Human rights lawyer and activist Muharrem Erbey, pens letter to mark two and a half years behind bars
In this recent letter to PEN, Muharrem Erbey writes about his experience of imprisonment; his comments on the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) trials; his commitment to the non-violent pursuit of peace, reconciliation and human rights for all; as well as his protestation of his innocence. Erbey is an internationally renowned human rights lawyer who has represented a number of individuals in front of the European Court of Human Rights. He is also Vice-President of Turkey’s Human Rights Association (IHD), where he leads the branch in Diyarbakır Province. In recent years he has written and edited a number of short story collections in Turkish and Kurdish.
The following is the letter, translated from Turkish by Alev Yaman and Ali Nihat:
How long until freedom and peace?
In his work Abrahamic Questions (‘Ibrahimce Sorular’), the poet Cahit Koytak asks, ‘Is belief in God above all a search for complete unity and beauty or does it follow from the perception of some other power?’ Each poem, proverb, and beginning to a sacred text touches on unity and harmony. Harmony is the starting point for everything. Disturbing harmony leads to trouble. Although we are of ancient stock that has long drawn lessons from stories, proverbs, and experience of countless disasters and indelible trials, often we are determined not to learn from the pain we have suffered, and to misinterpret the words of sacred texts. And yet it is common knowledge that eastern tales end with a section of advice where lessons are teased out. This text is for those who refuse to learn from the past.
We cannot know what life has in store for us. It is full of strange coincidences, surprises, highs and lows. For those who can suffer little, life is unbearably hard. One needs to face adversity and avoid taking the easy path. We cannot say whether there is another people that has known adversity as well as the Kurds, these children of the mountains; but we have surely lived our lives on a knife’s edge. In the last two centuries the world has witnessed political promises, great searching and monumental destruction; we have seen change and transformation forced through by tyranny; we have known calls for equality and freedom from people of different groups, nations and identities, together with the great destruction and widespread abuse of human rights that has resulted from these demands. Those with power and resources have sought to force their culture, language and lifestyle onto others, and thus to sow discord. The measures taken against those who would resist have always been the same: emigration, exile, assimilation, imprisonment and death. Even though almost every technique has been used against them, oppressed peoples have continued to protest.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Turks, Kurds, Circassians, Laz, and many other peoples began their long quest to make Anatolia free. In those years one in three Anatolians was Kurdish. All died side by side in the War of Independence. After the war the ethnic identity, culture, language and existence of the Turks alone was promoted and sacralised by the country’s legal reforms. At a stroke these other peoples, languages and cultures counted for nothing in the new system. It is our objection to this that has made us a problem. What is popularly called the ‘Kurdish Problem’ is in fact the struggle to be equal citizens in a shared homeland. Sacred texts say “The greatest love is Love of God; God made us in his image so that we may seek and find him.” But we worshipped power and the means to rule; we stopped seeking the truth and tried to make others resemble ourselves. Each protected his own and, wandering from God, sought to become a new centre of power. In God’s name I appeal to you, the silent majority, all sensible inhabitants of the world and of Turkey: it is time to say “No more killing”.
I have been a prisoner of the system for two and a half years now because for twelve years, as a defender of human rights in Diyarbakir, I investigated violations by the security forces, criticised them, prepared reports, and protested. My time in prison has given me the chance to see life anew. I want to tell you how I have experienced the four seasons from behind bars.
Autumn. In the morning, as I reach over the barbed wire crowning this wall six or seven metres in height, the sun as it passes briefly through our ventilation system and away again, the sound of the sparrows that perch on the wire and fly off with the crumbs of bread we toss, the squawking of doves overhead, this sky stained a cold and faded blue, the wind that howls and carries dry fragments of grass through the ventilation – all work the ache of loneliness finely and deeply into me, as the captivity of my shivering body grows a storey higher. I am listening to the sound of the wind. The chattering of clothespegs hanging from the line, the clatter of water bottles roaming the area, flying newspaper scraps and silently wandering dreams, hopes that grow from a whisper to a roar – they strike the wall and go no further.
