Interview with Mr. Eugene Schoulgin: “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Guilty and Terrorist in Turkey”
ResearchTurkey – December 29, 2012Interview – As Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), we have conducted an interview with Mr. Eugene Schoulgin, who is a well-known author and Vice-President of International PEN association…
As Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), we have conducted an interview with Mr. Eugene Schoulgin, who is a well-known author and Vice-President of International PEN association (a world-wide organization that stands against the restrictions on freedom of thought and expression, and works for release of imprisoned writers all over the world). Previously, Mr. Schoulgin was elected President of International PEN WIPC (Writers in Prison Committee) from 2000 to 2004. He travelled many countries and worked for the release of authors, journalists, and publishers including Turkey. As a Norwegian author, Mr. Schoulgin presents himself as “the lover of Turkey”. We met him in London, and talked on several issues including the judiciary, politics and journalism understandings in Turkey, the Ergenekon and KCK cases (academics, writers, and journalists who were or are in prison) and the usual first item on the agenda; the obstacles for the freedom of expression and freedom of thought.
Full Text of the Interview: ‘Journalists are now victims of the political game’
Mr. Shoulgin, thank you very much for accepting our interview request. We want to start with the award granted for journalist Nedim Şener by PEN (the worldwide non-governmental association of writers). Why did your institution (PEN) give an award to Nedim Şener?
That was PEN Turkey who did it. PEN is a flat organization that consists of approximately 150 PEN centres in all over the world. PEN institutions are totally independent. All the PEN centres have right to work as they please, as long as they are inside our rules and regulations’ frame. On the other hand, I have nothing against Nedim Şener’s award, but rather that details on why they selected him instead of Şık (Ahmet Şık) (for instance), is debatable. That is simply something I cannot answer.
We wanted to start with such a question since it was declared that Nedim Şener was awarded by PEN based on his research on Hrant Dink murder. However, he was arrested and imprisoned later under ODA TV case. Hrant Dink murder was also associated with the activities of the so-called Ergenekon terrorist organization. How did you feel about his arrest? Was it a big surprise for PEN that he was put into prison with such allegations?
Not only I was surprised, but also I found it totally absurd. Both Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık are typical examples of interrogating journalist who were imprisoned because they criticised the way that the ruling party and the judiciary are handling the on-going Ergenekon case, Dink murder, and etc… This is of course confusing and scary, because it means that journalists are now victims of the political game. Both Şener and Şık are very typical examples of this ongoing situation.
‘Dink trial was scandalous’
What do you think about the whole investigation and prosecution process in the Hrant Dink case? According to the final court decision, Dink assassination was not an organized crime and rather it was an ordinary murder committed by two young men.
I think that this is unbelievable and the trial was very scandalous. I think that the way the judges behave during the trial was also scandalous. The way they addressed both the defendant and the family of the victim were shameful. I think that the time it took to come into a conclusion was appalling. As you mentioned, many of those who absolutely had played a role in the assassination were only “not punished” but also were promoted or changed positions (most of them getting better positions)-all of this to me is just plain scandalous. It is based on the Turkish biased judiciary tradition. This is not the only case. Recently there was Sivas (Sivas Case) scandal, which also should really be reinvestigated.
The court’s verdict on Sivas case was probably a big surprise for many. There were accusations against the court. Certain groups argued that ‘it was politicized’; and some others argued that the Turkish legal system and Turkish legal and judicial practices are problematic. What do you think?
Police forces and judiciary have some problems in Turkey, some deep plots inside. Another good example to this point is the murder of İshak Alaton’s colleague (Üzeyir Garih). He was murdered at the cemetery when he was visiting his wife’s grave. A demented man was accused of killing Garih. Despite the fact that this crazy murderer was unemployed, he happened to carry a lot of money when he was caught. It would be quite difficult to believe that Üzeyir Garih would visit his wife’s grave at night with so much money on him. This is unbelievable. Nobody asked that question. After a long time somebody comes up and say that this murderer was hired by Ergenekon, so he was part of conspiracy. I know that İshak Alaton and his family were also threatened that if he does not stop speaking up, the same thing would happen to him and his family as well. So that was the reason why he did not speak up anymore. These kinds of things are happening all the time in present-day Turkey.
