My reporting on the Kurds landed me in a Turkish prison

When Jake Hess began investigating human rights abuses, he didn't expect to be locked up and interrogated himself
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I bumped into a local journalist friend on a recent afternoon in Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of Turkish Kurdistan. "This is Turkey," he said wearily when I asked if the police were still harassing him because of his work. "If the police didn't bother us [journalists], we'd think something was wrong."

In retrospect, it was a silly question. After all, only three months before, a judge in that very city had sentenced Vedat Kursun, the former editor of Turkey's only Kurdish-language daily newspaper, to 166 years in prison for "doing propaganda for a terrorist organisation". Hamdiye Ciftci, a young Kurdish reporter known for her coverage of state violence in the southeastern province of Hakkari, had been thrown in jail on "terrorism" charges in June.

Critically reporting on the Turkish government's treatment of the Kurds is risky business indeed. I was barely surprised, then, when civil police from the anti-terrorism branch of the Diyarbakir Security Directorate knocked on my hotel room door and declared that they had come to arrest me for "being in contact with and carrying out activities on behalf of terror organisations", namely the PKK and a related civilian body, the KCK. I did my best to prepare for the uncertain journey ahead as we took off for the the anti-terror department's detention centre, where I'd spend my next four nights in a dingy cell. The reasons for my detention quickly became clear as my interrogators rifled through a binder stuffed thick with copies of my writings on human rights abuses in southeastern Turkey, private email exchanges with human rights activists, transcriptions of phone calls, and pictures of me snapped in public places. They said they had been monitoring my communications and following me on foot for 7 or 8 months.

"Why did you write about torture?" asked the head interrogator, in reference to a story I had published with the Inter Press Service. "There's no torture in Turkey. Look, we aren't torturing you!" he insisted, awkwardly avoiding eye contact. "It takes a lot of effort to repair the damage that people like you do to [Turkey's] international reputation," snapped another.

Following detailed debates about my articles dealing with the Turkish army's use of forest fires as a weapon of war, state violence against Kurdish women, and Turkish bombings of northern Iraq, my captors turned the conversation to what would, after my writing, become the second major focus of the charges against me: my contacts with human rights organisations in Britain and Turkey. At the end, I was sentenced to deportation without possibility of appeal and sent back to the US. The others who have been arrested as part of the same operation, haven't fared so well.

Since 14 April 2009, Turkish police have thrown into prison at least 840 Kurdish political activists, mainly from the leftist and pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), a legal formation with a parliamentary group; many have been in custody awaiting trial for a year or more. Although the Turkish government claims to be cracking down on the PKK's "urban extensions", the 7,587-page indictment dealing with 151 of the most senior detainees suggests the reality is rather more sinister.

Replete with spelling errors and logical inconsistencies, the bulk of the indictment consists of wild extrapolations based on transcriptions of unremarkable telephone conversations, and descriptions of peaceful political activities – such as press statements, speeches, and demonstrations – joined by the accused. All too typical is the file dealing with Muharrem Erbey, the renowned lawyer and vice-chairperson of the Human Rights Association of Turkey, who has been in prison on accusations of "membership of a terrorist organisation" since Christmas Eve 2009.

The evidence against Mr Erbey includes a January 2009 interview with Voice of America radio in which he discussed the well-documented problems of torture, police brutality, and impunity in Turkey, about which the prosecutor writes the following on page 7,338 of the indictment: "It's understood [from the interview] that Muharrem Erbey has aimed to put our country in a difficult position in international platforms by asserting that the state ignores the supposed maltreatment of Kurdish people carried out by police and soldiers in eastern provinces".

The absurdity doesn't stop there. The human rights work Mr Erbey has carried out with the projects section of the Dutch embassy in Turkey, the London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project and law firm Trott and Gentry, and Olof Palme International Centre in Sweden are all documented and presented as suspicious in the indictment. This is also true of a telephone conversation in which Mr Erbey allegedly attempts to find a doctor to treat people who were wounded during a demonstration in the eastern town of Agri in April 2009.

Mr Erbey and most of the others who have been targeted in the current wave of arrests represent a new generation of youthful Kurdish activist-leaders that has emerged in the period since 1999, the pivotal year when the PKK embarked on a five-year unilateral ceasefire, Turkey was recognised as a candidate for EU membership, and pro-Kurdish political parties entered local government. Since then, the mysterious assassinations of Kurdish human rights defenders and politicians that occurred frequently in the 1990s have stopped, with only rare exceptions, and Turkey's political system has become more liberal.

The new Kurdish political class – exemplified by people such as Mr Erbey and Osman Baydemir, the popular mayor of Diyarbakir, both young human rights lawyers – has taken advantage of the more open political atmosphere to firmly establish the Kurdish political movement in institutional realms, expand and mobilise its grassroots base, and acquire important experience in self-rule through running a number of major municipalities in the southeast. Their efforts have kept the Kurdish people's demands for greater rights and democracy at the top of the public agenda in Turkey and shown that these will need to be addressed regardless of what happens to the PKK.

Turkey's arrest operations are aimed at eliminating this new class and the political challenge it represents. Meanwhile, the ruling AK party's pledge to accelerate a stalled reform process with the stated goal of resolving the Kurdish issue – consistently reiterated in parallel with the arrest operations, a contradiction noted by many commentators – is intended to expand the Turkish government's existing base in the southeast while simultaneously marginalising the Kurdish political movement.

Turkey has certainly come a long way since the dark days of the 1990s, yet the government apparently remains unwilling to make peace with its largest minority through inclusive and democratic negotiations. They've never recognised the PKK's unilateral ceasefires or proposals for a peaceful settlement within Turkey's borders, and have answered the BDP's overtures with mass prosecutions.

Mr Erbey and 150 other Kurdish activists go on trial on 18 October. The proceedings will have nothing to do with the so-called terrorism charges against them, of which they are manifestly innocent. At stake is the core question of Turkey's future: Is the country ready to leave behind its authoritarian past and accept the basic democratic rights of its citizens? Or will war and authoritarianism consume another generation?

Timeline: K urdish struggle

1514 The Ottoman Sultan Selim I annexes Kurdistan, along with Armenia.

1830s After the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-29, the Kurds unsuccessfully try to free themselves from Turkish control.

1920s-1940s The Turkish government, led by President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, denies the existence of a Kurdish ethnicity, categorising them instead as "Mountain Turks". The Kurdish language, schools, music, literature, associations and names are banned.

1920-1937 Kurds make several attempts at rebellion, but are supressed each time.

1978 Abdullah Öcalan forms the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a separatist group fighting for an independent Kurdish homeland.

1984 PKK begins an armed campaign against the Turkish government. Over the next 15 years between 20,000 and 30,000 people, including civilians, are killed.

1991 The ban is lifted on the Kurdish language, but it still cannot be broadcast or used in political situations.

1993 PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan announces a temporary ceasefire, which ends after just over a month, when the group kills 33 Turkish soldiers.

1999 Öcalan is arrested in Kenya by Turkish security forces after an unsuccessful search for a country to grant him asylum. He is taken back to Turkey where he is found guilty of treason and separatism, and is sentenced to death, which is commuted to life imprisonment when the death penalty is abolished.

2010 Vedat Kursun, former editor of Azadiya Welat, Turkey's only Kurdish language newspaper, is sentenced to 166 years in prison for allegedly spreading propaganda for a terrorist organisation

Nicky Trup