Winter. There is a weak sun that does not warm you. The air is cold. This place is alien to life, with its endless concrete and iron, these wire fences. The walls’ peeling grey paint, their damp, drains you of energy. Your dreams are caked in dust and soot. At 6 am, as we four men in each room wake to the metallic clank of iron doors, we wish that this were all a dream, but it is not; everything is real. As it happens, prison is the one place one would never want to be when waking. We have this privilege. The prison walls allow everything to pass, except time. I am freezing, my throat dries up, my eyes are burning, there is the weight of tonnes on top of me; it is as if I am tied in steel cord. I cough and I sneeze. In winter prison becomes a prison, and the cold season seems to go on forever. At night we go to the toilet dozens of times.
Spring. Taking root in a crack of broken concrete, seeds brought over the walls and wire by the wind display nature’s irresistible force with the unfurling of their leaves. At first glance you think that the seedling has broken its way out through the concrete. But nature stubbornly allows life to take hold, splitting concrete despite every restriction. An unimaginable aroma of oleaster surrounds us. You know that spring is here from the sound of birds and the smell of flowers. And from the flocks of birds in the sky, and its glittering blue.
Summer. The sun lays waste to it all, as walls and floor turn to a raging fire. I grow drowsy and still. As I shake my head before the spinning ventilator it rises above the walls and the wire fences and I fight to breathe, just as a fish in a tank rises to the surface and, looking desperately at the blue skies, gasps. At night the sound of a soldier whistling intermittently on the watchtower blends with an owl’s hooting. There is a wedding in the neighbouring village. The banging of drums, the women’s ululations and the barking of excited dogs plant a smile on my face just as soon as they steal in through an open window. How sweet to hear life even if we cannot see it!
If only prison did not teach one how beautiful life is. My sons Robin (10) and Rober (5) ask “Daddy, when will you be done here? How long until you come home?” I reply “Not long, not long.” In reality, I do not know when I will be done. I ask the mindset that keeps me here, “How long until freedom and peace?”
My view is always of nearby walls; my sight has deteriorated from never looking far off. It gives me a headache. It is so crowded here that I lie on empty yoghurt pots strewn across the floor. I have terrible pain in my waist. It seems everyone here suffers backache. My knees hurt from walking on nothing but hard concrete. I want my glances and my words to reach life, children and trees, rather than these walls. Alienated from life outside, nature, and my own shadow, here I have seen the self that is far removed from me.
Ibn-Khaldun comes to mind, and his words, “Geography is fate”. What I have lived through is the fate of those who demand justice and equality in these lands. Yet all we have ever wanted was to be equal and to be accepted with our differences.
Islam does not cast out the other. In the Hud sura, verses 118-119, it is written that “If the lord had desired it, he would have made all humanity a single nation…” Each person is a world apart. So why do some continue to ask for one language, one colour, one culture, and one nation?
During our work for the Human Rights Association (HRA) we warmly received all who visited us; we simply tried to help with and solve their problems, we never hurt them or offended them, we never even raised our voices when speaking with them. We never focused on the ethnic identity or political preference of those who sought our help; we instead based the help we gave on their identity as victims. Throughout my life, I have always denounced violence; I have never even carried a pen-knife. And yet they now say I am “a member of an armed organisation.” Once it became clear that the work carried out by the HRA was inconceivable as being illegal when considered on its own, they fabricated a secret witness, a so-called ‘Magnifying Glass ’ aimed directly at me. According to this secret witness, I would apparently, “forge reports documenting torture, and provide morale and motivation to the armed organisation by appearing on Roj TV programs and saying that there were human rights breaches, effectively denigrating the police and the army with these statements.” I was also said “to be a member of an organisation that fights the poor; to do my job at the HRA well; to take on work for those who sought help from the HRA for free.”
