It's no longer news that Turkey is the world’s biggest jailer of journalists: Airing critical views of the government is a sure pass to court if not prison. Over 170 media workers are currently in jail over a slew of thinly evidenced terror and insult charges. But when Nagehan Alci, a prominent columnist and sycophantic supporter of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was sentenced to 105 days behind bars for calling out a notorious torturer, it came as something of a shock.
The verdict, delivered by a judge in the western city of Izmir, is a chilling sign that the effects of Erdogan’s toxic alliance with far-right nationalists goes beyond the ballot box and are seeping into Turkey’s chronically politicized judiciary. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has allied with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) for the upcoming June 24 elections. Perceived pro-Kurdish and anti-military feelings are once again a red line and nobody, not even Erdogan’s favorites, seems to be immune.
Alci’s crime was speaking out against Esat Oktay Yildiran, a colonel whose brutality in Diyarbakir prison in the mainly Kurdish southeast after the 1980 military coup is widely credited with helping ignite separatist sentiment and drawing recruits to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Force-feeding inmates their own excrement, electric shocks, floggings and sexual assault were par for the course. Her husband and fellow journalist Rasim Ozan Kutahyali along with commentator Umit Zileli received the same sentence for lambasting the colonel, who died in 1988, on separate TV shows.
When Erdogan was still in reformist mode in 2010, holding secret peace talks with the PKK and easing bans on the Kurdish language and culture, he had pledged to convert Diyarbakir prison into a museum and had labeled Yildiran a torturer at campaign rallies. “Turkish courts should punish Recep Tayyip Erdogan as well,” Alci caustically observed in her column for the pro-government Haberturk today. Alci blamed her plight on what she termed deeply embedded “state genes.” But many say that after nearly 16 years of uninterrupted power Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party are the state and now embrace the stifling of Kurdish identity exercised by the generals whose influence they claim to have shorn.
Alci and her husband were cheerleaders for the controversial Ergenekon and Balyoz trials of alleged coup plotters in the army, earning them the affection of Erdogan and the ire of secularists. It later emerged that much of the evidence against the officers was either manipulated or outright fabricated by operatives of Erdogan’s former ally Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based Sunni cleric who is accused of masterminding the failed 2016 putsch. Thanks to Erdogan’s partnership with the ultranationalist leader and MHP Chairman Devlet Bahceli, nationalists in the army and across the Turkish bureaucracy are said to be making a comeback, filling the void left by tens of thousands purged for their alleged links to Gulen.
In a reflection of Turkey’s deeply polarized politics, much of the Twitterati gloated at the news of Alci’s sentencing. “Should they go to jail I will hand out chocolates to children in the streets,” vowed one. But Kerem Altiparmak, a human rights lawyer who offers pro bono services to journalists prosecuted by the government, warned there is nothing to cheer. “If [she] was convicted for bringing up one of the most disgusting eras of torture in history, … there is nothing to joke about. … Alci’s right to free expression should be defended to the end.”
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