Yes, dear friends, here we are together again. I’ve kept my promise, we have now reached the third part. This article reaches you after a bit of a delay, but better late than never…
About my previous article concerning Tarsus
In my previous narration, I told you about the ill treatments to which I was subjected in Tarsus prison and of those responsible for them who remain unpunished. I later noticed there were a few elements missing and my heart would be ill at ease if I did not complete my notes about them.
The director of the Tarsus Women’s prison, that person who tormented and tortured me during the period of some fifteen days I mentioned in my article, also said to me on many occasions, “no one can pull you out of my grip, not the President of the Republic, nor the Minister of Justice, nor your lawyers of so-called human rights”. When I answered “how calmly you speak about it, and how you allow yourself to behave illegally”, he answered insistently : “I have Fahrettin Altun, advisor to the President covering my back, nothing will happen to me!” Well, I have no way of knowing if what he stated is true, all I know is this is how he talked and that, he was right, nothing has happened to him.
Moreover, while I was in the cell, a woman was taken into the foam room, handcuffed in the back, to get beaten up, a fact I experienced through her cries and my attempts at intervention by howling through the trapdoor in my cell. From what I learned later, that poor woman had sunk into a deep depression, and had attempted to commit suicide, this being the reason why she was thrown into the foam room for a beating. Furthermore, at that time, Tarsus prison was well-known for its suicides…
Other than these missing elements, the best development is in the countless returns I received for that article. First, from the girls who were in the cell next to mine when I was in isolation, who contacted me: “do you remember us?” they asked. How could I forget them? How could I not remember them?
The, Doctor Cemil Galiğlu, a member of the administration board of the Association for Human Rights and Secretary General of the Mersin Order of Physicians called me. He asked me what he could do, looked into the file and came up with the letter I had sent them on July 27 2018. He explained that at the time, they had written exchanges with the Mersin İHD (Association of Human Rights) about my statements but that they resulted in the same dismissal. Because the allegations, coming as they did from an ordinary citizen attacking civil servants had been viewed as “unseemly and abstruse” although “legitimate and concrete”. I wasn’t even surprised about this. And since a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, there was nothing he could do about it. However, on this occasion, I learned that the Mersin Order of Physicians regularly sent delegations to the Tarsus prison. These visits are extremely important in dealing with deprivation of access to health care, as well as when the prisoners at hospital consultations are kept handcuffed, and concerning the recent practice of “mouth searches” at the time of admission into prison. I wish to thank Cemil Galiğlu for his attention.
Was Sincan prison any better?
Lest I forget, dear friends, I must say I was also incarcerated in Sincan women’s prison in Ankara, in 2016-2017. They have no cause for rejoicing in the fact I don’t write about them, this prison was also a problematic establishment. I have not forgotten, and never will forget how, on the day of the coup d’état on July 15 2016, they abandoned the corridors and fled, how, using the state of emergency as an alibi, they ransacked the blocks, confiscated almost everything, from books to plastic containers, how they forbade everything they could think of, how they grabbed and tore up a tiny innocent cartoon I had drawn and put up on the wall, and as a matter of fact, how they imposed a disciplinary sanction on me because of that drawing. And I have not forgotten nor will I ever forget that deputy director who harassed me relentlessly, from the first day when I set foot in that prison, up until my forced transfer toward Tarsus. Apparently, he has also been sidelined since then, I hear. But let it be known that I will never forget!
Moreover, the only reason why I don’t write articles dedicated to the open prison of Sivas is because, since my liberation in April 2021, I’ve given many interviews on what I endured over there.
Many readers know that as I had just been liberated, I was trapped in the middle of the night by some fifteen or so guards, inside an isolated container, I was undressed completely, and since I refused three times to squat for a total strip-search, because I found this a disgrace, a disciplinary investigation was opened against me. I was then subjected to three days of isolation and, while awaiting the confirmation of the disciplinary sanction, I was kept in this so-called open prison of Sivas for approximately one month. As soon as the sanction was approved, this time I was sent directly to the closed prison of Sivas…Those who wish details will find numerous articles on this topic on the Web.
