July 2018 and yet another ordinary day at Tarsus; an overcrowded block, extreme heat and excessive circulation.
It had already been quite a while since I had landed in this prison and ever since my arrest in April 2016 I had regularly requested my transfer to Istanbul, close to my family and my home. In vain. My requests were constantly turned down by the Prison and Detention Centers General Directorate. Why, but why did they not like me? I had just written a new request, requesting a meeting with the prison prosecutor on this topic so that I would speak with him when he visited the establishment again.
In short, such was the situation and this was an ordinary day in my cellblock. A group of women was removed from the block and taken to the infirmary, one level above. Prisoners from one or two other blocks were there already. We sat and began the waiting game… and, suddenly, the day’s banality disappeared!
A was approached by a woman who had recently been downgraded after working as a superior civil servant since my arrival at Tarsus, but one who had never been associated with any cases of aggression or torture. She wanted to talk to me. Of course, I was very surprised and, thinking we would speak there and then, I said “all right, let’s talk.” She invited me into a room facing the infirmary where sick prisoners were taken and placed under perfusion. I followed filled with curiosity. Thus began a period that landed like a bomb on my prison life that was already eventful enough.
Allegations of a civil servant against the director
This is my summary of what the civil servant told me.
She had been downgraded along with another civil civil servant. Their problems were related to the director of the establishment. After calling a meeting, he had created an “A team” out of those female civil servants who behaved poorly with the prisoners. Five of the women thus selected occupied upper echelons, while these other two civil servants, despite bill n° 675 and their seniority, were downgraded and placed under their command. Moreover, and as if by accident, it must be said that the civil servants who were upgraded were young and beautiful. But I return to our topic. The “A team” on orders from the director, had prepared lists for each block of rebellious prisoners who caused problems with the directorate. Of course, my name figured prominently on the list from our block. So why were these lists prepared? Should some disorder occur, the persons listed were to be removed from the blocks and placed into isolation cells or in the “foam room” to be persecuted there, in order to break their spirit. The civil servant also told me, in detail, how recently a “problematic” woman had been removed from her block, transferred to the foam room and beaten to death by a superior from the A team; the fact that the one doing the beating had not even listened when her colleagues had said “stop, that’s enough”; that the prisoner had then been hastily transferred to the Şakran women’s prison in Izmir where, having no visitors nor kin, the incident ha been hushed up…
Yes, I admit sniffing the oncoming of funny business, I even thought to myself “what if I didn’t get involved in this” — as my mother liked to say all the time — but given my professional deformation, and the fact curiosity kills cats, how could you expect me to stay away? Question after question, I sought out all the details concerning these allegations. Granted they were allegations only, but in need of investigation, and knowing myself, I was not about to drop the matter.
Apart from this, I was provided details I do not wish to write down here. Allegations of a malicious nature, involving the relationship between the director and one of the security agents; information about the bars frequented by the women at the end of their day of work, the tables set up with rakı… Personal lives did not interest me but, if as the downgraded civil servant claimed, when she had asked her director “why am I being removed from my duties?” he had truly answered “Well, you never set up a table with rakı for me”, this was a serious matter. None of this matched up with the moralistic vision those in power claimed to maintain and represent.
Finally, I listened to everything I was told, delved into these questions, identified the people mentioned. Already, in this prison, given the direction, we were subjected to a sufficient number of violations of our rights and other difficulties. This took the cake. One final question bothered me, I asked the downgraded civil servant “why are you telling me all this ?” She answered: “because they are afraid of you, you write and everything comes out in the media. You can help us with the injustice we were subjected to. We are afraid but you can write to the ministry of justice, at least, transmit the information to the prosecutor”. I told myself “good heavens, such a personality am I!” But frankly, big problems were now at my door, they were even facing me with a salute and a “here we are at last, we almost missed you!”
Of what use is a prosecutor?
