A believer in omens might say that Asli Erdogan, a prize-winning Turkish author, journalist, and human rights activist, foreshadowed her own future in her novel The City in Crimson Cloak, whose Turkish protagonist has chosen to seclude herself: She’s hungry, impoverished, and on the brink of a nervous breakdown, trapped in a city that she feels has deprived her of everything. Asli Erdogan was arrested in Istanbul on August 20, 2016, swept up in a crackdown following the attempted coup.
According to Hurriyet Daily News, which quoted the Daily Cumhuriyet newspaper, Asli has described her experience in prison via her lawyer, saying officials are “treating me in a way that will leave permanent damage on my body,” and that she has “experienced problems in my intestines for 10 years. My pancreas and digestive system doesn’t work properly, but my medicine has not been given to me for 5 days. I am diabetic and I need special nutrition. But in jail I am only able to eat yoghurt … even though I suffer from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, I have not been allowed access to open air since entering prison.”
Erdogan’s is one of the latest among the 18,000 arrests and 35,000 people detained since July’s failed coup. Many in Turkey, regardless of political affiliation, see the arrests as a necessary security measures to regain stability in the country. “It has only been a month and a half since fire was exchanged in our own country from certain parts of the army,” one Turkish woman explained to me, who asked not to be named. The attempted coup was indeed traumatic for many in Turkey. No one expected military jets flying over civilian homes in Istanbul, or exchanges of fire in the city. The events created unity and solidarity among Turks from all different political affiliations: They united in their support of the democratically elected government, regardless of tension between various political parties and the ruling party of President Erdogan. In a way, the attempted coup is Turkey’s September 11, uniting the public while being used to justify internal security measures.
On August 7, just two weeks before Asli Erdogan’s arrest, more than 1 million Turks belonging to a range of parties and socioeconomic backgrounds, including celebrities, united in support of the democratically elected President at a rally in Istanbul.
Still, her arrest has crossed an uncomfortable line for many. She is not known as a supporter of Fethullah Gulen, the religious cleric who has been living in self imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999 and is accused by the Turkish government of being the mastermind behind the coup. Unlike in most prior arrests and detentions targeting supporters or members of the Gulen movement, Erdogan is known as a supporter of the Kurdish people and as a human rights activist. Though Turkey is indeed at war with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Eastern provinces of the country, the Kurds have not been accused of participation in the attempted coup. There had been an understanding that the Kurdish war and the attempted coup are unrelated matters — until Erdogan’s arrest.
Despite the hope that those who are arrested may get fair trials, human rights activists are concerned about Erdogan’s arrest and the danger that members of the human rights community (who may disagree with some government policies) will be swept up along with those behind the failed coup. The later threaten national security, while the former demand freedom of expression, as Erdogan’s supporters see it.
Turks are proud of their protection of democracy, and of prioritizing that over political disagreements. Cautious optimism remains that the line of separation between protesters and coup perpetrators will be honored: What happens to Asli Erodgan will be a test of that hope.
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.