By BETUL SAGKOL
Why do authoritarian regimes fear from books? It is because, as Lord Byron said, “A drop of ink, make a million think.” A person who can think deeply and contemplate over details by utilising polling and questioning methods can establish sound relationships between the data they have acquired. A critical mind based on a profound foundation would not approach the events from a submissive, unassertive, acquiescent and silent way. Because of this, they are always regarded by authoritarian regimes as posing threat and danger. This is the main reason of such regimes’ fear and enmity.
Similar to Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26 of Turkish Constitution states that, “Everyone has the right to express and disseminate their thoughts and opinions, by speech, in writing or in pictures or through other media, individually or collectively. This freedom includes the liberty of receiving or imparting information or ideas without interference by official authorities.”
One year ago in Turkey, a coup attempt took place, plotters of which are still not clearly known, but the consequences of which have clearly increased the power and grip of the government. Members of the ruling power, even at the time when the coup was happening, made statements that pin all the blame on Fethullah Gulen and his followers. Since the coup attempt, all members of the government and particularly the President himself pronounced everyone they regard opponents as coup plotters and traitors. Their hastily taken decisions and the methods they have been using in disproportionately punishing those they call traitors revealed that they have been harbouring enmity against books too. Following the coup attempt, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism accepted a decision of withdrawing many books, which had been officially labelled by the Ministry itself, off the shelves. A vast majority of the books decided to be pulled off belonged to Fethullan Gülen. The only ground for the withdrawal of these books was this: making propaganda of a terrorist organisation. The reason of the decision did not tell a word about which parts or expressions in the books are counted as propaganda of a terrorist organisation.
People who visited Turkey’s capital Ankara must have seen that, even on best-known streets, pirated books are exhibited and sold on canvasses laid on the ground. As the police just ignore this, pirates continue to freely sell these illegally printed books. The officials who do not take any legal action against the people who commit this crime of fraud, obeying the instantaneous orders of the government, straightaway issued detention decrees for people who sell and keep the books, which had passed through all official inspections, had been labelled with banderols, legally printed and sold, and could easily be found nearly at every bookstore before the sudden decision of withdrawal. Books are suddenly started to be treated as bombs. In this atmosphere of fear and terror generated and pumped by the pro-government media, people began to do everything to get rid of the books they had bought before the decision of withdrawal. People have been reported to police while they were trying to dump these books on barren lands and in dustbins, as if they are committing a great act of terrorism.
The police force, while not paying any attention to reports about ISIS terrorists, have taken action at once whenever they are reported about these books and went to the places, where the books are dumped with armoured vehicles carrying heavy weapons; and arrested individuals they caught with books, giving the impression that as if they are conducting a very serious operation against terrorism.
Despite the fact that these books contained no statements at all that can be a subject to any criminal offense, against those who the police had arrested, they issued detention orders that are completely null and void of valid legal grounds.
“I am an atheist and Marxist, I really wonder how they will link me to Gulenist movement,” said Tunceli University, History Department Lecturer, Assoc. Prof. Candan Badem, who was dismissed from her academic profession with the claim that she is associated with the July 15 coup attempt. She has been arrested and the reason for her arrest was having Fethullah Gulen’s book titled “Asrın Getirdiği Tereddütler-4 (The Questions The Age Has Put to Islam-4) in her library”. About the arrest of Candan Badem, “First time in my life I witnessed that ‘reading a book’ is shown as a hard evidence of the crime of attempting a coup,” expressed former CHP (the main opposition party) Tunceli MP Hüseyin Aygün.
Veysel Ok, the attorney of journalist-writer Ahmet Altan and his brother Prof. Mehmet Altan, both of whom have been detained after arrest in the aftermath of the coup attempt, stated that a book titled “Hocaefendi Sendromu” written by Mehmet Barlas in year 2000 was the ground used for their detention. The police searched Mehmet Altan’s house and found this book in his library and took it to the police headquarters as the evidence of his crime! “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading in order to write: a man will turn over half a library to make one book,” suggests Samuel Johnson. For Altan brothers, who are amongst the most famous writers of Turkey, what can it possibly be more natural than having many books from all genres in their library? What really strange about this case is that the book that had been pinpointed and taken out of his library is actually a book written by a journalist, Mehmet Barlas, who is presently known supporting the government with his writings. While the government treats the journalist who wrote this book with honour and esteem, uses the same book for another writer, who had this book in his library, as a criminal evidence!
Arrest of a university student, whose fingerprints were claimed to be found on a book thrown in the bin, reveals what kind of a “ruthless witch hunt” have the pursuits, run against the people read the books not approved by the ruling power turned into. While so many unsolved crimes of homicide, hijacking, robbery, sexual assault and drug dealing are waiting to be investigated, the police force is occupied to find out to whom the books, the contents of which are completely free from instigating any kind of crime, found in dustbins belong. It sounds like a joke, but it is not. Teams of the Samsun Police Headquarters Scenes of Crime Department carried out a fingerprint examination for the books written by Fethullah Gulen found in a dust bin. After discovering that the fingerprints belong to a 22-year-old university student girl, the team from the Counterterrorism Department captured and arrested the young girl!
This enmity and fear towards books have also spread into the prisons in Turkey. To read many legally printed and freely sold books is not allowed in prisons. People, many of whom are unjustly ripped off of the society and detained in prisons, are now completely alienated with the book and letter bans that are exercised by prison administrations in a completely unlawful manner.
In the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and in the European Union Prison Rules, it is ensured that prisoners’ freedom of thought, conscience and religion shall be respected; every institution shall have a library for the use of all prisoners, adequately stocked with a wide range of both recreational and educational resources, books and other media; prisoners shall be encouraged to make full use of these libraries; the treatment of persons sentenced to imprisonment shall be such that will encourage their self-respect and develop their sense of responsibility; and non-convicted prisoners are presumed to be innocent and shall be treated as such.