In whom does one find honor and virtue?
That is where the narrative part of this article begins, with this sanction of three day imprisonment in an isolation cell, imposed in 2020, after I had just been liberated…
I must add that at the Sivas Tribunal for the execution of sentences where I appeared through SEGBIS (audiovisual system) for having contested this sanction, the judge in person said to my lawyer “Sir, your client is the one being judged here, not the State’s civil servants. Moreover, strip-searches appear as part of the legislation, the civil servants were only doing their job. The fact of speaking up to say “I won’t let you do this belongs to the domain of refusals to obey”. Following which the guards declared they had wanted to proceed to a strip-search and that I had not accepted. Thus, for the judge, the strip-search was perfectly natural, although, apparently the Ministry of Justice categorically denied its practice.
This tribunal also reminded me of another truth. Which one? I had called as witness a common law prisoner. Just as she did, the guards who had wanted to strip-search me stood up before their testimony, and swore to “tell the truth on their honor and virtue.” then the hearing began. But what is this? The guards stated that I had not refused the strip-search, but the ordinary one…This when the prisoner I did not even know personally until that day but on whom I had called to testify because she had been an eye witness to the events, gave a correct narration of the facts, without a single word too little or too many. Of course, since the judge considered strip-searches as perfectly normal and natural, the guards then accepted to state instead that they had wanted to proceed to …a strip-search.
The picture that emerged at this trial clearly demonstrated for me that you cannot know in whom you will find honor and virtue. On the one hand, you had a woman sentenced for a crime, who you might consider as evil, on the other, neat and proper civil servants, living “correct and respectable” lives. What should one do then? That dear Schopenhauer mentioned it in his writings, many of the people walk around you with murderous feelings, which they don’t act out for fear of sanctions. And facing them, you have a Kabil, a person who committed an unacceptable murder but who regretted it and examined her own self… Which is acceptable? Schopenhauer pointed out the latter. I totally share his opinion. And here, I specify and I underline: friends, I will speak here of people who both “think” and “act” and what is more, who are not in the least bit sanctioned for their behavior. What name should one give to these persons?
Strip-search in the Sivas closed prison
All right, I now set aside philosophy and return to our main topic. Yes, so after about one month of waiting as a hostage in the Sivas open prison, and the confirmation of my sanction of 3 days in isolation by the Penal Tribunal, the guards suddenly appeared in the cell where I was kept in isolation and announced that I was being transferred to the “closed” prison of Sivas. I was expecting it, thinking to myself “let’s go and see what will now happen to our heroine” as I stepped into the small vehicle.
First I received a PCR test in the Hafik health center then, we arrived at the “closed” prison of Sivas. Uncharacteristically, this establishment was downtown and so I thought I would not be kept there very long. I still had six months of incarceration to serve and I thought I would probably be taken to a maximum security prison. My person and my belongings were scanned by X-ray and the moment of the search arrived. Three guards were waiting for me in front of the search room. I didn’t have to ask myself “why three?” I understood. It was as preparation for the “welcoming party”. How courteous, the only thing missing was the red carpet!
We entered the small room and the expected order fell: “Undress yourself!” A fuss started up as soon as I said “I certainly will not. I was taken here precisely because I don’t accept strip searches, and now, you would be the ones enforcing it?” – “Listen, you’ll receive sanctions here too. Six-month long sanctions will land one after the other and you will never get out of prison. Now undress yourself like a good girl…” I asked them “according to the rules, those responsible for the establishment are supposed to be present, where is the director?” The director wasn’t there, his deputy arrived. We left the room for a short meeting. Result? “The search is mandatory.” Under duress, they decided to produce a written order. A statement was prepared under the signature of a male civil servant. So they were going to proceed to a forced strip-search.
Listen, normally, persons about to attack another, undressing her forcibly, can’t possibly be so motivated and zealous, such work cannot be done with pleasure. And yet, what I read on the faces of the guards and in their diligence was that they were anxious to perform the work of aggression “lovingly”. Henceforth what was to be would be and there was nothing further to be done about it. I began waiting for the end of the bureaucratic procedures and their assault. Suddenly, a man arrived wearing a hazmat suit. He was from the infirmary. He was charged with standing at the door while I was searched forcibly, in order to save me should I have a life-threatening asthma attack. Oh, such grace, such delicacy!