I can give you another example. There is a highly respected and gifted defence lawyer, Fikret İlkiz. A few years ago, I told Fikret that “I tried to read English translation of Turkish penal code. I have never studied law but when I have read parts of the Norwegian penal code, I had no problems in understanding it. But when I tried to read articles about Turkey’s penal code, I couldn’t understand it.” Fikret started to laugh. And he said: “Eugene, you have understood exactly right because the criminal code in this country is a jungle. The articles are meant to be read in many different ways. This is what I would call it ‘rubber law’. The prosecutors and the judges can use them for what they like and that’s why they are vague. Let’s take the notorious article of 301. I do not think that the 301 is the only article, there are many articles that are just as bad as 301. Government amended article 301. But the law became worse; it became even vaguer with the amendment.” This is a major problem in my opinion.
‘Slander and criticism are commingled in Turkey’
In Turkey it seems really easy to politicize issues, adding many conspiracy theories, and mixing them with deep networks claims, personalizing criticisms. Consequently discussing all these issues seems very difficult. As ResearchTurkey, we do not censor what our interviewees argue, but you would be also severely criticised for your views. Just a polite reminding in advance -this is not something new of course- most probably you know very well.
Yes, I do know this is true in modern Turkey, but I still do not hesitate to say what I believe is true. In Turkey, the moment you are criticising somebody, that person reaction by arguing that you criticise him/her because you are a Jew, a communist, or a spy; instead of saying that there might be something to be criticised. Umit, slander and criticism are commingled in Turkey. There is a big difference. When Orhan Pamuk got the Nobel Prize (I will not go into that issue), TRT (Turkish Radio and Television) sent a female journalist to Sweden to make a documentary on how many Sami people were killed by Sweden. That was all on Turkish TV; it is totally rubbish from the beginning to end. It tried to make people believe that Sweden also killed its own people. This is ridiculous.
‘Judiciary is under police and political control.’
What do you think about the arrest and imprisonments of Professor Ragıp Zarakolu and the others under KCK operations by claiming that they were supporting terrorism in Turkey?
I followed Ragıp’s way, I followed his life, I followed his work all the way to this year. I know him, I know what he stands for, I know what he lives for. Claiming that this man is supporting terrorism was totally ridiculous. He is a pacifist. What happened? They put him in prison and kept him in prison for nearly half a year. They never gave him a legal reason why he was there, they never indicted him and they just let him out later. Why did they let him out? They only let him out because he was nominated for the Nobel peace prize. With Zarakolu’s release, the authorities also released fourteen other people in order to not to make it obvious that it was just him that they wanted to release, so they released other less well-known prisoners as well. He was released, because, three Swedish parliamentarians, who nominated him for the prize, were in Ankara during those days. They asked to visit him in prison and then he was released. There are too many similar “coincidences” going on. So, on the one hand they say: “We cannot interfere with the judicial system’s decisions”, on the other hand everybody knows that the judiciary is under police and political control.
‘You are free as long as you do what they think you should do.’
This is a serious claim. Similar arguments were also raised during the release of Şener and Şık coincided with court’s prescriptive decision on Sivas case. Do you think that was also a coincidence?
Exactly, they were released to calm down the protests, which were raised against the court’s decision. That is exactly what is going on all the time. It is something completely different. This is also telling something about the ruling party’s view on freedom of expression and cultural life. You know that they dismissed the entire crew in The City Theatres of Istanbul. The official reason was that they wanted the City Theatres to have a crew that has a repertoire liked the ‘ordinary’ people. The City theatres had been conducted by “snobbish people (so they say)” until today. What kind of a language is that: “snobbish people”? That was because they have played experimental theatre? They wanted to have a crew in the theatre that plays according to the Muslim way of life. And then they say: “we of course do not interfere in ‘cultural’ issues and the theatre artists should be free”. But the next moment they continue by saying that: “as long as they play the kind of plays that we think they should play”. This means that the freedom is freedom “as long as they do as we wish”. If they criticise us or do something that we don’t like then we will have to stop, that’s their approach. So what kind of freedom is that? This is actually a way of looking at democracy and freedom which touches onto many aspects of the society. You are free to do whatever you like as long as you do what they think you should do.
