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I wish to tell you about a moth­er, a Kur­dish pris­on­er, ill, and of her child. This is the sto­ry of Fat­ma Tok­mak and of Des­ti­na. In this life jour­ney, you will find, inter­locked, the love of a moth­er for her child, phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ture, a sen­tence, once again under the catch-all accu­sa­tion of “all of them ter­ror­ists!”, used over and over again since the 80s, of the flout­ing of rights to med­ical treat­ment, a strug­gle for iden­ti­ty, not only Kur­dish but of gender…

Fat­ma, the moth­er, is still in prison. Azad, the child now become Des­ti­na, is on the verge of her gen­der reas­sign­ment surgery.

I am writ­ing this arti­cle because a sol­i­dar­i­ty cam­paign was launched through the assis­tance of the LGBTIQ+ Asso­ci­a­tion, Quazar, in order to finance Destina’s surgery, a cam­paign I sup­port per­son­al­ly. By fol­low­ing this link lead­ing to the fund, you can read the let­ter Des­ti­na is address­ing to you (in Eng­lish), explain­ing her life, her dif­fi­cul­ties, in her own words. But I wish to pro­vide more details, both on Fatma’s fate, her sen­tence, an emblem­at­ic file but one that is poor­ly known in Europe and, at the same time, delve deep­er in the extreme­ly dif­fi­cult con­text in which Des­ti­na has been strug­gling in order to sur­vive for the longest time. It is a mat­ter close to my heart  also to under­line the urgency of the help need­ed for Destina…


Accord­ing to the Report on pris­ons pub­lished by the Asso­ci­a­tion for Human Rights (İHD) on April 29 2022, there are 1 517 cas­es of sick pris­on­ers in Turk­ish incar­cer­a­tion estab­lish­ments, 651 of them in seri­ous con­di­tion. (The report notes that these are the fig­ures to which the asso­ci­a­tion had access through its own means, they may pos­si­bly be under-estimated.)

Fat­ma Tok­mak is one of those peo­ple whose life is threat­ened by the very harsh incar­cer­a­tion con­di­tions in Turk­ish prisons.

Fat­ma has already spent 23 years behind bars. She is cur­rent­ly impris­oned in the women’s prison of Bakırköy, and suf­fers from very seri­ous  heart and res­pi­ra­to­ry prob­lems. Because of fail­ing heart valves, she has been sub­ject­ed to sev­er­al surg­eries so far, and her con­di­tion requires reg­u­lar blood transfusions.


It was dur­ing the month of Decem­ber 1996 that Fat­ma was held in cus­tody with her son Azad, then 1,4 years old. She and and her child spent 20 days under tor­ture. In order to make Fat­ma “talk” — she did not know a word of Turk­ish — the child’s body was burned with cig­a­rettes while Fat­ma her­self was sub­ject­ed to the wide gamut of tor­tures prac­ticed at the time, such as “tra­di­tion­al’ flog­gings, the com­mon use of elec­tric­i­ty, strap­pa­do, or yet again psy­cho­log­i­cal and sex­u­al tor­ture. At the time, Fat­ma and her child’s tor­ment was brought to the atten­tion of the Unit­ed States Congress…

Fol­low­ing the cus­tody, Fat­ma Tok­mak was incar­cer­at­ed while her cal­vary con­tin­ued. Her child, who was allowed to remain with his moth­er, or who could have been tak­en in by a fam­i­ly mem­ber, was sent to an orphanage.

Eren Keskin who was already a lawyer at IHD at the time defend­ed the moth­er and the child. While Eren went to the orphan­age to attempt recu­per­at­ing Azad, she tes­ti­fied of the deep trau­ma in the child, who had become mute, the psy­chopathol­o­gy being due to the shock of what he had endured…Following long pro­ce­dures and efforts, Eren final­ly man­aged to reunite the child with his moth­er, then incar­cer­at­ed in the Gebze prison.

Fatma’s file hav­ing been estab­lished dur­ing her incar­cer­a­tion, a trail was opened against her. She was forced to “sign” with her fin­ger­print a state­ment redact­ed in Turk­ish, a lan­guage she did not under­stand, and thus was her arrest validated.

Eren Keskin says: “If truth be told, she didn’t even know of what she was accused. I was con­vinced of her inno­cence from the begin­ning, but she was tried under the alle­ga­tion of being “a mem­ber of an ille­gal orga­ni­za­tion” (PKK) and for “sep­a­ratism”, by virtue of arti­cle 125 of the Turk­ish penal code  of that peri­od.” This refers to arti­cle n° 125 of the 1926 penal code, which was replaced by a new penal code n° 5237 on Sep­tem­ber 26 2004 and applied as of June 1st 2005 (JO Octo­ber 12 2004, 25611).  This arti­cle under which thou­sands of Kurds were sent to Turk­ish gaols pro­vid­ed as fol­lows: “Who­ev­er com­mits acts aimed […] at plac­ing a part or all of the Turk­ish State’s ter­ri­to­ry under  the sov­er­eign­ty of anoth­er State or removes a part of the nation­al ter­ri­to­ry from under the author­i­ty of the Turk­ish State, is sub­ject to the sen­tence of death.” Since the abo­li­tion of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment in 2004 in Turkey, the sen­tence of “incom­press­ible per­pe­tu­ity” has been sub­sti­tut­ed, which is to say, absolute per­pe­tu­ity not sub­ject to any reduc­tion of sentence.

