by Abdullah Bozkurt
Among all the 250 journalists who are currently languishing behind bars in Turkey under abusive conditions in which torture and ill-treatment are widely practiced, one case hits particularly close to home as I can relate to a journalist who has been locked up for 577 days without having been convicted of a crime.
His name is İbrahim Karayeğen, a 53-year-old veteran journalist who worked for 27 years in various positions in the industry. His last job was that of night-shift editor at the Zaman newspaper, once the highest circulating daily in Turkey with 1.2 million copies sold at its peak. He was detained at Istanbul Ataturk Airport on July 17, 2016, two days after a failed coup in Turkey, when he was about to leave for a vacation, long overdue for a man who worked the graveyard shift for almost 10 years. Nobody heard what had happened to him until he was finally brought to court for his arraignment on July 24, 2016, when a judge ruled for his formal arrest.
His story was going through my mind when I finally decided to leave my beloved country on July 27, 2016 from the same airport when dozens of journalists were rounded up only a day before by the government on trumped-up terrorism and coup plotting charges. I knew the risk that I could face a fate similar to that of Karayeğen and could have very well been detained on the spot at the airport, dragged into custody and later thrown in jail, where I would be tortured for what I had written in criticism of the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. I’ll never forget the day I said farewell to my wife and kids in my hometown before taking the bus to Istanbul on July 26 for a flight the next day. My wife and I knew that moment would be the last encounter we would enjoy and tried to not reveal what we had been going through to the children.
I guess I was one of the lucky few who managed to get out in the nick of the time, and to my surprise I was allowed to go through immigration to wait at the gate for the arrival of the Lufthansa flight. Even while I was sitting in my seat on the airplane I was not relaxed as I was taking frequent peeks out the narrow window to see whether there was any unusual activity on the tarmac. I could have been red flagged in the system, and police could have realized their mistake and rushed to the plane to take me away before takeoff. It is not easy to describe the emotions I was experiencing and the liberating feelings of joy I felt when the plane finally landed in Frankfurt for a connecting flight to Stockholm.
Therefore, every time I read a new piece of information about the case of journalist Karayeğen, I’d be struck with mixed feelings of guilt, sadness and fear as well as joy and happiness. I knew I had left so many of my friends and colleagues behind. My exiled colleagues and I launched the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) specifically for the purpose of raising the awareness of the world audience about these many cases, providing a platform for silenced voices and telling the victims that they had not been forgotten. We can keep writing and speaking up about their plight, increase pressure on the Turkish government and create a record for history to ensure accountability in the event the rule of law returns to Turkey.
I knew Karayeğen from my days in Istanbul in 2008, when I used to stay late at the newspaper on Friday night to prepare the Sunday edition of the English-language Today’s Zaman daily or occasionally to finish one of the supplements we published on various subjects. I was the executive editor for the English edition, and he was the night shift editor for the Turkish edition. We were on the same floor but in separate sections, and our job descriptions were completely different. But I remember seeing him over coffee or tea on breaks. In Turkish dailies, the position of night-shift editor is not an attractive one, and most journalists do not want to do it. Although it does not have any real responsibilities other than fine tuning the early edition in layout and proof reading, Karayeğen did seem to enjoy his job. He entered breaking news into the paper only after the clearing by and approval of the editor-in-chief or managing editors over the phone.
This humble, gentle and down-to-earth man had been tortured for days during detention and locked up in solitary confinement in prison for over six months, another form of torture. His own testimony as well as medical reports clearly show the torture and ill-treatment of the journalist. The documents in his case file also reveal how doctors were pressured to cover up evidence of torture. For example, during a health screening at Dr. Sadi Konuk Teaching and Research Hospital (Dr. Sadi Konuk Eğitim ve Araştırma Hastanesi) in Bakırköy on July 19, 2016 at 15:55, a doctor provided a clean bill of health for him. Report No.190720 stated that he was suffering no physical or psychological pain, with no evidence of any abuse on his body. The report claimed Karayeğen said he was detained on July 19. It is clear that the report was doctored, and even the date of detention was entered incorrectly in the file.
How do we know? Well, another medical report filed by the Justice Ministry’s Forensic Medical Unit dated July 20, 2016 at 20:54 (less than a day since the first medical report) showed that Karayeğen told the doctor how he faced torture in police custody. According to the report, sent to the public prosecutor’s office, the journalist described how he was punched and kicked while handcuffed from behind. He said he also faced vulgar language. Karayeğen explained how he suffered from pain around the rib cage on the left side of his chest as well as sacral pain, which is consistent with beatings. The fact that he noted how he had difficulty in sitting due to the sacral pain he suffered may even suggest abuse beyond kicking and beating. This statement, entered into report No.1106, provides a chilling account and raises other possibilities given the fact that there have been numerous reports from torture cases since 2016 that showed police even sodomized and raped victims in custody.
Karayeğen was examined again on July 21, 2016 at 13:42 as part of the routine to extend his detention. According to medical report No.1224, he complained about continuing “physical violence and ill-treatment” and said he received punches and kicks. He noted he had difficulty lying down and sitting and reported pain in his left chest while breathing and in his sacrum. He went through another checkup on the same day at 17:25. The journalist repeated earlier complaints and said the pain had increased because after the morning examination, he faced another round of abuse and ill treatment. This was recorded in report No.1267, and a copy was forwarded to the prosecutor’s office.