Both under international treaties and Article 8 of the “Regulation on Belongings and Items that can be Kept in Prisons” legislated in accordance with the Constitution, it is ruled that prisoners enjoy the right to buy and take all the periodicals and printed materials in prison as long as they are not forbidden by the courts. Meanwhile Article 11 of the same Regulation ensures that every prisoner enjoys the right to obtain and keep books and written works related to their religious faith. Article 6 of the “Regulation on Libraries and Book Collection in Penal Institutions and Prison Houses” entrusts prison administrators the responsibility of procuring the needed books.
Yavuz Selim Demirağ, Yeniçağ Newspaper columnist, reacted to the book bans in prisons, mentioning requests of some detained Cumhuriyet Newspaper writers: “Hakan Kara’s request for 50 books is not answered, and he has to loop-read a 40-page book that he has been given so far. While another Cumhuriyet writer Güray Öz said that he needed some books to be able to prepare his defence, but he even could not obtain books for general reading, let alone the reference books to prepare legal defence. Turhan Günay said that their biggest trouble is the ban on books and letters. Bülent Utku complained that they have not been able to read books, nor receive or send letters.
İsmail Duygulu, an attorney from the Antalya Bar, shared this tweet: “The entry to the Antalya L Type Prison is free for people, but banned for books. M. K. Ataturk’s book ‘Nutuk’ is included in this ban. According to a decision taken by the prison’s administration, it is banned to bring in books from outside the prison through relatives of the detainees and convicts. One citizen said that he sent Ataturk’s Nutuk by post to a prisoner detained in the Antalya L Type Prison, but the book is returned to him with the reason that it is forbidden to take books into the wards. The detainees and convicts are forced to confine themselves with the books available in the prison’s library”.
During the State of Emergency, the administration of İzmir Women’s Closed Prison has taken a decision that bans, except the holy books of three religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism), magazines, all books, newspapers and similar publications in the wards. On the other hand, the İzmir Prison banned all books other than Qur’an, Bible, and Torah; the Şanlıurfa Prison administration prohibited reciting Qur’an out loud; and in the Kilis Prison, all of the Qur’an versions have been taken away and the prisoners are told that they can only read the Qur’an versions that are printed by the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, but they will supply these Qur’ans only when they have the official permission. Knowing nothing about the book bans in prisons, Çamay Nikbay, wife of former Head of Edirne Police Intelligence Department Özgür Nikbay, had taken a Qur’an for her imprisoned husband, but it had been rejected. With these arbitrary practices followed by prison administrations pursuant to the unlawful orders of the government, while the holy books are banned in some prisons, whereas in some others they have been used as tools of torturing by forcing prisoners to read them only.
Zeynep Altıok, the Vice President of the main opposition party CHP, wrote a letter to the Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdağ about the book bans in prisons. “For prisoners who are detained in one-person and three-person solitary confinement cells, whose links to outside world are very much limited, who are already denied visitors, telephone calls, solicitors, doctors, or medical treatments, to ban books and letters is the last limit of the torture,” she stated in her letter. However, there have been no change in these vagarious procedures.
Journalism student Dilara Çelik found a difficult-to-apply solution to be able to penetrate the book ban of the Antalya L Type Prison administration and to provide her detained five friends to read books. She wrote down by hand the whole of 200-page poems collection titled, “Kim Bağışlayacak Beni? (Who is Going to Forgive Me?)” written by Birhan Keskin as letters and sent them to the prison. These unjust treatments which forced a student to write a whole book by hand will be remembered as one of the most embarrassing scenes of the time we are living at present.
Writer-journalist Ahmet Turan Alkan, who has been arrested after July 15 and then detained in the Silivri Prison, through his visitors, said that the prison administration does not allow books from outside. He expressed his grief about this situation as follows: “When they banned bringing books from outside, as if they cut off my oxygen supply. To restrain a prisoner especially someone like me whose whole life has passed among books from reading the books he wants is a big pressure. Prohibiting bringing books from outside does not mean anything other than to make my psychological balance upside down and drag me into a psychological breakdown. Even so, I keep hoping that I will be able to come together with books again and do not yet seek a support from a psychiatrist.” If this intellectual writer who has lived his whole life among books is left without books, he will surely feel that his oxygen supply is cut off. Denying not only Ahmet Turan Alkan but also many other book-lovers from reaching books means that not only theirs but all of Turkey’s oxygen supply is being severed.
In one of her writings, OdaTV columnist Müyesser Yıldız, who had been on trial for OdaTV case, compares the unlawful exercises now and at the time she had been trialled with these words: “This is the rough ‘picture of justice’ I drew out from the things I have read and seen: at Silivri (where she had been detained) letters, books and visitors were not banished. But now, everything is banned.”
The ruling power, exploiting the July 15 coup attempt to undermine and silence the people whom they consider as opponent, detained hundreds of journalists, thousands of academics, judges, prosecutors, doctors and teachers completely unlawfully. Turkish prisons have never hosted so many highly educated individuals ever before in history. Reading book is a significant need for educated people who relish reading all the time. For these people, depriving them of books on top of detaining them in prisons is even a greater punishment than the imprisonment itself.
One final word of warning: the authoritarian regimes that are devoid of democracy have always feared from knowledge and books. In Turkey, a country which is shifting from democracy (although it has never been at ideal level) to autocracy, the attitude of the ruling power towards books and their arbitrary exercises at prisons are the prominent examples that show what kind of regime Turkey is becoming today.
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