In short, all was completed, signatures entered on documents, my savior took his position at the door and I was introduced into the room. The expected turbulence began: one of the guards pinned my arms behind my back with a huge charge of hatred – don’t ask where that hatred came from, for a person she was seeing for the first time. Perhaps she had gossiped about me behind my back with her colleagues from the open prison. The two others attempted to remove my clothes, while I sat on the floor and while I said that under no conditions would I undress myself, they managed to undress me forcibly.
What does that mean, undressing forcibly? Does such a duty exist? Is there such a morality, a form of decency in such a culture? Perhaps you possess these qualities, I don’t! Well, one against three, with hands and arms locked behind my back, obviously they achieved their goal. Was it over? No. The rules says you must “squat three times”, so this they would do also? Two guards grabbed me under the arms and lowered me three times, me, who had not left the ground since the beginning. Thus was their divine duty completed. What was I doing during all that time? I was telling them “seeing you, I’m ashamed to be a woman. If you are women, then I’m not one! Have you no shame?” In other words, like any other human being with some sense of honor who would be subjected to this kind of treatment, I became excited, went crazy, howled and was beside myself. As for them, they felt no shame in committing this ignominy, quite the contrary, they were accusing me…
I’ll speak clearly: the reason for my refusal of strip-searches is not because of shame. After all, it’s my body, my decision. However, since this practice is intended to break prisoners, to humiliate them as soon as they are admitted into the prison, in order to break their sense of honor and their pride, and since there are no necessities or logical reasons for it, I objected then and will always object to them.
“The dog kennel” in the Sivas prison
The suffering from the welcoming ceremony given to a woman by other women was over with but my nerves were not calming down. We left the room, I recuperated some of my belongings and was taken to the part where I was to stay. I use the word “part” so as not to be misunderstood: it consisted of a cell 2 meters by 2 meters in which, just beside the toilet, a bed was crammed in between two walls, a room you covered in one step, where it was impossible to take two steps, a cell that resembled a dog kennel. And I seem to recall that on the door was written “Observation 1”. My entrance and my exit were almost instantaneous. “I can’t stay here, I’m asthmatic, and there’s not even enough room to breathe, here!” There was really no air, unless you consider the tiny opening covered in barbed wire just above the toilet. After exchanges such as “there is no other space, you are under a sanction of an isolation cell”, I was forced to enter this kennel. So the ignominy was ongoing…
Of course, since I was sanctioned, family visits were forbidden, phone calls were forbidden, I was all alone, isolated from the outside world, abandoned to the hands of these barbarians. Such was the picture.
The first thing I did in the kennel was to go to the window above the toilet. It gave out on the block promenade. And in this block were held common law prisoners. They immediately heard that a new “neighbour” had arrived, they began going out on the promenade and took turns at putting questions to me. Just as I was reasoning myself by saying that, at least, there were people with whom I could talk, the door to the promenade opened suddenly, the guards who had searched me started to holler after the girls: “You don’t talk with her, you don’t communicate!” The girls answered “yeah right” but of course they did nothing of the sort, because no matter the offence or the crime for which they were app there, those women knew what it meant to share a fate, and solidarity. My next four days were spent reading and discussing with them, outside the terrorizing attacks by the guards. And here, I’m betraying myself: just at the space between the window and the wall, I carved out the plastered part and, by that tiny hole, me and my new friends kept a whole world crossing through. And we did well.
The guards would take me out one hour per day and had me walk in an unoccupied block promenade. My isolation cell sanction was for three days, but they kept me in this dog kennel for four. During that time, I spoke with the director of the establishment and he told me that, since there were no quarters in which to incarcerate me, they were going to transfer me again. And he told me that, according to the new law, political prisoners could benefit from a year of unconditional freedom before being incarcerated in an open prison, so that, had I been imprisoned in the closed prison of Kayseri without a transfer to the open prison of Sivas, I would not have been subjected to all that, and he was sorry about that for my sake. In any event, as I could not be kept in this kennel for the remaining 6 months, I also requested my transfer to Istanbul, of course. But the malediction continued.
