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What's Changed, What Hasn't: A Turkish Political Prisoner Walks Free After 31 Years

Mehmet Aytunç Altay was finally released last month after being arrested in Istanbul for his political activity in 1993. The world around has changed, even if his convictions stand firm.

Photo of Mehmet Aytunç Altay​

Mehmet Aytunç Altay

Gökçer Tahincioğlu

ISTANBUL — Mehmet Aytunç Altay spent 31 years of his life behind bars.

While he was behind bars, governments came and went; Turkey changed, as did the world. Technological advances like smartphones and social media changed the way we live our daily lives. Mob bosses, murderers and rapists were released from prison during multiple rounds of pardons during that time.

Altay, however, was only released last month from the Izmir Kırıklar F Type Prison Number 1 in Western Turkey, after having lived through a long, significant chapter in the history of Turkey’s prisons.

Born in 1956, Altay graduated from the Ankara Kurtuluş High School and then studied at the Middle East Technical University and the Facility of Political Science at Ankara University, before quitting university in his third year.

He was taken into police custody in Istanbul in 1993 and was tortured during the interrogation. His refusal to offer testimony was labeled as a “terrorist attitude.” He was sentenced to life in prison based on the testimony of an informer. One of the accusations brought against him was attending a congress of the Communist Party/Union of Turkey (TKP/B) abroad in June 1986. He offered proof that he was imprisoned under martial law at the time, but the court that sentenced him to life didn’t care.

Altay was sentenced according to the Article 146 of the former Turkish Penal Law: “Attempting to change the constitutional order by force.” The European Court of Human Rights condemned Turkey for Altay's torture and for violating his right to a fair trial, but Turkish courts rejected a retrial. Only on August 21was he finally freed, and Altay spoke to Oksijen just days after being released.

Here is some of what he had to say:

Showing off

I have been out for just two days. I cannot say that I understand a lot, since I have been among friends and family at this time. However, I can say that my foremost observation about the outside (world) is the transformation of social relations, thanks to the technology of communication. It’s very good on one hand; it’s very nice that people I haven’t seen for years can reach me, and even with video — although I constantly break the communication by touching the wrong places, since I don’t know how to use these devices.

On the negative side, we saw this a lot while we were watching TV inside: nobody looks at each other’s face, and people are constantly sharing stuff. I don’t think these people who share every moment and everything share even a penny of their money with anyone, in such a mechanical environment.

This truly became a society of show, and showing off; there are no limits for sharing images, news and gossip, but the values that need to be shared are not. If you look at it from one side, everybody became so “pro-sharing.” However, people didn’t previously enjoy showing themselves off everywhere and looking at everything. This was not considered a good thing; it was shunned, even. Now it seems like showing what you are doing at the moment — what are you doing, eating and drinking, displaying yourself, is an essential part of the new era.

A flawed conviction

I have been at different prisons since I was tried and sentenced by the courts under martial law. Most recently, I was convicted by a State Security Court due to Article 146 of the former Turkish Penal Law: “Attempting to change the constitutional order by force.”

The indictment charged me with being a member of the TKP/B, and a founder of the Revolution Party of Turkey (TDP), but the court sentenced me to life in prison according to Article 146 at the end of the trial.

Those who have been sentenced to life at the time were able to be released after eight years thanks to legislative regulations. However, I was not allowed to benefit from this law because of a (political) action in which I was not involved, although the majority of the claims against me were from before the date the law was passed.

You know, there were long detention periods and interrogations with torture during these times. I did not offer testimony; even that was considered a “terrorist attitude” and used against me.

However, I was convicted based on the testimony of another heavily tortured defendant, who denied that testimony at court. It was proven, with medical reports, that he was subjected to heavy torture. That testimony was inadmissible not only because it was obtained illegally but due to its content, too. For example, it was claimed that I attended an organizational congress abroad while I was in prison. However, the court convicted me based on this both methodically and contextually inadmissible testimony.

Photo of protesters wanting to hold a sit-in

The youth protesting against Turkish forest destruction in July

Mert Nazim Egin/ZUMA

No new trial, despite ruling condemning torture

Turkey was found guilty by the European Court of Human Rights of torture and violating the right to a fair trial in the following process. A request for retrial was made to the court that heard my case following the ECHR verdict, but the court rejected our request, disregarding the legal regulations.

When the Supreme Court of Appeals (of Turkey) decided that the retrial was a must, (the local court) retried me and affirmed the same sentence. Therefore, I served the 30 years which is the equivalent of a life sentence (according to Turkish law).