I returned to the block under the questioning eyes of my friends and I thought it over “must I take these allegations seriously?” I removed myself into the coolest and preferred spot of our block with two women I trusted , told them everything and asked for their advice. One said to me “drop it, don’t get involved in this,” the other was worried for me. After long exchanges, I took the following decision: I would relay these allegations — as should be done — when I would meet the prosecutor, thus his office could investigate, or at least they should do so, yes? I told my decision to my friends who approved, all that remained was to wait for the prosecutor’s visit.
At last, the prosecutor came to the prison and had me called up. But what was this? In the room where we usually met alone, sat the director of the establishment. I calmly transmitted my request and explained I was being kept in prisons far from my family and home, and consequently that visits had been turned into real obstacle courses, that I had not seen my father for a year and a half because of his health problems keeping him from long trips… Result? None, “write a request”. Well, I had already written a number of them but they were all turned down..
But, in the end, we broached the thorny subject… Before starting, I said I wished to speak alone with the prosecutor and requested that the director of the establishment leave the room. The director who already “loved me very much”, left the room his eyes filled with hatred under his frowning brows. (This director being the same one I talked about in my earlier article, the one who threatened me so I would stop helping the Syrian women). I transmitted all the allegations from the civil servants, as told to me, and asked that he investigate. At first, he attempted to drown the issue, accused the civil servants despite the fact these were serious allegations by two downgraded civil servants, fully deserving investigation. Of course, I knew I would be asked “but why did they speak to you”, and when the question showed up as expected I said I thought they were afraid and that I was simply transmitting facts to the prosecutor, as expressed to me. He took some notes. He understood, or so I thought. But I was wrong. The shit was on me well and true, it was even embracing me. I was to understand this most painfully in the black days that followed.
The shit arrived saying “I’m coming!”
So, I recall this meeting taking place on a Thursday. Saturdays were the days for phone communications in our block. When I say “communications” you must not overestimate the matter, we’re talking of a call limited to 10 minutes and solely to members of the immediate family. On the following Monday we were allowed “open visits”, without cabins, once a month and for 45 minutes.
That Saturday on the phone, my mother told me that Melek Bengü Şahin, my intimate, my sister, at the top of my mlist of visitors for all eternity, would not be coming the following Monday. All right. It was really not easy to come from Istanbul to Tarsus. But was I alone in hearing of her future absence? Of course not! Those who listen to the phone conversations were aware of this information. Why do I specify this? So as to make the rest more readily understood, of course…
Sunday arrived. An ordinary evening in the Tarsus prison. It was midnight, we were siting in the block refectory, watching the film “Mission Impossible” on tv, talking between friends, why is it Tom Cruise never grows old and the fact he does his own action scenes without a stuntman… All of a sudden, the main door out to the corridor opened and simultaneously, so did the one giving out on the promenade. Dozens of guards crowded in like hardened cowboys, hollering “everybody out in the promenade!”. Suddenly, we didn’t know where we were anymore. Normally, searches took place during office hours, the door to the corridor stayed opened but no one entered in this way, past midnight and pulling everybody outside. Clearly, an “operation” was underway. We were all dressed as one would in order to bear the heat of a warm night in Tarsus.
Incredibly in abnormal situations like these one, I was able to stay cool. This is what happened. Walking calmly out to the promenade I asked “what’s this, a party?” One of the guards then cried out: “Come out from under every stone, Aslıhan Gençay”. That’s when I understood that this midnight raid was from none other than myself. Note: in summertime, the promenades in the cellblocks closed at 8 PM, but this one was open so, in all the shuffle, me and my friends, acting impassively, as if we were were about to savor this nocturnal time out in the promenade. The civil servants, acting feverishly, had requested as an observer a prisoner who wasn’t too familiar with procedures. Normally, the prisoners select the observers. But conditions were not normal, and what was meant to be, happened.