Thus thrown into prison, Fat­ma feel ill after 10 years of incar­cer­a­tion. Her mother’s heart gave out… The Insti­tute of Foren­sic Med­i­cine (ATK) and the Human Rights Foun­da­tion (TİHV) pro­vid­ed reports, clas­si­fy­ing Fat­ma Tok­mak as an “ill pris­on­er”. She was thus lib­er­at­ed for heart ill­ness in 2005 while her tri­al was still proceeding.

In 2006, when the tri­al end­ed, Fat­ma was sen­tenced to per­pe­tu­ity. Know­ing she was inno­cent and trust­ing in jus­tice, Fat­ma thought that the ver­dict would be repealed by the Court of appeal. But the lat­ter only con­firmed the deci­sion and Fat­ma was impris­oned once again. Des­ti­na, who was still “Azad” at the time, said of this lib­er­a­tion “when my moth­er was lib­er­at­ed I was in my last year of grade school, I learned of her lib­er­a­tion as I left school. I was so hap­py that I tore my apron out of sheer emo­tion. I had not believed that whe would be lib­er­at­ed until I reached the prison, and the door opened and my moth­er stepped out. It’s as if I had been giv­en the world. We spent 3,5 years togeth­er. We had just start­ed build­ing our lit­tle world when they tore my moth­er away from me, again…”

fatma tokmak

Despite the med­ical reports from the TIHV attest­ing that Fat­ma must not remain in prison, the reg­u­lar and repeat­ed sol­lic­i­ta­tions, her lawyers sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly received the same unfa­vor­able response from the foren­sic insti­tute: “Fat­ma Tok­mak can be kept incar­cer­at­ed per­fect­ly well, she is capa­ble of attend­ing to her dai­ly needs by her­self”…The lat­est very recent attempt received the same refusal.

For long years now, Fat­ma has ben held in deten­tion in harsh con­di­tions and in iso­la­tion. She is detained in the women’s prison of Bakırköy in the cells designed for three peo­ple. She says she can not make nor­mal use of her right to med­ical care. Fat­ma must go to the hos­pi­tal at least once a month. But, upon return­ing for each med­ical vis­it, she is sub­ject­ed to 14 days of quar­an­tine in an iso­la­tion cell. Apart from the harsh and inhu­man con­di­tions imposed on pris­on­ers dur­ing the trans­fers and the vis­its, such as the oblig­a­tion of trav­el­ling in the sti­fling vehi­cle known as the ’ring’, hours of wait­ing in it or yet again con­sul­ta­tions while hand­cuffed… Nov­el­ist Aslı Erdoğan, a co-detainee of Fat­ma Tok­mak described these vis­its as a cal­vary in an inter­view:

The most dif­fi­cult part of prison is the med­ical help. Infir­mary vis­its are once a week. They are a hor­ror. Out­side secu­ri­ty from gen­darmerie escort you there. They load you aboard this hor­ri­ble vehi­cle, the ‘ring’. The ‘ring’ is some­thing that even the twen­ty pris­on­ers who are used to every­thing can­not stand. 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. They take you to the hos­pi­tal like this. They bring the women inside, one by one, with the gen­darmes and pad­locks. The oth­ers wait in the nar­row cof­fin. Three hours, some­times four. Those who vom­it, those who faint… Peo­ple turn white. At the same time, you want at once to see a doc­tor, you’ve wait­ed months for this trans­fer and yet you tell your­self : How will I be able to stand the ‘ring’?”

This prac­tice is extreme­ly dis­cour­ag­ing for the pris­on­ers, most of them resign them­selves and their health dete­ri­o­rates even more… When a month­ly vis­it is required, the sick pris­on­er has to spend half the month, which is to say half of their time, alone in iso­la­tion. It isn’t hard to under­stand Fat­ma when she says “they impose inhu­man con­di­tions on us, so I don’t go to the hos­pi­tal. I’m not the only one in my case. All the women here say the same thing and we receive let­ters from oth­er friends incar­cer­at­ed in oth­er pris­ons who expe­ri­ence the same dif­fi­cul­ties. At the hos­pi­tal, the doc­tors now treat in ways that are almost worse than the gen­darmes. They don’t remove the hand­cuffs, the gen­darmes do not stay out­side the cab­ins dur­ing con­sul­ta­tions, acon­duct­ed in a humil­i­at­ing way. This is why we do not want to go to the hospital.”

Aslı Erdoğan who was her­self detained in the women’s prison of Bakırköy, spoke to me at length about Fat­ma, her cell­mate at the time.