The solidarity among women
While awaiting my transfer, my isolation sanction ended nonetheless. On orders from the director, I was placed alone in a large and empty block, on the upper floor. The window also gave out on the same promenade and I continued my conversations with my new friends. In fact, this establishment is a men’s prison and it only contained a few blocks for women. For this reason, the “canteen” was also for the men and a number of products women needed were not on sale.
So try to imagine, women in need of sanitary napkins and none are sold at the canteen. How were we to manage? Following hues and cries, a civil servant would come and take orders, obtain them from the outside and distribute them.
Moreover on the prison library list, I found all the books by “my friend” Jean Christophe Grange that I hadn’t read yet, I requested them, and they were most welcome. While awaiting my transfer, I travelled in this way from one murder to another. As there was no television, no samovar and no kettle at the canteen, my only link to the outside world was the women in the neighbouring block. One day, they got caught sending me a newspaper. The guard saw that I was drawing up the newspaper tied to a string, through the window. Nothing was said to me but they went to their block and forced the women to admit “who did it? She must denounce herself!” None of the girls said a word, you can believe it. A true omerta! Then a woman, despite the fact she had right-wing opinions and had been sentenced as leader of a criminal organization, took the blame on herself. Luckily nothing happened to her and she never stopped sending me newspapers.
How did I manage to catch Covid on top of it all?
I had just learned from the director that I would be transferred to the prison in Kayseri because all the prisons in Istanbul were overflowing. Again, I was given a PCR test after the results from which I would be sent on my way to Kayseri. On the night of this same day, the block door opened. Civil servants in hazmats stormed in, “Aslıhan Gençay! Your PCR test is positive, you’re going to emergencies!” Should matters be announced in this way? I mean… Surprised and flipping out, I donned the hazmat provided and climbed into the ambulance waiting at the door.
After the consultations at the hospital, they decided I would spend the confinement period in the block and we went back to the prison slot. But how did I manage to catch Covid? Because, on arrival my PCR test had been negative and I was held in isolation. Following a brief investigation, I learned that the common law prisoner who occupied the “Observation 1” kennel before I did had come down with Covid and I was placed in that cell immediately after. That same detainee was also present in the block where I found myself, and then liberated because of a pregnancy. Basically, I caught the virus in the cell or in the block in which they had locked me up without proceeding to its disinfection.
Thus, the transfer would have to wait for the end of the 15 day quarantine. I was now the hostage of the Sivas closed prison… Shortly after, the Covid symptoms appeared: breathing difficulties, extreme fatigue, fever, etc… Crossing the long corridor between the dormitory and the door to the block felt like death to me. They gave me medication every morning through the trap in the door which I reached almost crawling. Now, television samovar and kettle proved necessary. Once my Covid infection was confirmed and despite my trouble breathing, I sat down and wrote letters to every institution imaginable. I also demanded a television and a samovar from the direction, since the canteen did not offer any. Finally, the director of the establishment provided me with a small tv set and a samovar. Thus did civilization reach my block.
I’ll never forget the first time I watched tv, the evening news was on and they were talking about the fight that had broken out during the talks over the budget at the Ministry of Justice. I looked at the images but I simply couldn’t put them in context. Then, I learned that Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, the deputy from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) had raised the issue of my persecution before Parliament and had questioned the Minister concerning strip-searches. As the Minister was denying the reality of strip-searches, an argument broke out…
During that period, I also learned that I had received letters from various prisons. Through the trap in the door, I was handed a document announcing that the Disciplinary Board had decided not to give me the letters addressed to me because “they contained insults against civil servants”. Letters I was unable to read, that my family could not see, phone calls I could not make… All my means of communication were cut off, forbidden because of Covid. I was thus in “isolation” in every sense of the term, apart for the small bits of conversation with the girls in the neighbouring block.