‘You cannot just put people in jail and let them stay there for years and years and then find out that they were not guilty or not.’
You have been following the Ergenekon and KCK cases in Turkey closely; especially the imprisonment of journalists, writers and scholars. What makes these cases very important for PEN? Why did you announce that PEN is going to follow those trials and publicise worldwide?
We are not going into Ergenekon or KCK as such because they are political cases and issues. But what we say is that we have to defend publishers, authors, journalists all those who are accused for two reasons. First, they should have a fair trial; second they should not be imprisoned. In Turkey, there is a very bad habit of getting the impression of being guilty. In other countries first the court should prove that you are guilty. In Turkey you have the impression that the accused should prove that he or she is innocent, which is the exact opposite of the way we should think and accept. What should be decided first of all is whether these journalists are guilty or not. Only after reaching this conclusion, people should be imprisoned. You cannot just put people in jail and let them stay there for years and years and then find out that they were not guilty or not.‘Turkey should not follow Cuba as an example’
Have you been to observe several trials in Turkey? Can you please tell us about your observations in Ergenekon and KCK trials?
I haven’t been to so many Ergenekon and KCK trials actually, so I do not have that much experience. However, having hundreds of people in the court room and accusing them all together in that way is, in my opinion, totally unacceptable. That is a routine in countries such as Cuba, but I think that Turkey should not follow Cuba as an example.
Have you visited the Silivri prison or any other one recently?
No, I haven’t been to the prison I have just been to the courtroom.
Because a number of media organizations claim that you visited the prison…
That is not true. As a foreigner I am not allowed to visit those places. I can ask for permission to visit some prisoners but then the prisoners should ask for permission for me to see them, maybe then I have a possibility. However, even then it is very difficult for me to do that. During the 1990s, I have visited a lot of prisons. That’s true but then they changed the rules. Unless I am a delegate representing an international organization; i.e. EU or something like that or I do not have a chance to do so.
When you look at the issue from the prosecution’s point of view, do you think there could be attempts to overthrow the government and state structure on part of journalists? Especially when you consider the relationships between some of the journalists and ex-military officials, do you think it might be possible that the allegations are true?
In theory, yes everybody can be part of different conspiracies that might be true, but it is first of all for the court to prove. Then you should use your logic to think about people who used to criticise military would join the militarists later in that fashion. Otherwise you can reach all those conspiracy theories that are really farfetched. I have to tell I have no particular sympathy to the accused, I just know some of them like Ragıp Zarakolu, follow their works, and interested in their cases as they are publishers, writers, journalists, etc. Also, what I know is that these people have been in isolation cells and they have been put there for years, and still we don’t have a clear picture of what they are accused of. This is totally illogical.
‘I regarded Turkey as being a hidden military dictatorship.’
They also say that Ergenekon is a case to tackle the deep state organisation in Turkey. What do you think about this claim? Moreover, when you consider operations like: “Clean Hands” in Italy, do you think that the Ergenekon case would be considered as a counterpart of such operations targeting deep state networks? I remember once, you said that you were hopeful because this case may become an instrument for Turkey to resolve its problems like deep state networks.
The reason, why I was optimistic at the start [of Ergenekon], was that it would challenge the role played by the military in Turkey. I regarded Turkey as being a hidden military dictatorship. The military played a political role in Turkey, which in my opinion is not democratic. In my opinion, the military should serve the country and not their own interests. Moreover the military says that they are the guarantors of Turkey’s safety, which is something that all the military dictators say. I have said that it is reasonable to suggest that the militarists have a part in the deep state. Süleyman Demirel had himself suggested that you can spell the “deep state” as “militarists”, and I don’t know if he is right or wrong but he should have some experience after all. I don’t think that they are all militarists; there could be other fractions of the society that play a role in the deep state. So far so good. In Italy, these cases were handled totally different way. The process was very transparent and the prosecutors did not produce artificial evidence, they did not put people into prison for years, and they did not accuse people based on statements of anonymous witnesses or buggies only.
