Turkey: “In this country everything can change at any time”

Meşale Tolu (Photo: Christian Freiland)

For more than seven months German journalist Meşale Tolu was held in pre-trial detention in Turkey together with her son, a toddler. In Mid-December 2017 she was conditionally released. On April 26, 2018, her travel ban was extended. The ECPMF met her in Istanbul to talk about the upcoming Turkish elections, the case of Deniz Yücel and her own future.

If the travel ban would have been lifted would you have left for Germany immediately?

My husband is still in Turkey. He is also banned from travelling and of course hopes the ban will be lifted. He is a Turkish citizen with a residence permit for France. He would come with us. But if only I am allowed to travel, yes, I would take my child to Germany, for the sole reason that I want to give him safety and security.

Why do you think the travel ban was not lifted?

There was no explanation for this. The allegation of membership of a terrorist organisation will most likely be dropped, but then there is still the allegation of propaganda. The prosecutor’s explanation for my release was that the allegations are most likely to change. My lawyers expect that it will be the allegation of terrorist propaganda in the end. I have already done jail time for that. Eight months is a long time! It should be offset – also because of my boy.

You know, the Turkish judiciary works quite slowly. Trials can take years, and pre-trial detention is extended again and again, so that innocent people are in jail for months. Because things are so arbitrary, I was expecting that I shall have to wait for another hearing.

Where do you see the role of the prosecutors?

In Turkey, it is not the prosecutors who have to prove that you are guilty. You have to prove yourself that you did not commit a crime. In October 2017 it was my first time standing trial. A witness who I did not know was announced to testify against me. I wanted to listen to what he had to say so I could defend myself. That was more than six months ago. Although I am free to live a life somehow, neither the prosecutor nor the judges have succeeded in asking the police to call the mysterious witness for questioning. Maybe he or she doesn’t exist at all? The presentation of evidence is being postponed repeatedly. I requested to assess my counter-evidence, the fact that I was not in the part of town where I was said to be, the fact that I was on my way to work, which is trackable by my phone signal. But there is no assessment. Until today, nothing is being done in that direction. However, I rely on the prosecutor to do exactly that.

Obviously, there have been breaches of your rights in the proceedings from the very beginning.

Quite so. For example, I was taken into police custody without the German embassy being notified, which is the rule in the case of a German citizen. Then, the examining magistrate proceeded with my trial, which is illegal. We objected, but our opposition was rejected without further explanation. Until today, the trial is being conducted by the same court. At times, a deputy judge is present. The indictment has not changed, it is the very same paper that they rubbed my nose in at the police department. Same thing with the photos that are part of my indictment. In fact, they cannot be used because they have been published in the media. There is no permit to collect photos of me for evidence in the first place. In this trial a lot of things weren’t done properly. However, it continues on this very basis.

How did being in jail affect you?

It was my first time. It was also my first time in police detention. I never had a police record or anything. It was very unusual for me, everything is different. And I am not familiar with the Turkish judiciary or the Turkish authorities. However, I also think that I pulled through the time in prison quite well. Of course, I needed to be stubborn and obstinate, while confronting the authorities who tried to break me by using all methods.

Pre-trial detention time in the Bakirköy women’s prison was better than the time in police detention. There were a lot of journalists amongst my fellow prisoners. I was only with political prisoners, which helped. Also my son was with me there. Of course it was also very hard. But I prefer talking about the good things, so as not to frighten people. Also to show that you can survive this if you stay strong.

What did you miss most?

Most of all the green, the meadows, the ocean. In prison, nature is banned. If there is a tiny flower blossoming between the concrete slabs, the guards will go and rip it out. I think they do this to take away people‘s hope. Nothing must evoke a feeling of normality. If someone sends you a letter with dried flowers, they will take it away from you. Anything that could make life in prison bearable is forbidden. We were allowed to go to a yard from eight in the morning to five in the afternoon. There you could see a frame of sky. Nothing else. I really missed seeing a full horizon, infinity. In prison, everything is finite. It is a great relief to me now to be able to see the whole sky, to look at the green and to smell the ocean.