Persecution from the guards as a supplement…
At each changing of the guard, even in early morning, the ones starting their service would burst into the empty block to look at me. As if I was a monkey in the circus? Despite the fact there were a few kinder ones among them, and even one who with a maternal attitude spoke about me as a “kid”, most of them were women with prejudices. One of them, one morning, pushing the medication through the trap door hollered at me “shove that into yourself!” Yes, this was in the early morning I was ill and I was angry. I stumbled across this corridor and hollered back at her the answer she deserved. Because I’ve always been convinced of this: no matter who it may be, when someone behaves in a certain way, you answer in a similar fashion. Respect for respect, reaction against reaction.
That woman could not behave that way with me, she could not have that attitude. My voice woke up the girls in the neighbouring block and the guard left enraged, almost running, and I think she headed to the director. That same day, a bit later, that same guard accompanying girls from next door must have shown the same attitude toward them and I heard them say “you can’t talk that way to us!” I admit to a sly smile. In the afternoon, the guard came to the trap and said to me “that’s my way of talking, I didn’t have any bad intentions”…She was a woman who wore the head scarf. I looked at her and gave the matter some thought. You should know I have no problems with religious beliefs, ethnicity, a person’s lifestyle. And during all the time I spent in “open” or “closed” prisons in Sivas, I saw how, no matter whether the detainees were common law, political, from the Left, from the Right, inasmuch as the possibility exists to establish a correct dialogue, I can get along and be in solidarity with all of them. So I then said to this woman that in this environment, where there was only the two of us with no witnesses nor cameras, still, according to her beliefs, someone could see perfectly well the ill treatment she was displaying toward me. She didn’t say anything, but judging from the fact she later sent me herbal teas, I presume she understood what I meant..
I spent my time taking medication morning and night, in Grange’s company, and talking with the girls. I even wrote a letter addressed to the Court of Appeals for a woman sentenced to 15 years. In other words, I found “customers” here also… We exchanged addresses and phone numbers with my new friends, for later. In this way, we reached the end of the quarantine. This time, double PCR tests, both negative.
On the morning when I left the block where I had spent those horrible days prior to my transfer, I was first taken to the director’s office. There, I learned that following the letters I had written, an investigation was opened against the guards and I was to make my statement. Even though I knew it would lead to nothing, I did so. Not in the least bit sad to quit the place, I offered my detainee friends a book by Boris Vian and left Sivas.
Upon returning to the closed women’s prison of Kayseri, I learned that a campaign had been launched concerning strip-searches and that a number of prisoners had testified about their experience, but that the Ministry was turning a blind eye to the issue. Here, I wish to thank Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu for having carried out his duties of deputy as they should be performed, with courage, and for having supported me through the hard times. Another person I will never forget is Eren Keskin who fills her friends with confidence, instils fear in her enemies, my precious friend I called from the open prison in Sivas and whose voice always revived my hope. She is one of these invaluable people, a fighter and oh so beautiful!
Here we go for another sentence without judgment!
Arriving in Kayseri meant renewing with old friends in the same block. But don’t think my torments were finished. No, no, I still had stuff to endure.
Perhaps the open prison in Sivas had not considered the three days in isolation and the 6 additional months of prison I had earned for my refusal to the strip-search sufficient punishment, because it also wanted me put on trial before the Lower Court. I was accused of “resisting the civil servants in order to keep them from performing their duty” and of “serial threats”. Do you know what these “serial threats” consisted of? The fact I told them “I’ll complain about you to the Ministry of Justice”. Does this call for laughter or tears?
I made a distance appearance at the hearing via the audiovisual system (SEGBIS). My lawyer was to connect from Adana. Two selected female civil servants took place behind their SEGBIS camera in the open prison of Sivas. They connected me a bit too early, I think, and I waited in front of the camera. On the screen I could see the civil servants in Sivas and could also hear their conversations. They were setting out their plans “I’ll say this, you’ll say that…” and I listened. Apparently, they were unaware of it.
