After five years in prison, Turkish journalist Asiye Zeybek is still awaiting trial. Anne Sebba reports In February 1997, a young woman journalist called Asiye Zeybek was arrested. She is still in prison but has not been tried, a gross violation of international human rights codes. Meanwhile, her health has deteriorated dramatically as she suffered a gang rape while in police custody and was shot twice by troops during prison riots. This is happening in Turkey, which, since 1999, has been accepted as a candidate for the European Union. It is a situation even the Turkish Ambassador in London, Korkmaz Haktanir, said when I met him was “completely disturbing”. Zeybek’s ordeal began on February 22, 1997 when, aged 26 and newly married, she was one of 19 people picked up without warning by the police. All but two have now been released -or are dead. She is accused of connections with the now banned Marxist-Leninist-Communist party (MLCP), charges that carry a maximum prison sentence of 18 years. The police raided her home and claim they found “documents, pamphlets, material for fabricating placards and material for maintenance of weapons”. Her defence lawyer, Ercan Kanar, maintains that these materials could easily include such harmless household items as shoe polish. He insists Zeybek has never used weapons herself or supported any violent activity involving weapons. Zeybek was held at the Security Police Headquarters in Istanbul for 14 days before being brought before a judge. The delay alone was a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights to which Turkey is a signatory -and it was during this period that the alleged rape and torture took place.
In her written account, Zeybek recalls how a policeman began listing items he claimed had been found in her home. When she denied his allegations, she was slapped in the face. She asked to see her lawyer and be allowed to contact her family, but the policeman just laughed. Instead, she was given paper and pencil and told to “confess”. When she refused, she was taken into another room, stripped naked and told she was about to have a taste of “the gallows”. She was blindfolded, her arms tied behind her back, and hung from the ceiling. After a while a number of men came in and started crudely taunting her.
“I was thrown to the floor; it was ice cold against my skin yet I was sweating,” she wrote. I tried desperately to get free, but when I tried they kicked me. I tried to shout, to cry, but it was as if the voice I heard wasn’t mine. And in my ears all those words, all those dirty words, they repeated over and over again… When they had raped me, I just lay there…the only thing I wanted was to die.”
For months she remained in deep shock, unable to talk to anyone or eat properly. Deeply depressed, her weight dropped to 45kg (7st) and she was afraid she might be losing her mind. She felt desperately ashamed of not having been able to defend herself and was afraid that her parents and husband would condemn her. But she hauled herself back into life and began writing a diary detailing what she had endured.
Keeping a journal worked as therapy. Her publisher -a friend she had met in prison -suggested turning it into a book and the manuscript was smuggled out. Published in 1999, it has sold some 10,000 copies and encouraged many other women (and some men) to talk about their own experience of rape and sexual abuse by police. It also led to a trial of eight policemen in 1999 at which a document was presented by the Medical Faculty of Istanbul University giving evidence of the trauma Zeybek had suffered. Nonetheless, the police were acquitted on grounds of “lack of proof”.
Zeybek has appeared in court for a number of brief hearings. On September 21, 2001, I attended one of these as part of an international delegation of lawyers and members of the writers’
The hearing lasted approximately half an hour and the atmosphere, 10 days after the attack on the World Trade Centre, was predictably tense. Turkey, the only Muslim country in Nato, had emerged as an important member of the anti-Taleban coalition and fear of terrorism, while real enough in Turkey, is also a useful stick for anything that could be described as a state security case. Zeybek looked thin, pale and newly-bespectacled with her once long, shiny, black hair cut short and now greying. But she was composed and grateful for the international support as she waved to us before being led away. The next hearing is scheduled for March 27. Zeybek, now 31, was born into a traditional Sunni Muslim family. She read political science at Istanbul University but dropped out after two years having become involved in leftist politics and radical youth groups. It was there that she met her husband, Nerdal Guzel, who was arrested two years after she was and is serving life imprisonment for terrorist offences.
She suffered badly from the disturbances in all Turkish prisons in December 2000 when inmates revolted against plans to change the system from one of free association to individual cells. Some 30 people were killed in the riots between prisoners, guards and the military. Zeybek was hit by two bullets, one in her back and one in her right leg, which left her paralysed for months. She was operated on in the prison hospital, had both bullets removed and can now walk again, although with a limp and with her general health severely impaired. Whatever the reasons for Zeybek’s arrest, it is clear that her lengthy pre-trial imprisonment is a great injustice and in direct breach of international standards of fair trial. Article 9 of the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that everyone has a right to be brought to trial within a “reasonable” time. Even if Turkish law allows for such lengthy delays in state security cases, why has it taken so long for the prosecutor to collect enough material to present to a court?
In his tiny office with peeling wallpaper in an Istanbul warehouse, Kanar explains why it was so difficult to prepare an adequate defence for his clients. “As defendants are moved from one prison to another, documents disappear and it requires time to replace them,” he says. “But mostly it is because there is so little time to discuss their case. I may be given one-and-a-half hours each week to see 12 or 13 clients in a given prison but generally I have to wait 40 minutes before even one arrives. There are so many restrictions and obstacles.” He has referred Zeybek’s case to the European Court of Human Rights but, given the backlog of cases, the appeal could take years before it is heard. Meanwhile, a young woman’s life is dwindling away. A Story of Rape under Torture by Asiye Zeybek, Ceylan Publishers, Istanbul.