How important was the support from the outside?

They couldn’t break me, and the support from outside gave me a lot of strength. Also the other women in prison who shared the same cell with me for eight months were an enormous support. I miss them a lot. They were adorable people. Now I try to keep on going and to live a stable life, because I also have responsibilities.

How does the responsibility for your son influence your actions and your work in the current situation?

I never committed any crime nor spread terrorist propaganda, not before and not after being arrested. I worked as a journalist. I reported critically and I did translations. I just did my job. However, in Turkey, that alone is enough to be indicted. Sometimes even mentioning certain things is enough to get you arrested: If you demand freedom for example. But you can talk about things without using tricky words. Not just as a journalist but also as a mother I must be very aware so as not to put my son in danger any more. That’s why I am very aware of my choice of words. I am not saying that I am intimidated or that I am censoring myself. I am still working, but within certain boundaries.

If your lawyers‘ appeal is not allowed, the trial will continue on 16 October. What does this mean for your life?

Up to the last trial my life was in limbo. I didn’t know if I could return to Germany, or if I must stay in Turkey. Everything was improvised. I thought I will bridge the time until the end of April and then we will see. Now, I definitely have to stay here until October, which means I have to plan ahead and to earn money. I need to find a daily routine again, and my son needs to go to kindergarten. By now, he only speaks Turkish, he lost his German in prison.

What does your everyday life in Istanbul look like?

It has changed. But I am not afraid to walk on the streets. That is what they want, to intimidate journalists, so that all journalists who have spent time in jail won’t take a risk any more. I keep telling myself: if it happens, it happens. Then it doesn’t matter if I am by myself or with someone else. In December 2017 when I was released I was kidnapped in broad daylight, in front of the cameras.

At the end of June there will be elections in Turkey. Does this change anything for you?

In this country, it is not possible to provide precise predictions; everything can change at any time, as we have seen in the elections in 2015. Because the government had no absolute majority in parliament, the elections were arbitrarily repeated. Of course, there are also several possibilities in these presidential and parliamentary elections. But we should not lose sight of the fact that these elections will take place under the circumstances of the state of emergency. This means they will be neither free nor fair.

There are certainly hopes that all parties will be represented in parliament, otherwise the political situation would only get worse. For positive change to happen in all political cases, where journalists, lawyers, human rights activists or students are accused, even more needs to be done. That’s also why there will be no change in my case. Either Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government continue to govern with an absolute majority or the opposition is successful and they will bring about change.

If the first is the case, there will be even more pressure?

That may happen in both cases. Most of all in the time running up to the elections: it’s not looking good for the opposition to make themselves heard. Most media has become ‚mainstream‘. Just about ten percent of the outlets are reporting independently, most of the time online. However, even the use of the internet is restricted now since it is under governmental control.

Do you think your case is getting enough international attention?

The German media and the German public are still with me. Their support has been great all the time. My supporters and solidarity crew are everything to me. But it is important to stress again and again that we need to create general publicity for the situation in Turkey. Not just my case, but also those of all the journalists, all the people – no matter if they are doctors, lawyers or students. This publicity also helps the journalists in jail.

The publicity for the case of Deniz Yücel was enormous in Germany. What changed for you since his release?

For me personally, nothing. My supporters are still protesting and the German embassy is still monitoring my case, the German government keeps pleading for me. But it would be a problem if the pressure were to decrease now. After Deniz Yücel’s release journalists were still arrested, the Cumhuriyet workers were still getting long sentences, Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak were still sentenced for life. Even on the very same day.

You are a citizen of an EU state. What do you expect from the German government and the EU institutions? 

The one and only wish I have is that I will be allowed to return to Germany. I have made every effort myself to achieve that. I continue to hope for international awareness for my case and for the German government to keep up the pressure. Meanwhile I will live my life here as well as I can.

Interview: Nora Wehofsits, Advocacy Officer ECPMF

The interview was republished from the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) with permission.