After putting up with this absurdity for a while, the hearing room appeared on screen, the prosecutor and the judges took their seats. We waited for my lawyer to connect. At that moment, the judge turned toward the prosecutor and told him “in any case, there’s no need for a trial, we’ll hear the two witnesses from the Sivas prison, and that will settle the matter.” So then, the decision had already been taken, since they considered it sufficient to hear one of the two parties, which annulled the need for a trial, and that was that!
So there you are, I heard all this, all the maneuvering taking place in my back, the verdicts handed down without judgment… Then my lawyer connected up and the trial – the verdict of which had already been decided – began nonetheless. The judge asked for my defence, as if nothing untoward was going on. Responses were read as if we were in a play and finally the previously decided decision was announced: 6 months and 7 days of prison. This decision is currently being appealed at the local appeal court (istinaf), it will be annulled or confirmed, we’ll discover this together!
[NDLR : (Editor’s note: In the past few years, the matter of strip-searches has produced the flowing of a lot of ink. Despite testimonials, deposition of complaints, the Ministry of Justice and the authorities constantly deny the existence of the practice. In November 2021, strip-searches that had been declared thus far as “inexistant” by the Ministry were nonetheless suppressed from the legislation. Thus on January 20 2022, Aslıhan Gençay was acquitted in this trial.]
Change of regulation
While we were awaiting the decision of the court of appeal, in November 2021, a decision was published in the Official Journal by which “strip searches” were removed from the legislation as prison practices and replaced by “detailed searches”. Were also added “precisions” such as “to be employed if no other methods can be used”. Here, I would like to remind everyone that the equipment for X-ray inspections is available in almost all prisons in Turkey. The publication also mentions a statement that would be signed by the person conducting the search and the person subjected to the searching. In this way at least, prisoner subjected to a humiliating treatment could officialize it in this document. Whereas, formerly, the documents were established solely by the civil servants who, of course, wrote whatever they wanted.
I assert and underline twice: the “detailed searches” in question are carried out with malicious intent, and nothing will change. Yet, I also know that this amendment in the legislation is the minimum resulting from the struggles carried out, and of the prices paid for them.
And now we come to the questions…
Mister President of the Republic, Mister Minister of Justice Abdülhamid Gül, I have described for you from the prisons of Sincan, of Tarsus, and from the open and closed prisons of Sivas, on a number of occasions and in detail, all the injustices, illegalities, ill treatment and tortures to which I was subjected. But, for some reason, their perpetrators are still sitting in all impunity despite what they committed. You have certainly not given any consideration to all that, but personally, I will never forget them.
Naturally, human beings are curious and ask themselves “what did they attempt to achieve exactly?”. Perhaps the thought behind it was “let’s break her, let’s force her to accept humiliating treatments so that once she’s outside, she won’t dare to contest, she won’t be in a condition to write, to speak, she will disappear and be quiet in her corner.” But you see, that’s not how it played out
Why was I systematically subjected to a sentence within a sentence? I ask again : when I was sentenced to 5 years in prison – which is in itself the astronomical residue of a sentence imposed in the 1990s by the State Security Courts (DGM)1without my being present at the hearings or allowed to use my right to defence. Why were persecutions and ill treatments added on to this?
If none of this concerns you, why then have those responsible remained unpunished? My demand is simply that those who are responsible be punished to the height of the tears that fell from my mother’s eyes, she who cried during those five years, saying “they are going to kill my daughter”. And, if possible, I claim the right to answers to my questions.
Friends, in conclusion, I give infinite thanks to those whose names I cannot reveal but who stood by me during these last five years of calvary. May they not be worried, those who knowing me or not – do you need to know a person in order to stand by her? – were not with me. Those who, according to Ahmet Kaya’s expression “deprived me of a little hello” 2and yet when the topics of human rights, of struggle etc, are raised, they weave their speeches with grand words. They need not worry. I have nothing to say to them, except to leave them in a tête-à-tête with their conscience.
NOTE: We have now reached the end of my prison notes. But I would like to share with public opinion and the Ministry of Justice a further article concerning my demands and proposals concerning carceral conditions and the problems I observed and personally experienced in prison.
And so, here’s to another meeting soon.
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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