The search lasted for half an hour, then the guards left the block. When we returned to the dormitory we saw that my locker and bed were the only ones pulled apart and left helter-skelter, particularly all the writings that had been read. The prisoner who had served as an observer confirmed: the search was aimed at me. Everyone looked at me with curiosity; myself, acting as if nothing had happened, I observed and listened calmly. After all, only three people — me and two friends in the block — knew the reason behind all this. It was almost one AM when the door opened with a bang and one of the guards called out: “Aslıhan Gençay, come out immediately!” At last, the expected finale ! I headed toward the exit, one of my friends grabbed me “don’t go, we won’t squeal on you”. I answered, “no, it’s useless, they’ll grab me anyway and they will attack you, why should you suffer over this?” And I headed for the door. I found myself in a crowd, wearing nothing but a night shirt, I wasn’t given time enough to change.
We crossed the hall, approached the “aquarium” zone where were held meetings with the direction, I saw them all assembled, all the directors (strangely, for this, a women’s prison, not a single one was a woman) and superior officers in civilian clothes because they had been called in from home. My clothes was not adequate for such a meeting, so I told the guards “are you going to make me face all those men in this outfit? I want to go back to the block and get dressed”. But who was listening to me? We reached the “aquarium”. OK, so the torture party was for me, I was the party girl, had I been prepared, I would have gussied myself up!
As soon as I entered the room, I sat down of course and the director of the establishment who couldn’t stand still, he was pacing back and forth yelled at the guards “make her staaand up!” Two huge female guards grabbed me by the arms, lifted me, and never let go of my arms afterwards. The man was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he was spewing stuff that didn’t fit any logical framework, howling and constantly accusing me. A few examples: “I’m fighting against terrorism and you want to pull the rug from under my feet and have me removed from my duties as director! You want to bring in someone else in my place, someone younger, inexperienced so you can carry out terrorist activities! You have me followed, you have my children followed! You’ve set up a terrorist organization just for my downfall!”… I listened calmly, while thinking “gosh, such a person I am!” while laughing at all this foolish nonsense. The man got even more excited. At last, tired out, he shut up and it was my turn: “The fact I was brought here, after a midnight operation and in inadequate clothing is illegal. If I’m not taken back to the block, I will file a complaint against all of you. I want to call the prosecutor immediately. He must have told you he will investigate what I told him, and you’re attempting all together to shut me up. My allegations are certainly true if you’re subjecting me to all this pressure,” I said. And I added “moreover, what organization is this that I have created, I’m curious to know. If there’s an organization, it must have a name, no?” The director stopped for a moment, thought about it and said, adding fictitious names for the two civil servants complaining: “The Ayşe Fatma Aslı organization!” I know, you can’t believe this, but I swear he really said it like that, I don’t know if it was a case of nerve over the absurdity of it all, but I burst out laughing. I did not know if I should laugh or cry, here we were faced with a new organization, and I was its founder! And away we go!
There followed the usual, run-of-the-mill threats: “Admit it, you’re trying to have us fired. You will never leave this prison. We will open trials against you, you will be sentenced to 20 years for creating and leading a terrorist organization. You are here until the end of your life. If you don’t want this to happen, admit now!” But what I was supposed to admit exactly wasn’t too clear either…
My patience had limits also and it was my turn to yell at the top of my lungs: “You’re the terrorist! You’re the one creating the organization. I did my duty, like any citizen should, I transmitted allegations concerning you to the prosecutor. This is not an offense. If you open a trial against me and if a single judge believes your demented stuff and punishes me, wow, what has the justice system become! You are a torturer and you have been torturing me for an hour…”
Followed by: the torture of isolation
In this madhouse where I had lost my voice from yelling, I heard the director order: “put her into the isolation cell”. I protested in vain “that’s illegal!” but I was dragged there by the guards who squeezed my arms until they were black and blue, and put me in an isolation cell on the top floor.
