In 1964, a 81 year-old man wrote a letter from his cell in Kayseri prison in Turkey to the group campaigning for his release. “I must present to you my thanks and my sincere greetings for the interest you have shown towards me and the aim you are all endeavouring to reach through your noble activities.”
The inmate who penned these words was none other than former Turkish president Celâl Bayar. The group to which he was writing was Amnesty International.
The fact that Amnesty International campaigned for Celâl Bayar in the 1960s is not really news, and yet in Turkey it may come as a surprise to many. So too will the long list of writers, poets and political figures – many of them household names in Turkey who were once Amnesty prisoners of conscience.
As I begin my tenure as Amnesty International’s Secretary General, I am delighted to be visiting Turkey. And there are many reasons that Turkey should top the list of go-to destinations for a new head of Amnesty.
I could have come here just to celebrate the proud history Amnesty has in Turkey of speaking out against human rights abuses without fear or favour for more than five decades.
I could have come here just to thank the people of Turkey for their incredible support for our campaigns including those demanding justice for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, the Rohingya in Myanmar and Muslims banned from travelling to America.
But there is another reason that I am here.
I am here to show solidarity with all those people who have been unjustly jailed in Turkey: human rights defenders, journalists, artists, academics, lawyers and many more.
While in Turkey, I went to Izmir to meet our friend and colleague, Taner Kılıç, and his family. Ten days ago, we received the news that we had campaigned for for more than a year: that our friend and colleague, Taner had been released. To see him step through the prison gates and into the arms of his wife and daughters was a truly moving experience not just for me, but for all those around the world who had campaigned tirelessly for his release.
But beneath the smiles of joy and relief there was anger and a steely determination. Anger at his arbitrary imprisonment for 14 long months and that the ordeal is not completely over with the baseless charges still hanging over Taner and 10 human rights defenders detained last year in Buyukada . And determination to continue our fight for human rights in Turkey and for the release of all those human rights defenders, journalists and others who have been unjustly jailed in the vicious crackdown.
As well as the economic crisis engulfing the country, Turkey is also facing a human rights crisis.
Hundreds of people have been detained simply for doing their jobs and a climate of fear has descended over the country, shrinking the space for civil society and activism for human rights.
In the two years since the failed coup, journalists, human rights defenders and activists have been detained. As a global human rights movement, we have to continue and redouble our efforts in solidarity with them and those supporting them in Turkey.
Tens of thousands of people have been locked up by a judiciary that lacks independence and incarcerates real or perceived critics of the government without evidence of any conduct that could reasonably constitute criminal offences. NGOs and newspapers have been shut down and more than 130,000 public sector workers arbitrarily dismissed by emergency decree under the state of emergency.
Last month the state of emergency was lifted but that alone will not reverse the crackdown. What is needed is systematic action to restore respect for human rights, allow civil society to flourish again and lift the suffocating climate of fear that has engulfed the country.
And yet, despite the crackdown, ordinary people with extraordinary passion are speaking out for justice and equality despite the threat of being unjustly punished for the stand they take. They are journalists and academics, artists and lawyers. They are also mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. They are driven by their deep commitment for human rights, justice, freedom and equality. Instead of punishing them, Turkey should be proud of this vibrant and vital human rights community.
In repressive times, stepping up to defend human rights or speaking out to condemn injustice becomes more dangerous and yet more vital than ever. We need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these people or there will be no one left to stand up for what is right.
The Turkish writer, Aziz Nesin, once said we are responsible not only for what we say but what we fail to say by staying silent. We cannot and we will not stay silent.
This article was first published here by Bianet.
Below are some of the famous writers, poets and politicians who were once Amnesty International prisoners of conscience in Turkey.