Eren Keskin is angry. And with good reasons. For months and months she has railed against the ill treatment and absence of medical care for prisoners in Turkish jails suffering from heavy pathologies. A situation already relayed by numerous Human Rights associations and by ex-prisoners, including novelist Aslı Erdoğan who spoke from personal experience when she said in an interview : « Medical aid is the most difficult aspect of jail. » So Eren Keskin is launching an official appeal to the World Health Organization (WHO). Urging the organization to conduct an urgent investigation into the situation of sick prisoners in Turkish jails.
Born from a Kurdish father from Sivas and a mother from Istanbul, Eren was deeply shocked by the execution of three young poeple during her teen age years. When her studies toward a law degree were interrupted by the military coup of 1980, she choose involvement in the Turkish Human Rights Association of which she is now co-chair rather than in political parties which she considers « too militaristic and not very open toward women. » She then launched investigations into burned Kurdish villages, punitive raids, disappearances… And had close escapes from two attacks that targeted her in 1994 and 2001. Her public declarations and the simple fact she used the word « Kurdistan » in an article led to her imprisonment for several months, her banning from the practice of law and over a hundred lawsuits – the most recent for her texts in Özgür Gündem, as was the case for Aslı Erdoğan. And she is still at risk of being sent back to jail for a very long time. Nonetheless, she carries on her fight.
Her association is well positioned to know : the situation worsens days after day for those who have the misfortune of being ill heath in jails emptied of common law prisoners, to make way for thousands of journalists, teachers, jurists or plain civil servants. « We as the Human Rights Association has issued calls constantly » Eren Keskin said recently in an interview to a press agency, « But this critical issue needs to be addressed by the UN World Health Organization. There are international conventions that Turkey has signed. However, Turkey has not been complying with them. The international audits are also insufficient. Again, I call on the international organizations to fulfill their duties as soon as possible. »
According to the jurist, one of the prisoners’ problems stems from the attitude of the Turkish Forensic Medicine Institute, an official body that works closely with government authorities. Among other things, the institute omits the publication of reports on seriously ill prisoners who should be hospitalized rather than rot in cells lacking in basic hygiene, and in which the cold exposes them to the worst. Failings unfortunately demonstrated in all of these aspects in the case of Sibel Çapraz, imprisoned since March 2016, and of Ahmet Türk, arrested last November.
Sibel Çapraz’s ordeal began a bit over a year ago. At that time, in November 2015, she was a member of the City Council Hakkari. On the 27th, while participating in a demonstration in the streets of Yüksekova, she found herself in the crossfire between security forces and armed members of the PKK. Wounded in the arm and in the stomach, she was hospitalized on the following day. Fifteen surgical operations followed. Among them, palliative surgery for her damaged intestine : a colostomy, meaning an external pouch connected to the colon, to collect fecal matter. That’s nothing ! But, apparently, such health problems are negligible for the Institute of Legal Medecine. As evidence ? On March 4 2016, while hospitalized in Istanbul for an intervention ending the colostomy, policemen seized her and brought her to the tribunal in Çağlayan, where the judge immediately ordered her provisional imprisonment. Since then, she has survived as best she can in Bakırköy prison where the other women help her every day with the emptying of the pouch, with no hope to receive this oh-so-necessary operation, and where her arm keeps her in constant pain. « I visited her recently, explains Eren Keskin. She is kept in a single-person cell with the toilet inside the cell. Whereas, she should be in a sterilized environment » Of course, the Turkish Association for Human Rights made an application to the General Directorate of Prisons and Detention Houses requesting that she receive the urgent operation and continues the treatment on her arm. As sole reply, the association was informed that Sibel was receiving the required all the treatment she needs. Amnesty International is now campaigning to invite everyone to exert pressure…
Another emblematic case : that of Ahmet Türk. Aged 74, this former mayor of the province of Mardin was arrested last November 24th. He suffers from hearth failure among other things, and his lawyer expected this would lead to his release. Not at all. Not only has the Institute of Forensic Medecine Institute not published the required report on his condition but he was transferred to an hospital – which caused a scandal even in the ranks of the AKP, so appreciated is he for his calm and courtesy. « He is not in a comfortable situation, says Eren Keskin. They are keeping him in prison by the political power, despite his age and illnesses. The judicial system has divorced itself completely from moral norms. »
We could mention many other cases. Such as that of Mustafa Gök, former news correspondant for the left-leaning newspaper Ekmek and Adalet. Arrested and tortured in 1993, he was released in October 2001, then again in February 2004, and sentenced to a number of penalties, including a life sentence for alleged membership in the DHKP, The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front, etc. His lawyer never fails to point out that his client was imprisoned without a single mention of his disease. Mustafa Gök suffers from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a disease that can cause a number of symptoms including loss of short term memory, loss of voice, paralysis and uncontrolable eye palsy, but also coma and death, in the absence of treatment. After visiting him in September 2016, Ayşe Arapgirli who is close to him, specified that Mustafa suffered from paralysis in his arms and legs and could not manage his daily routine without outside assistance.
In other words, his life is in danger in prison — even if there is no need to reach such extremities for imprisonment to prove dangerous, as Asli Erdogan so aptly reminded us : « I had 4 cervical hernias, they removed one disk and replaced it with a prosthesis. I can turn my head to the right, but not to the left. With the cold in jail, it got worse. Apart from which I suffer from Raynaud’s disease to a certain extent. Blood doesn’t flow to my hands and feet. I have circulatory problems. And the cold didn’t help with that either. My intestine is also diseased. I have asthma and I’m diabetic. None of that is life-threatening, but all those problems combined can be dangerous. The cold, stress… I’m surprised myself that I managed to hold on. »
The novelist also opened our eyes to another reality : the apprehension experienced by prisoners when they request an hospital appointment, because of the conditions of their transfer. Not only because of the handcuffs but because of a very peculiar vehicle, the « ring »: «I’ve never seen anything as inhuman as this vehicle. They sit six handcuffed women, side by side, is a space no larger than a coffin. The door slams shut on you. The window is hardly bigger than the palm of a hand. In summer, it’s extremely hot, in winter it’s cold, and there’s no air. You are jostled so much that people vomit. »
To the lack of medical histories prior to incarceration, to the absence of adequate care and deplorable hygiene, are thus added the restraints the prisoners self-inflict to their own treatment. This is without mentioning that, according to private sources, it would appear some lawyers do not encourage their clients to take better care of themselves, relying on their illness as an argument towards their release. So clearly, it is more than time for the WHO to look into the question of Turkish prisons closely. According to the Turkish Ministry of Justice, there would now be 387 prisoners in very poor health, including 114 suffering from cancer. It is hard to give credence to this information as long as there are no medical institutions and medical doctors documenting the situation in full independence as it is the case in a democratic country. The urgency is undeniable…