Spare a thought for Turkey’s jailed writers this holiday season

As much of the Western world basks in heart-warming reverie of festive cheer, good food and the company of loved ones, hundreds of writers and intellectuals will be languishing in Turkish jails on spurious charges with no sense of what fate awaits them.

Throughout 2016 the IPA and other international free-speech defenders have been following with deepening distaste as the Turkish government has systematically muzzled through incarceration every dissenting voice, whether academics, journalists, writers or publishers.

Swiss lawyer and onetime IPA Secretary General, Benôit Müller, is among a number who has been working to see the prominent Turkish novelist Aslı Erdoğan — a personal friend of his — freed from jail.

Müller met Erdoğan (who is unrelated to the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) during his time at the IPA, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Even then, Turkey was already squarely on the freedom to publish blacklist, which meant Müller travelled to Istanbul and Ankara numerous times to observe trials, lobby government and meet Turkish writers and publishers.

When the world learned in August 2016 that Aslı, who is in poor health, had been swept up in President Erdogan’s increasingly indiscriminate ‘purge’, Müller contacted the IPA to volunteer his expertise in any way that might help her. The IPA opened a channel to its own network of likeminded NGOs, which in turn triggered a series of letters and initiatives aimed at raising the international profile of her case and ramping up the pressure on Ankara.

‘I like many others want to do whatever I can to help,’ he said. ‘What has happened in Turkey this year has been sickening, and the diplomatic response from Europe, the US and elsewhere has been lukewarm at best. When the wheels of diplomacy are stuck because of international geopolitics, then civil society, NGOs and individuals, have an even greater duty to do everything possible to make such outrages a diplomatic priority.’

Müller has contributed to a collective effort by PEN International, Swiss PEN, the Swiss Authors Association, the IPA and other bodies, to lobby the UN’s ‘Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression’, David Kaye and Swiss Foreign Minister Burkhalter to urge them to do more.

The organizations wrote to Kaye before his recent field mission to Turkey asking him to visit Aslı in prison. Kaye lodged the request with the Turkish authorities, but it was regrettably denied. A subsequent submission to David Kaye appealed to him to attend the trials of Aslı Erdoğan and her linguist colleague Necmiye Alpay, which are due to start on 29 December 29, in Istanbul. State prosecutors are seeking their conviction for links to a newspaper’s editorial committee, with a request that they be sentenced to ‘aggravated life’, would mean living out the rest of their days in solitary confinement.

For its part, the IPA has joined a broad grouping of organizations, led from London by Article 19, that has agreed to coordinate its activism and lobbying in and around Turkey. In 2017 the IPA and its peers in the group will intensify their focus on Turkey, although the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

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