Despite a paper trail from public hospitals documenting torture and ill-treatment under police custody even with the pressure on doctors to hush up any evidence of abuse, the prosecutor’s office has not initiated any investigation into these claims. His attorney, Adem Ölmez, later told his colleagues how he was shocked to see traces of the horror and terrible ordeal Karayeğen went through in his face on July 24, 2016, when he went to defend himself during the arraignment hearing at the Istanbul 2nd Criminal Court of Peace, which ruled for his formal arrest. Karayeğen almost passed out during the brief hearing, apparently from ill-treatment and the pain he was still suffering. His lawyer was later arrested as well, leaving him without an access to legal representation. All three attorneys who worked for the newspaper and were involved in his case had to drop their clients when the government went after the lawyers as well. As of today, close to 600 lawyers have been formally arrested and placed in pretrial detention in Turkey, showing the depth and extent of the crackdown on the right to access to a lawyer and to a defense.
When Karayeğen was finally brought to the first hearing at the İstanbul 13th High Criminal Court on Sept. 18, 2017 after spending 430 days in pretrial detention, he talked about the torture and abuse in detention that he was only partially able to put on the record in medical reports. “I was interrogated by police in dark corners of the building where there were no cameras,” he said, describing the treatment he faced as “shameful.” He explained how terrifying an experience he had endured for days when he had never in his entire life been taken into custody or questioned by a prosecutor on any issue.
Karayeğen was formally charged nine months later when public prosecutor Ismet Bozkurt filed the indictment on April 10, 2017 naming him and 30 other journalists in Turkey’s largest press freedom case. For a long time he had no idea of what the charges were or what evidence, if any, the government had against him. The indictment did nothing to ease that uncertainty, either, except that the prosecutor was demanding three consecutive life sentences plus an additional 15 years on terrorism and coup plotting charges. I read the indictment and found not a single paragraph or sentence about Karayeğen, who was first mentioned as suspect number 10 in the initial pages with details on his identity, residence, age, etc. The second time the prosecutor mentions his name is toward the end of the indictment, where he and several others are listed as columnists for Zaman.
There was no single piece of evidence mentioned in the indictment that linked him to terrorism or coup plotting. The only assertion was that he wrote critically of the government in the newspaper, when even that was untrue. Karayeğen, who worked as the night-shift editor, was not a columnist for the paper and has never written any op-ed pieces. While defending himself in court at a hearing held Sept. 18, 2017, Karayeğen said his case would make history in legal textbooks because there was nothing in the indictment against him. Other journalists were mentioned along with their published works, while he was falsely listed as an op-ed writer for the newspaper. “Now you are going to try me on coup plotting charges with an indictment written by a prosecutor who did not even know what I did at the newspaper and who did not write a single sentence in the indictment explaining what my crime was,” the journalist said in his defense statement.
The prosecutor later filed additional briefs listing all kinds of absurd allegations against him. One piece of evidence was his possession of a dollar bill that the government claimed was evidence of coup plotting because it allegedly served as a secret communication tool among members of the Gülen movement. The journalist said he was going on vacation and that it was only natural for him to have some cash in dollars and other foreign currencies. The US Federal Reserve reported $11.7 billion in one-dollar bills in all letter series in circulation as of 2016 and plans to issue $2.4 billion in 2017. That means millions, if not billions, of people carry dollar bills and are considered to be suspects in a coup in Turkey.
Another charge the prosecutor raised was that he was fleeing Turkey because he had a ticket and was detained at the airport. The journalist said he had every right to travel on his passport and that he did not face any travel ban nor outstanding warrant at the time. If the prosecutor’s allegations are taken at face value, anybody who was exercising his/her right to travel at the Istanbul airport at the time of his detention would be considered a suspect and should have been detained as well. The prosecutor also cited deposits made by the journalist to the accounts of his children in Bank Asya as criminal evidence. Karayeğen explained that he sold his house in 2014 and deposited some of the proceeds in equal amounts to his children’s accounts to cover their tuition and educational expenses. The bank registry clearly indicated the accounts were opened for his children; yet, the court did not take the registry into account, either.
Despite the lack of evidence of any crime and repeated challenges to his pretrial detention, he was kept in prison. Although he had spent over six months in solitary confinement, which is a form of torture in itself, no investigation was launched into his claims of abuse and ill treatment. His suffering worsened when the prosecutor arrested his daughter in August 2017 on fabricated charges. The government even seized his car when the police stopped the vehicle the family drove to visit Karayeğen in Silivri Prison. They had to take a bus to get back home. Very few people have paid attention to this journalist’s terrible saga because of the prominence of other people in the same case file such as Şahin Alpay, Ahmet Turan Alkanö, Ali Bulaç, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, Lalezar Sarıibrahimoğlu and others.
For me, his case is quite personal as it serves as a stark reminder of how my life would have been if I had been detained at the same airport in July 2016. I sincerely hope and wish from the bottom of my heart that he will be released and acquitted of all these farcical charges one day and join his family again. I regret not making the best of my time in Istanbul back in 2008 when I had the chance to get better acquainted with him. He has been and will be in my thoughts and prayers.