Today is municipal election day in Turkey when voters elect local mayors and councillors. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the poll is about the “survival” of the country and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Turkey is in recession, with 20% inflation and the lira which has plunged by a third in value, is causing bankruptcies. The result will be as a referendum on President Erdogan’s record and he knows it. One journalist who will not be covering the elections is NUJ member and Morning Star international editor Steve Sweeney. Last week he flew out to Istanbul, but on arrival at the airport he was detained without explanation, questioned, branded a terrorist and deported. Steve takes up the story:
“My anticipated detention came shortly after my plane landed at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gockcen airport — named after Kemal Ataturk’s adopted daughter. (Ataturk was the founder of modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.) She is famous for being Turkey’s first female pilot. But what is glossed over is her role in using chemical bombs in) attacks on Kurds during the massacre of Dersim in the 1930s.
A police officer grabbed my phone out of my hand and bundled me into a holding area next to their office. The tiny smoke-filled room was already packed when I arrived. The 18 men looked puzzled and surprised at my arrival — I was the only person of non-Turkish or Middle Eastern appearance.
Soon the numbers began to dwindle as one by one they started to let people go on their way. The longer I was there, the more serious I realised my situation was.
I was photographed and forced to unlock my phone, making me nervous for the safety of others, despite taking stringent security measures prior to leaving London.
But it made me feel violated and vulnerable. I am sure they have bugged my phone although I’m also sure that I have been monitored by Turkish security services for some time already.
I was at no stage informed as to the reasons for my detention, nor was I told what was happening. I was unable to communicate with anybody to let them know what was happening and was not allowed to contact the British consulate, despite it being my legal right.
Unbeknown to me, friends on the outside had contacted the consulate and lawyers in Istanbul. But they too hit a brick wall as police denied that I was being held.
They were alerted when friends from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) said I hadn’t arrived on my plane to Diyarbakir. It was at this moment I was listed as a missing person.
The implications of this are sinister. With no record of my detention and a denial that I was being interrogated at the airport, anything could have happened to me. I could easily have disappeared at the hands of the Turkish state and they would simply have denied any knowledge of what had happened to me or my whereabouts.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi flashed through my mind. It is not beyond the realms of possibility for the Turkish state to carry out a similar act.
My interrogation was brief and incompetent. After being asked some questions about what my intentions were in Diyarbakir, who I worked for and what my job was, they brought in a more senior officer to grill me further.
He opened by asking what I thought of Kurdish people. The subtext of his question was clear and gave an insight into the mindset of the Turkish state. I responded by saying that they were human beings, the same as everyone else and deserved to be treated as such.
He clearly didn’t agree but my view of them marked me as a “terrorist sympathiser” in his narrow nationalist mindset. The officer was trying his best to intimidate me, his eyes bulging as he raised the volume.
As he leaned across the table, he asked what I thought about the HDP. I responded that they were OK, a legal political party standing on a broadly social democratic platform — the Labour Party here has fraternal links, I explained.
This was circled as he scribbled on a scrap of paper — no official logbooks were used at any stage of the process. Later during the interrogation he asked me who Abdullah Ocalan was. I said most people know who he is and asked what he was getting at, knowing full well he was trying to link me to support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
He told me it was a terrorist organisation, banned in Turkey and proceeded to list its many crimes. The reality was he was trying to link the PKK with the HDP — exactly what Erdogan has done in an attempt to rally opposition to the party and encourage violent attacks against it, often successfully.
The officer said MPs from the HDP had attended the funerals of suicide bombers and were instructing them to carry out attacks on Turkish citizens — none of which was backed by evidence.
More bizarrely he claimed that the HDP was instructed by Abdullah Ocalan — I questioned this as he has been jailed in isolation since 1999. However he claimed that Ocalan was sending messages to them through his lawyers.
When I explained that he had not seen his lawyers since 2011, he became angry — because he had been caught out. “OK, you’re probably right, but before then he definitely was,” he snapped.
“So Ocalan was giving instructions to the HDP before they even existed?” I asked, as, becoming irritated, he blasted that they were “all terrorists,” the mask finally slipping.
By this stage I had been awake nearly 30 hours and was feeling exhausted and dizzy. Not only was I sleep deprived but I had also been without food or drink for at least 12 hours, which was starting to affect me.
After another grilling by another team, I was finally on the move. No explanation was given as I was greeted by uniformed police. I was made to empty my pockets and sign two pieces of paper — I had no idea what they said and didn’t think it made much difference, in all honesty.
This procedure was carried out by outsourcing giant ISS — mainly known in Britain for running hard and soft services in NHS hospitals and other public services extracting huge profits from the public purse.