She said: “One day Fat­ma had a med­ical vis­it but this time, to Pendik hos­pi­tal far from Bakırköy on the oth­er shore of Istan­bul. She was up at 5 in the morn­ing and set off. She came back at the end of the day, white-faced, exhaust­ed. Then she told us what hap­pened. In the first place, in order to reach the hos­pi­tal, she had endured an inter­minable trip, and had spent 4 hours in this vehi­cle that resem­bles a cof­fin, suf­fo­cat­ing, handcuffed…Following the con­sul­ta­tion accom­pa­nied by a horde of sol­diers, with­out any inti­ma­cy, came the moment of return. The sol­diers placed her in the ’ring’ and said they would now go off to eat. She wait­ed this way for a few more hours while they spent their time at the table before tak­ing the road back which took anoth­er 4 hours. And this woman the sol­diers had kept wait­ing in the ’ring’, locked into a tight space with no air, where you swel­ter or freeze, depend­ing on the sea­son, had a grave­ly ill heart… Do you realize?”

She added in a somber voice “she is so ill that it’s sur­pris­ing Fat­ma is still alive today. I think her child is the only thing bind­ing her to life…” 

Years have gone by in this way, and Fat­ma is still behind bars.

In the mean­time, Des­ti­na has jour­neyed and she is now set­tled in Istan­bul in order to be close to Bakırköy prison where Fat­ma is still incar­cer­at­ed. Nor­mal­ly, she should be vis­it­ing her every week. But “these vis­its became a real cal­vary for me, I was trau­ma­tized. I can no longer go see my moth­er. I go with my fam­i­ly, but I can­not go inside, I wait out­side the prison that the oth­ers fin­ish their vis­it”, Des­ti­na says. “Every time I set foot inside, the fact I am a trans women, the guards and sol­diers humil­i­ate me, insult me, attack me. I can’t take it any­more.” Indeed, per­sons wish­ing to see their close ones are searched pri­or to enter­ing the vis­it­ing room. Male vis­i­tors are searched by men, women by women. “Apart from the insults and ver­bal humil­i­a­tions, I’m sex­u­al­ly abused. The women refuse to search me. They say they don’t want to touch me, that they feel like vom­it­ing. I must be searched by men to whom their com­man­der orders to wear gloves as if I was infect­ed. As if I enjoyed being touched in this way. And yet, I do not want the men to search me because the ges­tures sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly turn into insis­tant, per­verse, they fon­dle me, squeeze my breasts, my ass. The last time I was being searched in this way, I even saw their com­man­der fondling him­self in a cor­ner. I was dis­gust­ed. I didn’t dare go back. So I haven’t seen my moth­er in months. She needs me, I miss here. But I can no longer put up with these agres­sions, I don’t have the strength for it any­more. The truth is that as long as I’m not oper­at­ed and reas­signed, I be sub­ject­ed to this kind of dis­hon­or­able atti­tudes of the sol­diers and the guards.”

In fact, in Turkey, almost all trans pris­on­ers who have not had their reas­sign­ment surgery and mod­i­fied their gen­der on the files, are treat­ed accord­ing to the gen­der entered on the ID. Which caus­es trau­ma­tiz­ing prob­lems, espe­cial­ly for the trans women because prison admin­is­tra­tions, using the pre­text of “pro­tect­ing them” main­tain them in con­tin­u­al soli­tary con­fine­ment, a per­ma­nent iso­la­tion that is total­ly inhu­man and ille­gal. As a reminder there are the cas­es of Esra, Sibel, Buse, or Diren we have already men­tioned on Kedis­tan.

When she was younger, Des­ti­na said: “I want to be with my moth­er again while she is alive, before it’s too late”, and she has not stopped repeat­ing it… Asso­ci­a­tions, organ­i­sa­tions and defend­ers of the rights of sick pris­on­ers attempt to obtain Fatma’s lib­er­a­tion but see­ing the num­ber of refusals, this strug­gle is far from being won. While this strug­gle goes on, let’s at least give Des­ti­na the chance of vis­it­ing her moth­er in bet­ter con­di­tions. Before it’s too late…

Thank­ing you in advance for any type of sup­port you can offer Des­ti­na and thus, indi­rect­ly to Fatma.

You can already relay the cam­paign to your own net­work of friends and acquain­tances, on social media, on your blogs… And of course, you can also make a con­tri­bu­tion on Hel­lo Asso (66% of the amount is deductible for income tax pur­pos­es). Even the small­est, sym­bol­ic con­tri­bu­tions mat­ter. Do not hes­i­tate in express­ing your sup­port even if your means are very modest.

Come on, togeth­er, we can do it!

Translation from French by Renée Lucie Bourges

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Naz Oke
REDACTION | Journaliste 
Chat de gout­tière sans fron­tières. Jour­nal­isme à l’U­ni­ver­sité de Mar­mara. Archi­tec­ture à l’U­ni­ver­sité de Mimar Sinan, Istanbul.