‘They have made the Ergenekon case a fight against opponents’
During the 1970s, there was a prosecutor, Doğan Öz, who was killed when he was investigating the deep state networks in Turkey. We know that there are many cases like this in which the killers were never found and with Ergenekon are we really facing issues like these?
That was what I originally thought, and I still think that a lot of those who have been accused in the Ergenekon case have really been into plotting. But I think that they have defied that by what Ergenekon have become today. There are three different Ergenekon cases at the same time. I think that they have missed the point of the “real” Ergenekon case. They have made the Ergenekon case a fight against opponents which made the case a very political one. Then a lot of the original intent is lost.
‘A political game between secularists and believers’
Let’s imagine there is a deep state organisation where academics, journalists, and military officials and writers are in together. Then we have these operations to catch them all at the same time. The public would be confused because they used to see these people as highly regarded personalities with decent occupations. Could not we just look at the military first for instance, find out the military officials that took place in such a network, and then go after any other connections they might have, rather than having a collective operation including civilians? When you gather all these people together such as, Türkan Saylan, İlhan Selçuk, Mehmet Haberal; it becomes difficult for people to see such operations as realistic, and then they question the attitude and rightness of the prosecutors in doing those operations? Do you think there is a problem regarding the method of how the prosecutors handled this case?
That is actually the question that I ask myself, too. And my answer is that I think there must be another reason for this. It has nothing to do with a conspiracy and it has nothing to do with Ergenekon and militarists. There is something else that is going on. Then it comes to the point I mentioned at the beginning, it becomes a political game between secularists and believers. It is a political game between the old establishment and the new establishment. And the new establishment is identifying itself as Muslim. However, I think that the Muslim part of it is only one block. It is a just a colour new power-holders use. They use it as propaganda.
‘It is not healthy for the society to have all these rumours.’
Actually that was my next question. You know that in Turkey the agenda is set by the rumours so I will ask about a rumour. There are also rumours saying that all these operations are some new deep networks trying to replace some old deeper networks. Some new elites are trying to replace old elites by replacing the resisting networks. What do you think about these rumours?
First of all, I think that deep state means clandestine organisations. I think it is the most important thing for Turkey to get rid of all these kinds of different clandestine organisations, if not organisations then the groups that want to work behind the curtains. It doesn’t have to be a coup plan, it can be a different kind of plan, geopolitical ones, economic ones, what’s happening for instance with the Gülen movement, it has also become some kind of plan. Who knows what they are actually after? Some people say that Gülen is not bad; some say they are trying to overthrow the state. Some people say that they have good relationships with the ruling party, some say no, who knows? It is not healthy for the society to have all these rumours.
We even see these in the football games.
That is a good example, yes.
After championship game in 2012, people actually accused Gülen movement when Fenerbahçe could not win the championship. Even an author from Today’s Zaman accused Gülen movement on Twitter for this loss and has been fired from the newspaper. These are different reflections of the society, everybody thinks that there is something behind everything, you can’t really avoid this. Even after an ordinary football game, fans think that there has been an hidden operation against their club. The society seems to have become paranoid about everything, and the worse it gets, the more difficult it will to exposed complex relationships, bugging incidents, and scandals.
And also the way, the ruling party has shifted out the leading police officers is very strange. It means that they have even politicised the police force.
‘How can it be possible that a country is judged several times in a year (in European Court of Human Rights) and authorities do not seem to bother at all?’
I don’t know if you heard about it but some prisoners of Ergenekon, KCK and Sledgehammer (Balyoz) cases have applied to the European Court of Human Rights. There were discussions on whether the European Court of Human Rights should decide on the cases or not, have you followed these?
I have followed that. I don’t think that European Court of Human Rights has made a decision on whether Ergenekon and the other “trails” exist or not. The problem for the court is that the number of cases coming from Turkey is so big; therefore they have to wait for 5-6 years before there can be a decision from the court, which is bad. This, points out the large numbers of the cases against Turkey. Turkey has to pay again and huge sums for the people who have been falsely accused and applied to the European Court of Human Rights. But it doesn’t seem to embarrass the officials at all which is strange. How can it be possible that a country is judged several times in a year and authorities do not seem to bother at all? This is very worrying in my opinion.
