Jailed Turkish journalist Aydın: I am about to drown, I want a little oxygen

Turkish journalist Hüseyin Aydın, who has been held in İstanbul’s notorious Silivri Prison for more than two years, has expressed his feelings in a written reply to a questionnaire in which he said: “I’m about to drown. I want a little oxygen.”

Aydın, who has been deprived of his freedom for 755 days (as of August 20, 2018), was born in Giresun in 1984. The father of two children, he was sentenced by a court to six years, three months’ imprisonment. Aydın has been one of the journalists who has been most affected psychologically by the dire prison conditions.

“How many times have I prayed Allah to take my life,” Aydın said during his last hearing before the court on March 8, 2018 and added: “I suffer each and every breath. My memories of my wife stab like nails. I want to resist the guard who pulls me out of a meeting with my wife and daughter.” Aydın also stated as he requested his acquittal: “The decision you will now give is death for the people in prison. My wife has been suffering dearly. Save me from this dungeon.”

Answering a written questionnaire from press freedom organization P24 in May, Aydın said  “I’m about to drown. I want a little oxygen.”

Aydın started journalism in 2007 as a reporter for the Cihan news agency, which was closed in 2016 over its affiliation with the Gülen movement. After working in İstanbul for many years, he was assigned to the Ankara bureau in 2012 and worked as a reporter at Parliament. He returned to İstanbul in 2015 and worked for Cihan and later for Samanyolu Haber TV.

Turks recognize him from the time he was dragged by security officials from a meeting organized by GSM operator Avea on April 20, 2015. On that day, Avea was presenting a sponsorship program to introduce the “Daylight Project” for children with disabilities. The guest of honor for the meeting was President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s wife Emine Erdoğan. Aydın had come to the hall to cover the meeting as a reporter.

Since President Erdoğan had launched a witch-hunt against certain media organizations in the wake of a corruption scandal that came to public notice on December 17, 2013 and exposed Erdoğan, his family and his cabinet members, Avea’s officials had tried to remove Aydın from the hall. They did not want a reporter from Cihan to appear at a meeting where the President Erdoğan’s wife was present.

While was being dragged out of the hall together with his cameraman Mehmet Küçük, Aydın had shown his press card and shouted “What a pity!.. I am a journalist!.. It’s so embarrassing!” Nevertheless, Aydın, who could not accept his ejection from the hall, threw away his press card. He could not control his tears, and sat down and cried.

Aydın, who last worked as a reporter for Samanyoluhaber.com, went to Görele, where his family was on vacation, on July 18, 2016, just three days after a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016. On July 25, as detention warrants were issued for him together with a number of journalists, Aydın went to Görele Police Department for interrogation. However, he was detained there and sent to the İstanbul Police Department. He was arrested by an İstanbul court on July 29, 2018 and sent to Silivri Prison.

In the indictment of 29 journalists, of whom 25 imprisoned and two being sought, at the beginning of March 2017, namely seven after months of his imprisonment, Aydın was accused of “membership in an armed terrorist organization.” Only some tweets, retweets and his bank account at Bank Asya were presented as evidence.

The indictment mentioned Aydın’s removal from the program attended by first lady Emine Erdoğan and claimed: “Despite the fact that he was not invited by officials for the organizer, the suspect tried to enter the program and was ejected by the officials. Thus, he had talked to the company’s officials. According to reports in the media, the organizer started withholding ads from propaganda organs [the indictment refers to media organizations affiliated with the Gülen movement] a year ago. It is also known that the Cihan news agency, where the suspect used to work, was put in the care of trustees over its affiliation with the organization. Black propaganda was spread by this media organization by claiming that the media have been censored and that an attempt was made to defame the sponsoring firm’s brand because it did not give ads to this news agency.”

Some of the tweets posted by Aydın presented as criminal evidence in the indictment are as follows:

“They have not been satisfied! What kind of stomach is this?” “Fatih University has been the last bite in your throat inşallah!!!!” (09.06.2016)

“The trial of [journalist] Hidayet Karaca and the jailed police officers was delayed to the last week of Ramadan…” (03.06.2016)

“When will this society react to the persecution of the Hizmet [Gülen] movement, to the rocket sent to Kilis province, the martyrs who fall every day, to the rapes and the harassments?” (04.05.2016)

“Neither leaving people unemployed nor putting them in dungeons satisfies you! When you have become so crazy?” (29.4.2016)

He retweeted a tweet posted on Samanyolu Haber TV’s official Twitter account @shaber  “The trustee fired journalists at the Zaman daily and the Cihan news agency.” (29.04.2016)

Aydın having a personal bank account at Bank Asya was also described as a crime in the indictment. “While there was TL 4,446 in his account in December 2013, it was understood that upon instructions from the leader of the organization [Fethullah Gülen], the amount of money in his account in July 2015 was TL 25,506.”