I was then locked in a holding cell with around eight other men. Among their number included an Azeri, an Iraqi Kurd, three Turkmen, an Egyptian and two Saudi jihadists who seemed to want to kill me.
Finally I was called and told I was being sent back to London, again without being told why. I was escorted onto a Pegasus plane and boarded alone before the other passengers. I was still not allowed my phone or passport which were eventually handed to me by counter-terror police when I landed at Stansted airport in the early hours of this morning.
The paperwork said I was stopped from entering Turkey as I was deemed a national security threat — despite no evidence being offered as to the reasons for this decision. Turkish police had used Law No 6458, the same that saw two members of the French Communist Party suffer a similar fate last week.
My visa was also cancelled and I was told that I would not be able to enter Turkey again without permission from the embassy — effectively banning me from the country.
Being banned from Turkey leaves me utterly heartbroken. I have many friends there who I will not see until there is a change in the brutal authoritarian government. And it is a country that, despite the dictatorial regime, has much to admire about it.
It is also a flagrant attack on press freedom and one which should not be taken lightly or accepted. I will be calling on the Foreign Office to take measures to ensure that journalists are able to report freely and without fear of arrest or intimidation.
Now is also the time for journalists and the labour movement to speak out against the atrocities and attacks on press freedom and democracy in Turkey. More journalists are in jail there than any other country in the world, with many others self-censoring for fear of reprisals.
Turkey is a difficult place for journalists and writers. A joke currently doing the rounds illustrates the gallows humour and sums up perfectly the seriousness of the situation. A prisoner goes to the jail’s library to borrow a book. The librarian says: “We don’t have this book, but we have its author.”
Last month, through the NUJ London Central Branch, we agreed to launch a solidarity network for exiled journalists and those at risk — this is needed now more than ever so we will officially launch the organisation in the coming weeks.
The NUJ, trade unions and other organisations must throw their weight behind this initiative.
What has happened to me is a minor inconvenience. It does not compare to the thousands that have been arrested, jailed, tortured and killed under the yoke of Erdogan’s tyranny.
Many friends are included among those who are either banned from leaving Turkey or have been forced into exile, away from their families, friends and all that is familiar to them.
I have no doubt whatsoever that the decision to deport me and ban me from entering Turkey was a political one. HDP officials agree and warn it is a sign that the state is preparing huge violations during Sunday’s local elections.
Erdogan is fearful of the success of the HDP, which is bidding against all the odds to retake municipalities that have been stolen from the party. Nearly 100 mayors have been arrested and replaced by government-appointed trustees in the largely Kurdish areas.
Turkey’s authoritarian president has already indicated he will do the same again, vowing to replace those with links to terrorist organisations should they win. There is no doubt he means the HDP which he insists is merely a front for the PKK.
But whatever happens on Sunday, elections are just a snapshot and what is important is what happens next. The opposition needs to adopt a strategic approach that goes beyond polls and prepares for the inevitable onslaught being prepared by the regime.
Erdogan’s is a mafia regime and it can only exist through its system of patronage and threats against political opponents and even its political allies.
Nobody is safe from the clutches of the tyrannical regime installed in Turkey. Suleyman Soylu — an former opponent of Erdogan’s and supporter of the shadowy Gulenist movement — struck a chilling tone last month when he called for holidaymakers to be arrested if they criticise the Turkish government.
But it is a regime that is propped up by Western imperialism which continues to support tyranny in Turkey. They have no interest in seeing a free and democratic Turkey. It would threaten imperialist interests in Syria, Iraq and Iran — all countries with vast oil reserves and all countries where they are pressing for regime change.
It is why they have remained silent over the human rights atrocities that are committed by Turkey both internally and in its wars and attacks on Kurds in Syria and Iraq.
Theresa May’s appalling comments in a press conference last year — which I was blocked from attending — have serious consequences but also expose the attitude and agenda of the British government.
By praising Erdogan for “the fight against Kurdish terrorism,” in one fell swoop she joined Erdogan in branding an entire community as enemies of the state.
She has said in Parliament that she supports journalism, but what is the government doing to ensure that those reporting inside Turkey can do so safely and freely, without fear of arrest and intimidation?
Despite the threats and intimidation, I will not be silenced. I will continue to speak out about the crimes against freedom and democracy committed by the Turkish state. As a journalist it is my duty to shine a light in dark places.
This has made me more determined than ever to speak out and I will continue to write and challenge tyranny wherever it raises its head.
The best we can do in this country is to build a mass movement that brings down the Tory government and replaces it with one that has a foreign policy based on solidarity and co-operation not war and profit.”