In Turkey, the new agenda is terrorism. Minister of Interior Relations extended the definition of terrorism, and arrests are legitimized on the basis of the claim that the arrestees took part in terrorist activities. How do you see this issue? How could an idea/action be a part of freedom of expression or freedom of act; and/or how could it be regarded as a terrorist activity? As in the case of Ragıp Zarakolu, do you think the people are being labelled as terrorist because of their ideas?
Yes, very often. First of all the use of the word terrorist is something I am extremely doubtful about. What is actually a terrorist? Then you have to define it. If you start calling someone a terrorist because of a drawing then that means that a huge percentage of the society are terrorists. Then it is meaningless to talk about the terrorism. If you kill 77 people like this man (Anders Breivik) from my country (Norway) this is a terrorist, if you make a drawing or write a poem or something, is this also terrorist? So what is that?
‘They are misusing the word “terrorist”’
A young boy was arrested just because he was wearing a scarf recently, but then he was imprisoned for 15 years for joining terrorist activities. The critics in the media argued the scarf was regarded as a terrorist symbol, and the boy was imprisoned for wearing it, what do you think about it?
Exactly, exactly…It all started with Bush’s war on terrorism. It was horrible and it has consequences all over the world. Because all oppressive regimes use this as an excuse to get to the opposition. He legitimised the misuse of the word “terrorist”. That is what they are doing every day in Turkey, they are misusing the word “terrorist”. The moment they have an organisation they don’t like, they immediately label it as a “terrorist organisation”.
Do you mean, any ‘unliked’ idea, opinion, drawing, or gesture is being regarded as a ‘terrorist activity’ in Turkey today?
Yes, it looks like that. A terrorist is a person that has done something. A terrorist act is a physical act, it is not an opinion. If I have an opinion, I am not a terrorist. What they do in Turkey is this: if you have certain opinions against the government, then you are a terrorist.
‘There are no clear divisions between PKK and KCK’
Do you see any correlation between KCK and Ergenekon cases in this sense? Now Turkey is also divided like those seeing people arrested in KCK operations as terrorists only, those seeing people arrested in Ergenekon operations as terrorist only, those seeing both of them terrorists, and those seeing both of them as heroes opposing the current government. It all seems to be very confusing.
I have difficulties with that. I cannot see any logic behind it. I think KCK can be compared with IRA in Ireland. It is the political branch of the movement. There are no clear divisions between PKK and KCK and that is normal because of the issue’s long history and all different moves back and forth. It can’t be any other way. One of those who were accused in Diyarbakır is Erbey (Muharrem Erbey). Erbey was accused because he had a mobile phone conversation with a person who happens to be a PKK member. This man said ‘I would like to meet with you.’ Right now, I do not know you personally. You might be a PKK member. Just because I met you and you are a PKK member does this mean that I am a PKK member as well? This is ridiculous, totally ridiculous. When you start arguing like that, then the meaning of the investigation disappears.
‘Thoughts are free’
What do you think about the level of freedom of expression currently in Turkey?
I would say that freedom of expression exists in Turkey, yes. But at the same time, you always run a risk. The problem is that even when it comes to freedom of expression there is not a clear cut answer because as seen from abroad when you read Turkish newspapers you can see many opinions are coming forward unlike many other oppressive societies that don’t have opinions. You have the opinions here, but when you think of political oppression it depends on who is saying it. That means a lot. If you are a journalist in major newspaper, you can say things which you couldn’t have if you were on a small leftist newspaper. If you have a reputation of belonging to a political fraction which is looked upon with suspicion by the authorities then you are more likely to end up having more of a problem than others. This is one part of it. The other part is: it is getting better compared to the 1990s. But what is worrying is that during the last 2 years especially, we can clearly see that the level of freedom of expression has diminished and what was achieved in the beginning of 21st century is now falling apart. We are approaching to level that is comparable with to what took place during the 1980s. That is very disturbing.
Thanks for your clarification. I asked this question, because even some liberals started to say that freedom of thought and freedom of expression are two different things. They say that “you cannot express everything you think”. How is that even possible?
