Turkish-German journalist Tolu: No child should see the inside of a prison

Meşale Tolu.

Turkish-German journalist Meşale Tolu, who was imprisoned in Turkey for more than half a year, at times held with her 2-year-old son, told Deutsche Welle (DW) that “No child should see the inside of a prison. It’s not the same reality as on the outside. These are conditions, established by authorities, to seal people off from society. But there are many children who need their mothers, so parents have to make a very difficult choice.”

German journalist and translator Tolu (33) was detained on April 30, 2017 during a raid in İstanbul and was held in custody until December. Turkey accuses Tolu of supporting the banned extremist, left-wing Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLCP). Her husband, Suat Çorlu, who is being tried in the same case, has not been allowed to leave the country.

Talking about her time in jail, freedom of the press and her next plans, Tolu explained her own choice about her son and said: “For instance, I found out that my son, who was separated from me for the first 17 days of my captivity, was not doing well psychologically. At that moment, it became clear to me that he needed to be with me, so I could give him a feeling of stability and safety again.

“In prison, he had no toys. Children need toys at that age. We improvised by making things ourselves. We tried to paint the walls, with stones and whatever else we had. It was very grey and cold, and everything was made of concrete. I got support from the other imprisoned women. They were all political prisoners who had been detained for years, sent to prison after the attempted coup,” said Tolu.

“It was a very difficult time because my son was very young. He was 2-1/2 years old at the time. How can you expect such a small child to understand something adults do not understand? My son has been through a lot. Now that he is back, I realize he remembers that period.”

The Turkish government, which has been arbitrarily holding at least 17,000 women and more than 700 children with their mothers in prisons, has been widely criticised both in Turkey and abroad since it has not released these people despite the fact that they have released criminals.

The mothers of most of the children in Turkish jails have been arrested as part of a government crackdown on followers of the Gülen movement in the aftermath of a controversial coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016, and most of them are in pre-trial detention and not yet convicted of a crime.

Around 17,000 women including pregnant women and women who have just given birth as well as those with small children have been jailed due to alleged Gülen links since the botched coup.

According to data from the Turkish Justice Ministry concerning the number of children who are in jail with their mothers, there were 560 such children in 2016, 128 of whom were aged one, 114 aged two, 81 aged three, 70 aged four, 31 aged five and five of whom were aged six as well as 17 other children whose ages were not known by the authorities.

According to the Turkish Penal Code’s Article 5275, “the sentence of imprisonment is set aside/postponed for women who are pregnant or who are within six months of delivery.” Experts say that according to the law, the arrest of pregnant women and those who have infants younger than six months of age is not possible at all. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) also takes born or unborn children under protection.

However, women and mothers who have been jailed in the unprecedented crackdown have been subjected to torture and ill-treatment in detention centers and prisons as part of the government’s systematic campaign of intimidation and persecution of critics and opponents, a report titled “Jailing Women In Turkey: Systematic Campaign of Persecution and Fear released in April 2017 by SCF revealed.

“It was always apparent that they wanted to punish us as a family,” Tolu said. “The current government is pushing anti-women policies. Women should stay at home. They should have children, preferably three of them, and not interfere in politics. It’s imposed on every woman. Normally, as a mother, I would have had the right to a delayed detention. But politically engaged women don’t have that right. They should be punished for getting politically involved.”

Underlining that she had not enjoyed the benefits of a German passport, Tolu said: “That was my criticism. I experienced a very violent house raid. I was in court three times and always defended myself. I was abducted; an exit ban was imposed on me. I generally agree with the criticism of the difference in treatment between German and Turkish journalists. But I do not think that applies to me. If you look at all cases involving German citizens, I have been the most disadvantaged so far. But I do not want to make it all about me. Many of my colleagues are still imprisoned. There are many unnamed Kurdish journalists detained in the southeast of the country — where there is more torture that no one hears about. I’ll continue to point out that there are 70,000 students and 570 lawyers being detained. These are all political decisions.”

“When you watch TV, you don’t hear anything critical. All opposition channels were closed by decree. Hardly anything aside from the government is being reported on. Because of the declared state of emergency, we couldn’t buy government-critical newspapers in jail. Usually, you have the right to do so. We only got Cumhuriyet and sometimes the newspaper BirGün. And not always even those. We were always told that the newspapers were sold out. In prison, you realize how bad the situation is for the freedom of the press.”

“I would like to get to work again as soon as possible and continue to work on behalf of my friends and colleagues, to make their voices heard. If I know that people are paying attention to me right now, I would like to take this opportunity to shine a light on human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” said Tolu.

Turkey is ranked 157th among 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). If Turkey falls two more places, it will make it to the list of countries on the blacklist, which have the poorest record in press freedom.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 237 journalists and media workers were in jail as of August 15, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 169 were under arrest pending trial while only 68 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 145 journalists who are living in exile or remain at large in Turkey.

Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the Gülen movement, the government also closed down some 200 media outlets, including Kurdish news agencies and newspapers, after a coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016.

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