The first hearing of 27 journalists, including 25 in pretrial detention and two free on bail, before the court was held on March 27, 2017, at the İstanbul 25th High Criminal Court. Aydın made his first defense there and denied the charges. At the end of the five-day trial, the court had ruled to release 21 of 25 journalists. One of those released was Aydın. However, following a social media campaign and the direct intervention of the government in the judicial process, these 21 journalists were re-detained before they were released from the prison.

Aydın stated at his third hearing on August 17, 2017: “This is the 389th morning that I passed away from my children. I ask you to understand me. After the court ruled for release, they said, ‘You are leaving the prison in 20 minutes.’ We did not know if a new investigation was being launched at the moment. And that night I lost my passion for life. We begged them to take us to Silivri Prison. We were held in custody for several days as torture. We were forced to lie on the floor. Was I seen in a tank? Was I seen with a gun? How can I be accused of being putschist? How could I commit a crime by working as a reporter for the Cihan news agency? Do not charge me with this serious crime, I cannot bear it. I’ve been held in jail for 13 months. I want you to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent. I want to be acquitted.”

At his final hearing, March 7-8, 2018, he defended himself for the last time. “When I read the deliberations, I can see that the claims do not go beyond doubts. I do not agree with the accusations of membership in the organization. It was not explained how, where and under what motivation I committed this crime. I have waited for 20 months to get answers to these questions. I did not get an answer. I did not do anything other than journalism. The state collected taxes from my salary until I left the job. My 11 tweets were included in the indictment. The prosecutor accuses me of promoting a perception on behalf of the organization. My Twitter account was not secret. The latest number of followers was around 7,000. The number of retweets of my posts does not exceed five. How can I be promoting a perception?

“With 5-10 tweets that you selectively choose, you can put anybody that you want behind bars for two years. We should not accept this. I have never tended to exploit emotions. But I have prayed many times that ‘God take my life.’ I suffer with each and every breath. My memories of my wife stab me like nails. I want to resist the guard who pulled me out of a meeting with my wife and my daughter. I have committed no crime, and there is no evidence that I committed a crime.”

At the end of the trial, one journalist was acquitted and 25 were handed down sentences ranging from two years, one month to seven years, six months in prison. Aydın was sentenced to six years, three months. Aydın is now incarcerated with Mustafa Ünal, the former Ankara bureau chief of the closed Zaman newspaper, and Abdullah Kılıç, a former columnist for the closed Meydan newspaper, in the same ward in Silivri Prison.

Aydın, who completed a questionnaire on May 24, 2018, as part of an investigation conducted by the P24 Independent Journalism Association in order to expose the conditions in prisons and the difficulties experienced by jailed journalists, said:

“I am in a three-person isolation cell. I have been here for 670 days as of May 24, 2018. I have not met anybody except the two people in the cell. I was not allowed to have enjoy any social or cultural activities. I am forbidden to even to encounter anybody else.

“There is a mini football field. Other prisoners from various organizations can use this field. We are not allowed to. … The meals in the prison are not good at all. They gave us ready-to-eat kind of foods, like ready-made meatballs. They give diet meals to sick prisoners, but they are not edible. Therefore, we have to buy our food from the canteen, and that is, of course, a financial burden on us.

“There is an infirmary in the prison. It’s a big problem not to be able to go to the hospital in the event of an emergency. There is no doctor in the prison at night. I have been waiting for months for an appointment for a problem with a tooth. Sending and receiving letters was prohibited for more than a year. The court eventually removed this ban, but it still takes too long to get our letters.

“We cannot get the newspapers we want. We can get only what’s on the prison’s list. Many books and periodicals are forbidden. For example, Ahmet Altan’s books are forbidden.

“I have no lawyer. Visits from my extended family are forbidden. Visitors are not permitted except for spouses, children and parents. We have a one-hour closed visit per week and bi-monthly open visits. I have not been allowed to sit side-by-side with my wife. Visits by my friends are forbidden.

“None of the parliamentarians have visited me. They have only visited some well-known journalists to benefit from their fame. I have not been visited by a lawyer, a civil society representative or a parliamentarian.

“As we were being taken to the prison, a group of guards mistreated a group of journalists, including me, at 2:00 p.m. on July 30, 2016. There were journalists who were held by their arms and dragged on the floor. Some of us were slapped and the like. It’s hard to complain. Wherever you apply, they decide against you. We have been under great pressure.

“None of my requests have been met. I requested permission to use the sports facility and take part in cultural activities, but the court rejected it all. They would not even give me a second towel. They have not even changed the time of my visits. The prison administration’s decisions alone determine everything here. They do not even make sure that we can have a channel we want to watch on TV. Shooting photographs is forbidden. Sitting side-by-side with one’s wife is forbidden during open visits. Sports and talking with anybody are forbidden. Musical instruments are forbidden. Most books are forbidden. Only 10 minutes once every two weeks are allowed to make a phone call. We are arbitrarily searched by hand. We cannot watch the TV channels we want. We cannot read the newspapers we want. I am about to drown. I want a little oxygen.”

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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