is taking place in Silivri, an hour and a half drive from Istanbul.



IMAGE: WARM GREETINGS: I meet Hakan and the family just before the trial against him begins. Here I meet his partner Hande Yalnizoğlu. To the right is Hakan and to the left is my sister-in-law, Anne Beate Hovind, who has also known Hakan for many years. PHOTO: GUNNAR STAVRUM / NETTAVISEN.

The massive courtroom is connected to one of Europe’s largest maximum security prisons, a concrete institutional complex surrounded by high walls and wire fences. Mass murderers and rapists sit here, but also critics of the Turkish regime.

I met Hakan when we were exchange students in the United States 35 years ago. We lived together as students. He travelled to Norway and studied Norwegian and social anthropology. Hakan was highly curious, a quick learner of Norwegian, and he adapted to local customs that involved both berry picking and eating moose stew.

FriendshipFriendshipHakan and I met as AFS-exchange students in the United States 35 years ago. Now he risks being imprisoned for life. Here we are at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, where we both were students 30 years ago. PHOTO: ANNE BEATE HOVIND

Later we moved to Istanbul, where we studied international relations and political science. We have travelled together in the US, Scandinavia and through large parts of Turkey. We came to know each other’s families.

I travelled to Istanbul to attend the trial as a friend, not as a reporter. I am not a neutral observer, but I have come to the conclusion that what is happening in Silivri is of great importance and the world needs to know about it.

This is why I am writing this personal narrative.

Gezi Park

I am deeply disturbed when I see Hakan surrounded by a large number of heavily armed police and military. It seems surreal that he risks life imprisonment for something that is quite normal in any democracy. The charge is linked to what started as peaceful protests in the Gezi Park in May 2013.

Gezi Park ProtestsGezi Park ProtestsAfter the protests in 2013, Turks continued to protest against Erdoğan. PHOTO: ALAN HILDITCH republished under Creative Commons 2.0 licence.

The park is a rare green oasis in the middle of the metropolis Istanbul. The government’s plans to destroy the park in order to build a shopping mall aroused enormous public engagement. The protests spread rapidly to more than 80 cities in Turkey and eventually involved a variety of issues from legislation about alcohol and the civil war in Syria to more fundamental criticisms of the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, also referred to as Turkey’s new sultan. Seven people lost their lives in these riots, and thousands were seriously injured.

OasisOasisThe Gezi Park is a beautiful and popular green area near the well-known Taksim Square in the middle of the city of Istanbul. This picture is from June this year. PHOTO: ANNE BEATE HOVIND

“A case without evidence”

The prosecutor views the protests that began in Istanbul as having been a conspiracy to destroy the Turkish state. “None of these actions were coincidental,” if we believe the 657-page indictment. The accused have allegedly financed and organized the demonstrations. The aim is supposed to have been “to bring the Turkish Republic to its knees” and “to carry out an armed insurrection».

The prosecutor’s claim is from 600 to 3000 years in prison for the accused. The most well-known of them, Osman Kavala, a businessman and philanthropist, was arrested in November 2017. He was in detention for more than a year without knowing what he was charged with. Hakan, who is director of The European School of Politics in Istanbul, was arrested just over a year later. He spent 36 hours in prison before he was released, but received an indictment involving life imprisonment without appeal. One of the most prominent figures in Turkish media, Can Dundar, is also among the defendants. The former editor-in-chief of Turkeys oldest newspaper, Cumhuriyet, has lived in exile in Germany since 2016.

The trial is of great international interest. Legal observers, politicians and diplomats from a number of countries, and human rights organizations such as Human Rights WatchAmnesty International and PEN follow the case closely.

Heavily armedHeavily armedThere are armed police everywhere, both inside and outside the courtroom. They are guarding hundreds of friends, family members, international observers, politicians, journalists, and lawyers attending the trial. PHOTO: GUNNAR STAVRUM / NETTAVISEN

They agree that the charges are unfounded, and the case is referred to as “a case without evidence.”

Last week the EU criticized the portrayal of the Gezi protests as a foreign plot, and is of the opinion that this contributes to a climate of fear. “The charges against the 16 are an absurd document without a legal basis,” says Mark Ellis, CEO of the International Bar Association (IBA) to Advokatbladet. This week the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights stated that “Turkey must take urgent and necessary measures to re-establish trust in its judiciary and repair the damage inflicted on the rule of law.”

The case appears contrived, like so many court cases in Turkey today.

One of Europe's largest prisonsOne of Europe's largest prisonsThe Silivri Prison is a huge complex, one and a half hours drive outside Istanbul. It has the capacity to accommodate up to 17,000 prisoners. The country’s most dangerous criminals, but also many political prisoners such as journalists, writers, academics and lawyers are held in jail here. PHOTO: WIKIPEDIA

Popular protest

I arrive early at the courthouse on the first day of the trial. Anxiety hits me seriously when I see a large group of police marching in step through the wide prison gate. They have dark sunglasses and helmets, knee pads and bulletproof vests.

I sit at the tea house just over a hundred meters away when Hakan, his family and several of the other defendants arrive. We embrace each other. He jokes about the charge. He appears energetic and vital, even though his life is on hold and he is affected by the brutal reality.

It is important to stick to a normality, even when the unthinkable happens.

“We can do nothing but tell the truth, in good and bad days,” says Hakan about what he describes as “a completely unreal situation.”

Each of us has grown up in respective European countries. Hakan and I are both engaged in social and political issues. He faces a long prison sentence for activities that I take for granted. The right to express oneself freely and to peaceful assembly are under attack in Turkey today. I run no risk for my involvement as a Norwegian citizen, journalist and editor.

