The New York Times
September 26, 1997
By STEPHEN KINZER
ISTANBUL, Turkey -- A blind lawyer has sat in his apartment for the last few days, waiting for the police to take him to jail so he can begin serving a 23-year sentence after making a speech deemed favorable to separatism.
"There is nothing further I can do," the lawyer, Esber Yagmurdereli, said in an interview in his apartment in Ankara the other day, soon after a court turned down his final appeal. "I have told my friends that I will not go into hiding or try to leave the country. I'm ready to go to jail and wait for a political decision, for political change, for constitutional change that will allow me to be freed."
Yagmurdereli's imprisonment is likely to focus further attention on human rights problems that have kept Turkey out of the European Union and the informal club of Western democracies for decades.
In willingly facing his sentence, Yagmurdereli is part of another Turkish tradition, the determination of some intellectuals to sacrifice their freedom in an effort to draw attention to what they consider their country's lack of full democracy.
"I am not a masochist," he said. "I see this as a patriotic duty, a way of trying to enlighten my fellow citizens."
The court decision upholding Yagmurdereli's sentence was one of three that have made headlines in recent days. In the two other cases, accused gunmen who were charged with membership in state-sponsored death squads and policemen who were charged with beating a journalist to death were set free.
The coincidence of these three decisions caused much comment in political circles and the press, where the existence of the "deep state," a set of obscure forces that seem to function beyond the reach of law, has become a major topic of discussion over the last year.
One leading newspaper reported the three decisions under the headline "Biggest Crime: To Think." Another published a cartoon showing the accused gunmen and police officers walking out of a prison door and Yagmurdereli being ushered in another door. The caption was, "Deep state protects its own."
This brush with the law is not Yagmurdereli's first. He is one of a small group of human rights advocates who have continually challenged Turkey's restrictions on freedom of speech and press.
Yagmurdereli, 52, who was blinded in an accident when he was 11, holds a law degree and a doctorate in philosophy from one of Turkey's leading universities. During the 1970s, when Turkey was consumed by political violence and the military sought to crush what it viewed as a communist threat, he represented trade unions and opponents of the government. This marked him as politically suspicious, and in 1978 he was arrested and convicted of leading a clandestine revolutionary group.
A report on his trial by the human rights group Amnesty International said it "failed on a number of counts to conform to internationally recognized standards governing fair trials." It said that witnesses against him had withdrawn their charges in court and that "their statements to the police had been extracted under torture."
The death sentence passed on Yagmurdereli was later commuted to life imprisonment, which in Turkey is equivalent to 36 years in jail. He served nearly 14 years, 7 of them in an isolation cell.
Only a month after his release in 1991, Yagmurdereli made a speech asserting that Turkish governments had denied religious and ethnic groups, specifically the Kurds, rights that are guaranteed under international law.
"The Kurdish people have revolted for liberty and democracy for the first time in history and have found their leadership," he said. "They have reached the critical stage at which they reject the oppression and inhuman conditions in which they have lived for thousands of years."
A court found Yagmurdereli guilty of slandering the Turkish state and "propagating separatism by supporting and provoking violence," specifically the guerrilla war being waged by the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.
"In this speech, part of the country was referred to as Kurdistan, and the illegal and inhumane activities of the terrorist PKK were described as the struggle of the Kurdish people for independence," the verdict said. "We strongly believe that in this speech, the above-named person has advocated separatism and praised illegal activities."
The court sentenced Yagmurdereli to a year in prison, subtracting two months he had served just after the speech. Under Turkish law, he must now serve 10 months plus the 22 years that remained on his previous sentence when he was paroled.
"Because the government outlaws the discussion of ideas it considers hostile, there is no way to open up new avenues, new designs for the country's future," Yagmurdereli said. "If you try to have open debate here, you wind up with a prison sentence. That is what allows the government to try to solve the Kurdish problem with violence rather than by political means."
Despite his current tribulations, he believes that political change is imminent in Turkey, and that as a result he will end up serving no more than a year or two in prison.
"People are much more aware of the restrictions on their freedom than they were in the past," he said. "Policies which limit the practice of politics in this country cannot survive much longer."
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