Setting eyes on it, the first thing I noticed was the fact the floor was wet and the bed and sheets had been carefully dipped into water, in other words the cell had been “lovingly” prepared for me. I’ve already told you how much the director loved me! Instead of a toilet, there was nothing. I headed straight for the door and started pounding on it. I demanded drinking water, soap, paper towels my regular medication for asthma, correct bedding. I received the same answer each time from a member of the A team: “forbidden by order of the director”. They even answered this to my request for soap “why, water isn’t good enough for you?” …“Ah”, I told them “you’re part of those people who don’t wash their hands after using the toilet”. You understand, all this was done out of love…
I was truly reduced to conditions from the middle ages or perhaps I had fallen asleep while watching “Mission Impossible” and none of this was happening for real. Sleep was now forbidden. I pounded on the cell door until dawn, demanding what I needed. Of course, this woke all the women sleeping in the other cells, they heard what was going on, how could they have slept in all that racket? I offer them my deepest apologies for the temporary inconveniences…I managed to sleep at dawn. It was then Monday and I was still in the same situation.
The meal arrived, containing meat. Wonderful, I’m a vegetarian. The women pushed the plate inside, while I pushed it back out. I told her “what a fine torture… of course, there are a thousand and one ways to starve someone”, and did not take it. Oh yes, by the way, each of my movements and words were recorded by a camera. Imagine speaking with a camera always glued to your face. It was like being on the set of “Paranormal Activity”.
In the afternoon, the door opened and I was told I had a visitor. What a surprise! It was Melek Bengü Şahin, I mentioned her before and as if to prove she was a being sprinkled in fairy dust and dropped to Earth, she had decided to come, for no particular reason. Moreover, the visit not taking place in the morning as usual, she had waited into the afternoon. And such a waiting period! In order to get rid of Bengü, they lied saying “Aslı’s block has changed, so did the visiting days. No visitors today.” Yet, having listened into the phone conversation, they were certain I would not have a visitor on this Monday. But Bengü, who wasn’t supposed to come, was there, and their plans to let me suffer in an isolation cell until the following Saturday had fallen apart. Unknowingly, Bengü had thwarted their plan.
Unconvinced by their lies, my friend insisted, saying she was determined not to go anywhere before having seen me, and finally she managed to obtain a visit in the afternoon.
I came out of the cell in a pitiful state, still with the camera following me everywhere, and reached the space dedicated to visits for penal prisoners. Everyone looked at me because all the other detainees had taken care to dress up for the visit whereas I looked as if I’d just arrived from a construction site accompanied by cameras. I will never forget the reunion with Bengü, our embrace over there. They always say you should have a few loyal friends in your life. How true. I felt as if I had been carried from hell to paradise and met there Melek (angel in Turkish) Bengü. But we couldn’t talk normally because a guard had stuck the camera between us and intervened in everything I said. During the meeting that lasted 15 minutes, I told Bengü everything, as best I could, and requested a lawyer. She embraced me and said “not to worry, I’ll take care of everything”, and she did. We walked through arguments together…(While I’m at it, I give infinite thanks to the beautiful and exceptional person known as Melek Bengü Şahin, my sister, my liftelong friend who works as a psychologist in Istanbul’s Metrtopolitan City Hall.)
Thus, my friends, lawyers and family on the outside would be informed of what I was subjected to, and I calmed down. From then on, my time in this cell could be spent on writing requests to every State authority and Human Rights organization, to say what had happened. This is what I did. To such an extent that once, the guard brought back the letters and said “we can’t send these letters, you criticize the administration”. I looked straight into the camera and answered “Record this, it is my legal right, you are violating my rights, I will not take them back!” And my letters were sent.