There is an old German student song from the 19th century that says: “thoughts are free”. Yes the thoughts are free. At the moment that you open your mouth and express yourself then you have a problem. So that freedom of expression is what is important, freedom of thought is not so important defending because it is only for inquisitions to value thoughts, and we have not reached to inquisitions…yet!
‘Mr. Erdoğan is misusing his power’
What do you think about Prime Minister’s (PM) gathering all the media bosses, giving them instructions about how to handle issues and give them some warnings? None of them objected to the PM in those meetings.
I would say, Mr. Erdoğan is misusing his power. This is simply misuse of power. This is a way that a dictator behaves, not a political leader in a democracy. The political leader in a democracy does not give reprimands to people. So in my opinion, Mr. Erdoğan, has misunderstood his role as PM.
‘Journalism is about investigation.’
I would like to ask about journalism in Turkey. We defend fair trial for journalists in prison, but maybe we should question the journalism in Turkey as well. I was wondering about two things; first of all how do Editor-in-chief’s choose columnists, and second how some columnists (I don’t know if we shall call them columnists or something else) can point fingers at people, attributing crimes to people and even urge the police to catch them? Is this journalism, should a journalist do that? A number of journalists and columnists do that regularly in Turkey. Where does journalism start and does it have any limit?
I know, yes. In my opinion this has absolutely nothing to do with journalism. Journalism is about investigation. If you are journalist you observe and you investigate. These people are just giving their opinions. They are opinion makers. That is something else. I can make opinions as well, it makes me a columnist, if you would like to use that word, but journalism is something else. Journalists should not come to conclusions like “guilty” or not. Let’s say the journalist has a secret source; it is true that the journalist does not have to give away his sources. But it is not up to the journalist to say: “I think this man should be in prison”. They can show the case in the way that they received it or understood it but then they have to leave the conclusion to the public.
‘Your PM loves to sue people’
What do you think about the change in the attitude of the military in the recent years? In the past when they issued declarations against some journalists and newspapers, all the liberals and the current government used to criticise them. But in these days when they do declarations like that even the PM supports them and actually urges them to sue some journalists. For instance, such an incident happened recently, the military Chief of General Staff acknowledged the PM was right and sued a columnist for the expressions in his column.
First of all your PM loves to sue people. He sues people for slander; he sues people all the time. He likes that. This is a very bad habit in Turkey, all the time suing people. That is one thing. The other thing is that Mr. Erdoğan, he changes his thoughts and position all the time. So you will never know, one moment he asks the militaries to shut up and the next moment he supports them. The reason why he changes his decisions all the time is because he is a populist. He tries to find his way, he is making political slalom.
Do you think he is becoming more authoritarian?
Of course, absolutely.
Are we going to have an advanced democracy this way? Justice and Development Party (JDP) promises for an advanced democracy, and they have considerable election victories, which might be seen as a considerable belief and support to what JDP does is true.
At the moment it looks very dark. This is also typical Turkish bad habit to say we are amending things. They are amending the constitution, they are amending the criminal code, they are amending everything but nothing happens. So we have to wait and see the results. The history will tell us everything.
We know that you are writing a novel in Turkey, could you please tell us a little about your novel? When are you going to publish it?
The novel goes on in Istanbul, I will publish it when it is finished which will be very soon. It is a total fiction, I am using the key personalities of Turkey in the novel, those who follow politics will be able to recognise some. But I will not say who…I am using my 18 years of experience in Turkey. Everybody might think that I am painting a very black picture here about Turkey, but actually I write this book because I am profoundly fond of Turkey. I have been living there for six years. The reason why I am criticising is that because Turkey has this fantastic possibility of becoming a wonderful country. So I can’t really understand all these obstacles.
Mr. Schoulgin, you have provided a very good overview of Turkey. I am sure our readers will also appreciate it, and discuss the critical points and issues you have raised today. As ResearchTurkey, we would like to thank you very much for this interview.
I thank you very much.
Please cite this publication as follows:
ResearchTurkey (December, 2012), “Interview with Mr. Eugene Schoulgin: “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Guilty and Terrorist in Turkey””, Vol. I, Issue 9, pp.30-42, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=2545)