I never betrayed anyone’s privacy, and if ever I saw some mistake or wrongdoing I said so. I always rejected violence, I always condemned deaths as someone with a pacifist’s soul, and I always treated the law as if it were sacrosanct. There’s an old proverb – “he who acts with anger has no friend” – it’s based on that that I always approached problems with a smile on my face, attempting to resolve them through peaceful means, through dialogue. We took as our founding principle the words from the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Equality, Freedom and Justice for all.” When we looked at the world, we always did so with empathy. “All humans should be equal and free”; this was the struggle I pursued, and now I am paying the price for that. Pain is common to all of us in this world, and we can diminish that pain if we share it. If we are not free you are not free, if you are not free nor are we. Over the course of the last three years approximately seven thousand people have been unjustly and unfairly arrested, amongst them Kurdish politicians, mayors, MPs, journalists, human rights advocates, lawyers, academics, and BDP members , employees and activists, as well as those feminists, ecologists and academics who have taken on a contrarian and critical stance by standing with the Kurds. In the news we are referred to as political hostages. An African proverb says, “if you fear, you fall.” We wanted peace without fear, peace eternal. We wanted a peace where the deaths would end, where everyone could celebrate their language and culture as brothers in one country shared by us all.
When will happiness come to the most ancient and established of Mesopotamia’s peoples, whose population of forty million is spread across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and was scattered forcibly to a hundred nations across the globe? When will happiness come to the Kurds? The Kurds – who for the last two centuries have always been looked upon as ‘the other’, who have only been seen fit for oppression, persecution, exile, forced migration and assimilation, for prisons, for gallows and massacres – have wanted nothing more than to name their children and sing their songs in their own language, to celebrate their culture and be able to govern themselves. That’s all. We live our lives as mortals, but what we do, what we reveal, the words we speak live forever. We are here because we are all engaged in politics considered to be ‘wrong’. No-one who has been sent to prison over the last three years has been released. Tens of thousands of Kurds wait for this persecution to end. Yunus Emre says, “if you change your soul, the world will change.” As long as we don’t defeat your mentality, your soul, as long as you persist with the same methods we will constantly be subject to pain.
Friends who wish to share our pain, where are you?
The first words of the new civil constitution have started to be written. Apparently, it begins, “the dignity and liberty of humanity.” As far as we’re concerned those are currently a pair of lifeless, soulless and hollow words. Throughout my life I have always taken dialogue and tolerance as principles. I always tried to form empathy with ‘the other’. Whoever came to the HRA, whether they were soldiers, police, village guards or members of the PKK, I never discriminated between them, I always accepted their requests for help, and I did my work with a clear conscience. Absolutely no-one has ever been turned away by the HRA because of their ethnicity or political views.
We never rejected the government, we never disparaged it. We did criticise the disproportionate and excessive practices of some security forces based on the requests for help made to us by victims, but we always did so by specifying time and place, by directing the victim towards the public prosecution office, and we always asked the government to be more conscientious in its approach to such issues. We supported the Democratic Initiative, but later expressed our concerns when we saw it was inadequate in its scope. We do not exist to take sides in politics. We are here to take the side of the victims. When the family of a captured soldier applied to the HRA for help, we took action on the side of the captured soldier’s family. When the family of a member of the PKK had not been given his body to bury, and his family applied to us for help, we made an application with the public prosecutor for his body to be given to the family. We simply would seek justice by taking the claims as they were made to us to the public prosecutor.
Since our foundation in 1986, the HRA has been there to provide somebody for those who have nobody. With our respectable, dignified stance we have always been an example to the world. We were always open to discussing and debating society’s problems with everyone; we never took orders or instructions from anyone; we have never subjected ourselves to any place or power; and above all, when we condemned attacks, violence and deaths we never held back on expressing our views because of anyone or anything. We believed that our society’s problems should not be addressed through military and security measures, that instead solutions should be sought through international overseen peace processes. We believed that no-one was superior to anyone else, that everyone should be able to live equally and freely regardless of language, culture or colour. We wanted a civil, egalitarian constitution. We opposed military guardianship of the state, we opposed military coups. We believed in freedom of belief, that the bans prohibiting headscarves should be lifted. We stood against people being criminalised and excluded because of their beliefs. We said human rights for everyone, for every kind of belief.
We lost our freedom for seeking justice and liberty for others, and now we are (the ones) seeking justice for ourselves. As said in the stories, fables, books and tablets of the East, our last word is for you, dear reader: “If we are not free you are not free, if you are not free nor are we.”
Lawyer, HRA Vice President, PEN International Member,
D-Type High Security Prison, Diyarbakır/Turkey
[Note: the views expressed in this letter are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PEN International]
For information on Muharrem Erbey’s case and how to take action, see the alert on the PEN International website.