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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…

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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.

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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.