Eylül Deniz Yaşar – Istanbul
Kurdish political prisoner Bager Sayak has turned 11 years of incarceration in a Turkish prison into a process of literary expression and began a novel writing project consisting of a three part trilogy.
As he finished the first book of his novel in January, he handed it over to the administration of Hacılar F-Type Prison, a high-security prison located in Turkey’s Kırıkkale city, the administration seized the novel: They have neither returned the manuscript to him nor posted it to his family for nine months, essentially imprisoning the novel as they have the author!
For the last nine months, prisoner Bager has undertaken a legal struggle to “free” his novel and make it available to the outside world.
“Just like Ahmed Arif says, my heart is a deep well of dynamite. A well of dynamite, because I wrote a novel, but the prison administration siezed my book. Of course, this is not the first time of an unfinished book being seized like this. Because we face a certain mindset, which sees books more dangerous than bombs and weapons. Is this all? No! They not only seized my book, but gave me a fifteen-day solitary confinement punishment in a cell as well. Meaning, I am both aggreived and punished. Don’t you think that is absurd?”
These are the words of Bager who shared the news of the abuse he and his novel were subjected to in a letter dated 22 January 2021. Born in Karlıova, a small town in Turkey’s eastern city of Bingöl (Çewlîg in Kurdish), Bager has been in prison since 2010 and now 30 years old. Bager’s story is a story of the struggle of an imprisoned writer, fighting with very few possibilities, to liberate his own novel that has now been incarcerated alongside him.
Medya News was told this extraordinary story of this literary struggle from Bager’s family, lawyers and civil society activists who have been giving him support. Medya News also spoke to the Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP’s) MP for Muş, Gülistan Koçyiğit, who has been closely monitoring such abuses of rights in prisons as a former member of the Turkish parliament’s Committee on Human Rights Inquiry and lawyer Ümit Dede, the vice co-chair of the HDP’s Law and Human Rights Commission and heard from them the possible steps they would take to support Bager.
The struggle for ‘Wise Warriors’
I heard of the struggle of Bager through the Civil Society in the Penal System Association (CISST), to whom he wrote a letter. When we visited Ezgi Yusufoğlu, who has been representing “Prisoners Sentencted to Aggreviated Life in Prison” since 2017 and she summarised Bager’s contact with them as follows: “In January of 2021 a prisoner who was sentenced to aggravated life in prison named Bager Sayak made contact with our association and informed us that the first volume of his three-volume trilogy had been seized by the prison administration as he was trying to have it sent to his family who were going to send it to a publisher.”
Bager in his letter dated 7 July 2021, Wednesday explains further the grounds on which his novel was seized: “The reason they gave me for seizing my book was that it supposedly included statements that ‘enabled members of terrorist and related criminal organisations and members of all other criminal organisations to be able to communicate with each other’.”
The title of Bager’s novel is “Wise Warriors”, and Yusufoğlu further explained the content of the book and the grounds on which it was seized: “Bager Sayak says in his letter addressed to us that his novel is a work of fiction and that it is not based on a real story. However, this literary work was seen by the prison authorities as a communication tool and seized on grounds that it served ‘organisational purposes’. What he asks from us is to help him have his voice reach the wider public and support him to enable him to have his novel be published outside of the prison walls.”
His cell was raided with dogs
Ahmet Sayak, the 23-year-old nephew of Bager, whom I was able to reach with the support of Turkey’s Human Rights Association (IHD), pointed out that his uncle has been suffering from a number of human rights abuses.
“He was supposed to send his novel to us so we could send it to a publisher, but they seized it. My uncle has been imprisoned in a cell for ten years. He was jailed in Erzurum E-Type Prison, until 2016. When they raided his cell and saw the needle and thread he used to sew the pages of his novel, they forcibly transferred him to Kırıkkale F-type Prison as an exile. When he arrived there, his cell was raided a number of times with dogs. This is only one small example among many human rights violations he has and continues to suffer,” he said.
Ahmet explained that members of Bager’s family have been experiencing so many difficulties with visiting him since he was ‘exiled’ in Kırıkkale F-Type Prison —such arbitrary and punitive prison transfers are called sending inmates into “exile” by political prisoners in Turkey— Ahmet said: “Visits have also been also canceled under the excuse of the pandemic. In addition to that, he is always being subjected to disciplinary penalties, which impose restrictions on our visits. Being in separate cities and so far away, we have not been able to visit him for a while now. He didn’t hurt anyone, he didn’t kill anyone. He was punished because he made his defence in Kurdish. This book of course is very important to my uncle, and to us as well, but our main demand is for a fair trial.”
All judges who sentenced him are under investigation for suspected FETO links
Ahmet reminds me that having been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Bager of course has another much more important story related to the wider much more serious violations of his right to a basic fair trial. In order to find out the details of this part of the story I contacted lawyer Muharrem Canayakın, who has been waging the legal struggle demanding Bager’s right to a fair trial.
Canayakın shared with me that “all the judges” who participated in Bager’s original trial have now been suspended from their duties over suspected links to the Gülen movement, which is reffered to as the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETO) by Turkish government authorities since the so called July 15 coup attempt in 2016.
Having applied to a Turkish court in 2020 for the re-trial for his client, Canayakın explained what had happened during the process: “The judges who tried him did not follow the proper legal guidances in relation to court proceedings , they drew on generalised conclusions only after a brief review of his file. They did not pursue an in-depth investigation nor approach the case in a logical way.” ‘We have found him guilty, let’s sentence him’. Soon after the completion of the case, the chief judge and all court members were dismissed over FET0-links. That is also why we demand a full re-trial.”