The following day, I was called for my statement. The director of the establishment was sitting in front of me again, spewing his nonsense, but with a bit less self-confidence. Of course, I did not agree to anything. For hours I was simply subjected to his pressure tactics and he attempted to have me accept his crazy notions. I described the facts, mentioned my two friends from the block as witnesses. Since they had been called on to testify without my knowledge, and had stated exactly the same things I had, my own words were clarified. This is how the plot the director who loved me so much had attempted to build against me, collapsed…
Of course, my lawyer Tugay Bek, never abandoned me in this cell. As usual, he was by my side, came to the visits and intervened for the lifting of my isolation. His efforts were in vain. My future remained uncertain. But since public opinion knew about it, my human needs were attended to and I was even taken to the sports hall for three hours a day, I could also access hot water for coffee and tea. Moreover, the prison prosecutor was transferred to another district, and a new one designated for the establishment. I heard of this when the new prosecutor came to inspect the cells. During the visit he said to the civil servants with him “she calls this a ’cell? But they’re nothing but individual rooms.” Yes, if that’s the case, you should have come to reside there, Mister Prosecutor…I knew it, he dearly loved me also.
And the deportation…
After 15 days in isolation, one morning the cell door opened suddenly and I was told “you’re being transferred”. They barely allowed me ten minutes to gather up my things. Since most of them had remained in the block, they had already been gathered up and placed the the ring, the carceral vehicle. Of course, some of my things were missing. Later, I filled out dozens of requests from my new prison, I put myself out quite a bit to recuperate them and succeeded in the end…
Where were we? Ah yes, when I came out of the cell and was taken to the detainee admission space, both the soldiers and the ring were ready, I was the only one lacking. I was about to climb into the ring and to leave with no idea of where I was going when the civil servants stuck a piece of paper in my hand. I could only read it once on the road. Absurdity was travelling with me, I had been given a disciplinary sanction: a 3 month prohibition to visits. For what motive? “Saying bad things in the establishment”. I laughed during the whole trip. I asked the commander where we were going, and his answer was: “Kayseri”.
Charges dismissed against the torturers
In the first weeks of August 2018, without the opportunity to say goodbye to my friends in Tarsus, I was permanently transferred to the prison of Kayseri. I learned that all the Tarsus prisoners deported there had denounced the Tarsus administration and filed complaints against it. I think even the Justice ministry couldn’t stand the women’s prison of Tarsus anymore. So what were they to do? Would there be an investigation about these allegations? Would the responsible parties be sanctioned? I was in no way certain about it since, finally, all my denunciations, all my complaints over what I had experienced were dismissed one after the other, and to my knowledge, the person I mention is still the director of the women’s prison in Tarsus. So, Justice Minister Abdülhamid Gül, what will you do about all this, huh? I’m really curious as to why I was subjected to all this and why matters went no further.
Ah yes, and what about the sanction I was administered? I protested against it and during the first hearing before the sentencing tribunal, the judge said “Madam, you have committed no crime, what you did was not an offense, consequently, I’m annulling this sanction.” In this SEGBIS room (teleconferencing room) one of the guards from Kayseri prison who was standing next to me, was as happy about it as I was, and we embraced. Don’t say this is not possible, this kind of women’s solidarity can sometimes occur with certain people…
I must specify that what I have told is a simple summary of what I experienced. Don’t say “what a long summary!”, believe me, there would be much more to say about it…
In the next chronicle, we will raise the lantern toward Sivas in order to shed some lights on the oppressions and obscurities in the Sivas prisons. A bit of patience, please…
For other “Prison Notes”, follow this link.
Aslıhan Gençay was born in 1974 and obtained a diploma from the Economic and Administrative Sciences Faculty of Izmir’s Dokuz Eylül University. Because of her identity as a leftist opponent, she was imprisoned for 10 years in 1992. She still bears the sequels of her “fast to the death”, hunger strikes, carried out in prisons in the year 2000. Following her liberation for health reasons, she began working as a a journalist. She wrote for the Radikal, Milliyet Sanat and edited the art and culture pages in Özgür Gündem. In 2016, a reprieve by the European Court of Human Rights was annulled and she was re-imprisoned for five years to carry out the rest of her sentence in the prisons of Sincan (Ankara), Tarsus, Kayseri and Sivas. She regained her freedom in May 2021. She is currently a chronicler for Davul Gazetesi and editor for an NGO.
Translation from French by Renée Lucie Bourges
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