Politicians and urban developers in Norway do not only allow, but also want the involvement of citizens in planning for how to use our shared property, not least with respect to public spaces and parks. We are invited to take part in the public debate about the design and use of these areas.

Hakan’s experiences are different. In Istanbul, his and others’ support for the trees in the Gezi Park was met with resistance, tear gas, water cannons, anti-terrorist investigations, surveillance and now legal proceedings.



















A Turkish soldier monitors the area where the courtroom is located. PHOTO: HELJE SOLBERG / NRK

Community Builders

The 16 defendants are community builders in Turkey. The group consists of academics, lawyers, architects, urbanists, writers, journalists, artists and actors. Kavala, accused of being the mastermind, has spent much of his life being a bridge builder between minorities such as Armenians and Kurds, and the rest of the Turkish community.

Hakan, also a man of dialogue, has sought what unites and collects, not divides. As long as I can remember, he has been concerned with bringing Turkey closer to Europe.

He admires the social democracies in the Nordic countries. He has been a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, affiliated with Yale University and a director of the Open Society Foundation in Turkey. These institutions are all concerned with the development of democracy. After graduating and several years in the United States, he decided to return to teach and make a contribution to a better community in his home country.

Popular resistancePopular resistance
The protests began in late May 2013. Within a few days there were demonstrations all over the country. Thousands of protesters were arrested. The government has forcefully suppressed the opposition and responded with increased control of the press and the courts. Here a demonstrator protests in f Taksim Square in June 2013. PHOTO: BARIS KARADENIZ published under Creative Commons 2.0 licence

Turkey needs people like Hakan and the other defendants, but the recent development in the country has been critical. Following the failed coup attempt in the summer of 2016, the persecutions, purges and mass arrests of intellectuals, academics, teachers, journalists, artists, judges and lawyers have increased in intensity. Both the judiciary and the media are under strong political pressure. The free and independent press is virtually paralyzed.

Turkey is among the countries in the world that have the most journalists in prison. Reporters Without Borders ranks Norway on top and Turkey as number 157 on its World Press Freedom Index, where Turkmenistan is on last place (180).

Tens of thousands of Turks have been put behind bars in recent years. Many of their cases have been brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg.

I will never see the world again” is title of the most recent book of the well-known Turkish writer Ahmet Altan. He is imprisoned for life in just the Silivri prison. The book, which is not published in Turkey, is a deeply poignant and poetic story of deprivation of liberty. The outspoken editor was arrested three years ago. Like the 16 defendants, Altan is engaged in the development of his country and relationship with the rest of Europe.

Large prisonLarge prison

It is prohibited to bring a camera or mobile phone into the courthouse. Many follow the high-profile trial. PHOTO: WIKIPEDIA

Detention and seriousness

The courtroom in Silivri is the size of a large sports hall. I sit surrounded by family and friends in the first row in the back section of the court room. Close by is the mother of a 14-year-old boy who died after being shot with tear gas in connection with the demonstrations in the Gezi Park.

About 150 lawyers, clothed in their distinctive red, black and green robes, are present to show their support for the defendants. They sit on one long side, while diplomats, politicians, international observers and journalists sit on the opposite side. On an elevated podium at the front are the prosecutor and the three judges.

The two prisoners who are held in detention, Osman Kavala and Yiğit Aksakoğlu, are brought into court through an underground tunnel from the prison, where they have been held in isolation for 20 and 7 months respectively. During the two days of the trial, all the defendants – the nine who are in Turkey and do not live in exile – provide their testimonies. Their statements are held without interruptions or questions. Some last nearly two hours, others are much shorter. “Throughout my entire life, I have never ever sympathized with the idea of change of power through methods other than free elections,” Kavala says.

Will they see the world again?

On day two, the well-known defense attorneys for the two in custody attack both the charge and what they believe is a lack of grounds for detention. The demand for release is agreed to only for Aksakoğlu.

The atmosphere is tense. Much is at stake. Relatives hold each other and weep openly. The public breaks out in warm, standing applause and waves every time the defendants are brought in and out of the courtroom.

This case is about ordinary people’s lives and community engagement, Turkey’s future and the state of law. And it is about Hakan and the other defendants who are in danger of never seeing the world again.

It is crucial that the international community becomes engaged in the development of Turkey. A strong rule of law and a free press are a prerequisite for a well-functioning democracy.

Norway and Turkey are bound by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The Convention is enforced by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) together with the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. The decisions are binding on the Member States of the Council of Europe. The main rule is that all domestic complaints options must be exhausted before a possible complaint can be heard by the Court. But when legal proceedings in Turkey do not work and fundamental democratic human rights are violated, the only hope for many Turks is that Europe responds, not least by exercising political pressure.

Raising attentionRaising attention
The trial raises great international interest. Legal observers, politicians and diplomats from numerous countries, and human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and PEN follow the case closely. PHOTO: HELJE SOLBERG / NRK

The mother

At the end of my stay in Istanbul, I visit Hakan and his partner at their home in one of the beautiful and more rural districts north of the Bosphorus Strait. We stroll through the university campus where we both studied, and where he now teaches political science. Then we walk on to visit his mother, who lives in a residence for elderly people not far away. She serves Turkish cakes and we buy tea at the cafe in the local park.

We talk about the first time we met. I was 18 years old and was on an interrail trip to Istanbul to meet her son. She was a mother of two and 42 years old, ten years younger than I am today. The tone is light and free, but just below the surface lies despair. The mother chose not to attend the trial. I ask her how she is, and she answers: “We all pretend we are well and pray to God.”

As I travel home to safe and secure Norway, the trial of the 16 continues, with new court hearings scheduled for July 18 and 19.

Everyone I’ve talked to says the same: The outcome – and the duration of this case – is completely open.

This article was first published in Norwegian on July 7. It can be republished with appropriate credits.

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

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