Suspicion of ‘torture’ during interrogation
Canayakın said their application for a re-trial was denied, and criticised the decision like this: “They did not care about the procedure and evaluated the case merely on the principles, taking into consideration the statements of my client during interrogation, but we have stated that procedure should precede the principles and the shortcomings in the procedural side must be corrected first. The shortcomings in the procedure aspect is enough on it’s own for a re-trial. So we have objected to the decision and are still waiting for a reply.”
Explaining that he cannot share any more information regarding the details of the main case or the accusations against Bager Sayak, in case there is a re-trial, in which case Canayakın is hopeful that Bager can be released.
But what are the problems in the procedure in Bager’s main trial case? Canayakın replied: “There are some problems. Bager has made statements, pleading guilty of some of the accusations that he was charged with, but it is highly likely that these statements were extracted out of him by beating him up, this is what we can understand. Probably they had used physical violence on him. I cannot say these happened for sure, but these are serious suspicions that we have.”
Violation of freedom of communication and expression
“The areas of freedom, which have been shrunk by the law, are narrowed even more arbitrarily and quite against the laws of the prison administrations themselves. What Bager experiences is a concrete example of that.” This is how lawyer Ümit Dede, the vice co-chair of the HDP’s Law and Human Rights Commission evaluates the issue. Dede defines the act of Kırıkkale F-Type Prisons as “completely against the law” in relation to “freedom of communication” and “freedom of expression”.
“Freedom of thought and expression is not only binding for only verbal expression, it also gives all people the right to share their ideas to society via texts, paintings and music as such. Such basic rights are valid for Bager Sayak even though he is convicted,” he noted. “What is violated here is the freedom of communication and freedom of expression defined by the 22nd article of the Constitution. It is also against the 10th article of the European Convention of Human Rights.”
Sharing further information regarding the legal process that they had started after the Commission of Reading Letters in Kırıkkale F-Type Prison had confiscated the novel, lawyer Şevin Kaya, a member of the Association of Lawyers for Freedom (OHD) who leads the legal struggle to free the “Wise Warriors” outside the prison walls, said: “You can apply to the Office of the Judge of Execution regarding the decision of the prison administrations. Bager did so, but his application was denied. Right now our application is in process of the Constitutional Court (AYM). Since the book is confiscated, we as the lawyers cannot reach it either. We can say that it is to all intents and purposes ‘appropriated’.”
Based on the information shared by both lawyers it is clear that the Turkish prison administration in Kırıkkale F-Type Prison violates some “basic rights” of the prisoner Bager by confiscating his novel and by still keeping the novel in their possession nine months after they first seized it. But it is a matter of question whether the judges of the AYM who will deal with Bager’s case will recognise these violations and end them or not. The decision of the AYM is very important, because it is the last address in domestic legislation.
“We are now expecting the decision of the Constitutional Court, but we do not expect them to give a decision in less than two years. If they also give a negative reply, then we will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), as this is also what our client requests” Kaya said.
HDP will carry the abuse of right to the Turkish parliament
HDP’s MP for Muş Gülistan Koçyiğit shared her view that the process Bager is going through is “not a legal issue, but a political issue”.
Defining the seizing of the novel as a “violation of basic human rights”, Koçyiğit continued: “We have heard the news via you. This incident shows us that we need to look at the prisons from multiple angles. It shows that political prisoners are subjected to inhumane conditions and their rights to produce, to think, to write and to share what they think is also impeded upon.”
The HDP MP also pointed to the “isolation in isolation” policies imposed on political prisoners in Turkey. “Based on unlawful excuses, which I would like to point out a few examples such as under the excuse of ‘objectionable ideas and organisational documents’, they seize the freedom of thought.We are face to face with such a despotic mindset that seizes literary texts, articles and scientific works of prisoners.”
Koçyiğit stated that as the HDP’s MPs who are working on such violations they will apply to the Turkish parliament’s Committee on Human Rights Inquiry as a result of the letters of Bager that we reached her. “We will take all steps in our power. We will make a motion to the Minsitry of Justice regarding this matter. We will also share this issue along with other violations of rights we have been informed with a wider audience with a press conference as the parliament opens. We will take this issue as an item on HDP’s agenda to be monitored closely.
‘They want to break my motivation’
Bager wants his voice to be heard and demands that his novel “Wise Warriors” be freed and sent outside the prison walls, in which he himself is imprisoned. No matter how grim his conditions are, Bager knows how to express this in a tragic-comic way when he comments on the “accusations” against his book.
“As you see, they added and wrote on and on about all kind of ‘crimes’ and ‘criminal organisations’ to seize my novel. Just like their omnibus bills… Whatever they find, they throw it in!”
Drawing a smiley -:)- at the end of his sentences, he continues: “There is no such thing as communication in the book. It is a philosophical-literary work based on fictional incidents and characters that revolve around the theme of the women’s freedom struggle. I sent it to my family, so with whom am I communicating? There is no such thing; they seized my book based on a completely unlawful, arbitrary approach against me.”
Bager’s novel is more than simply a novel; it reflects the efforts of a political prisoner to preserve his identity and his ability to think and produce creative works under strict conditions of incarceration inside Turkey’s prisons, which have been designed to break prisoners psychologically through isolation. Now the novel, too, is isolated from the outside world just like its author whose “right to hope” has been taken away from him under the regime of an aggravated life sentence in prison “until death”.
“They want to break my motivation by seizing the first volume of my trilogy.”
If you would like to share support messages to raise the moral and motivation of Bager to continue to write his books here is his prison address:
Hacılar F Tipi Hapishanesi