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February 23, 2021 12:24 pm

Turkish Prisons Are Beyond the Pale of Inhumanity

avatar by Alon Ben-Meir


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, shake hands during a news conference, in Moscow, March 5, 2020. Photo: Pavel Golovkin / Pool via Reuters.

Human rights abuses under Turkish despot Recep Tayyip Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence.

The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. This treatment has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring prisoners to the breaking point, often for crimes they have never committed.

Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison, eloquently but painfully described the real purpose of unlawful detentions under a despotic regime: “Prison is designed to break one’s spirit and destroy one’s resolve. To do this, the authorities attempt to exploit every weakness, demolish every initiative, negate all signs of individuality — all with the idea of stamping out that spark that makes each of us human and each of us who we are.”

In the hope of seeing their loved ones, many prisoners try initially to endure the torture but eventually succumb and confess. By that time, they have become nothing but a shell of themselves. According to one story I heard, there was a prisoner who was determined not to confess. After months of torture, he was threatened with the imprisonment of his wife and son if he did not confess. For some weeks, he was torn between confessing to a crime he did not commit, and the fear that his family would soon be apprehended and face a similar fate.

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One morning as a prison guard was making his daily inspection, he was stunned to see this prisoner hanging by his neck from the ceiling. Like others before him, the prisoner found more meaning in his death than in living as a broken man. From the letter he wrote to his wife, smuggled out by that same guard, we know that he decided to commit suicide to prevent the authorities from apprehending his family, and deny the authorities the satisfaction of him confessing.

This case is not an aberration. Over a period of a few months, thousands of prisoners reach this point of hopelessness and despair, not knowing what to expect next, what day of the week it is, or what hour of the day. Many of them are brought daily in shackles for interrogation, largely about their alleged affiliation with the Gülen movement and/or as conspirators behind the 2016 failed military coup. The individuals include judges, teachers, police officers, journalists, and average people.  Incarcerating pregnant women and children in Turkey has also become common.

It is about time for the US and the EU to warn Erdogan that he must cease his gross human rights violations. They must threaten Erdogan with sanctions that will cripple his economy, and take the unprecedented step of kicking Turkey out of NATO. Erdogan must begin by releasing the thousands of detainees, including journalists, who have been incarcerated on bogus charges or no charges at all.

This may well be wishful thinking on my part. But if the West fails to insist that any NATO member state fully adhere to the respect of human rights, and restore the basic pillars of democracy as enshrined in its own charter, NATO becomes shamefully complicit in Erdogan’s crimes against humanity.

Hopefully, Biden will not allow undue political consideration to prevent him from warning Erdogan that these abuses must end. “The world won’t be destroyed by those who do evil,” said Albert Einstein, “but by those who watch them without doing anything.”

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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