However, especially recently, despite this duration being served, the executions of sentences are being lengthened in prisons by disciplinary punishments or other type of punishments. Prisoners’ freedoms are being stolen by arbitrary actions. I was punished because I participated in a protest action against cameras, which are a violation of our right to a private life. I served that time as extra and got out.

Lastly, I want to say that I have been at the camps of the Front for the Liberation of Palestine, but I believe our affinity to the Kurdish freedom struggle played a special role in the sentences that were given to us (by the courts).

Leaving prison feels like time travel

It’s true, legislative regulations are being made all the time to release prisoners who were convicted of crimes such as drugs, murder and rape. Because the world of criminals is the underground of the (current ruling) order, and is an inseparable part of it. They are (its) illegal legs; fascism cannot stand without these legs. However, those who are being released are not limited just to them.

I’m a communist, a revolutionary. I was one when I got in, I was one when I got out.

The relationship between the administration and the judiciary is clearly shown by those who have been tried (for membership in) ISIS, Hezbollah, IBDA-C and al-Qaeda, put to show trials, released after short detentions and persistently being partially pardoned, despite serious accusations against them.

Those mentioned above are being set free while revolutionaries who tie their own lives to the fate of the country and our peoples are being kept inside. We know that the prisons are built especially for us. But this is not our fate. One day, we will definitely change the bad luck of the country.

I’m a communist, a revolutionary. I was one when I got in, I was one when I got out. I will remain a revolutionary.

Thousands of young people of our generation were massacred back then. I believe this generation is the most determined, brave and reckless generation of our society.

I’m a little confused at the moment, as a member of this generation who spent the last decades of his life in prison. I feel as if I've teleported to 2023 from the times when scientific and technological developments were more backwards compared to today, and computers and cell phones did not exist.

I believe Turkey, the region and the world needs socialism more than ever, no matter what the direction or context of the changes may be. I guess if it was a movie, we can say this is some kind of “Back to the Future.”

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

What Zelensky Won't Say Out Loud: Ukraine Is Running Short On Troops

Ukraine has a recruitment problem, with some units at only 70% of their intended strength. But President Zelensky is unwilling to talk about mass mobilization. The result is a parallel reality, with more recruitment coming from rural areas and lower classes, and some urbanites feeling victory is not too far, and their sacrifice is not needed.

photo of Zelensky and a Ukrainian soldier

Zelensky and a Ukrainian soldier.

Rustem Khalilov, Mykhailo Krygel & Olga Kyrylenko

KYIV — Walking through the center of Kyiv in the fall of 2023 can make you feel like you’ve gone back in time. The atmosphere in the city seems to transport you to either a carefree past or a promising future.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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You'll find bustling cafes filled with people enjoying oat milk lattes, business lunches, and people zipping around on scooters.

Amongst these images of ‘normal life’, the "Field of Memory" on Maidan Square, adorned with thousands of flags bearing the names or call signs of fallen soldiers, serves as a poignant reminder of the ongoing war. Lights and billboards of the Armed Forces of Ukraine beckon citizens to "join their ranks." But these often go ignored.

Military chaplain Andriy Zelinskyi has diagnosed this situation as "discursive incompatibility."

“An entirely self-contained and substantial illusion of an alternative reality has emerged,” he says. “A reality that acts as an escape from the pain, wounds, and losses of war. This alternative reality poses a significant threat to the unity needed to effectively resist Russia.”

One segment of society has been in the trenches for a year and a half, witnessing the daily horrors of destruction, injury, and the loss of comrades. Meanwhile, another segment lives on in cities like Kyiv, Lviv, or Odesa, offering donations, or just thinking about contributing, while attempting to distance themselves from the war as much as possible.

The government has also played a role in creating and maintaining this alternative reality. In its public communication, full-scale mobilization is a taboo. An honest conversation about mobilization as a guarantee for survival and eventual victory seems "out of place" when elections are looming.

Periodically, cracks in this alternative reality emerge. For instance, a publication in TIME magazine highlighted that in some military branches, personnel shortages were more critical than those of weapons and ammunition. The article was dismissed by Ukrainian authorities as nonsense.

In the meantime, without waiting for the transition to full-scale mobilization, some military units are taking matters into their own hands, actively seeking and motivating individuals who are willing to don a military uniform and bear arms.

Following the challenging defense of Bakhmut and Zaporizhzhia, it became clear that the Ukrainian military was in dire need of reinforcements.

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