* The VICE News team’s Turkish lawyer was shot dead in the street one week ago.
* The detention of journalists continues unabated — two have just been jailed on the same baseless terrorism charges that VICE News was accused of.
Our first impression of Adana Kurkculer prison was, as would be expected, a bad one. Several layers of high-walled security doors peeled open as we were driven in under armed guard, our hands cuffed in the back of a military vehicle.
Rifles were pointed at us as we were hurried out and pushed into a small holding room inside the prison. It was a grim welcome. The word “ISID” was scrawled all over the walls in dry blood — the Turkish acronym for the Islamic State (IS).
Rasool, Phil, and I paced the room, afraid of what might happen to us next. It was now the sixth day since we’d been detained by the Turkish authorities on baseless charges of supporting terrorism. Adana was the third prison we’d seen the inside of. This one, according to the guards, was where “IS terrorists” were sent. If the bloodied walls were anything to go by, it made sense.
What didn’t make sense was why we were there. We’d been reporting on the increasingly bloody conflict in the southeast, between the Turkish state and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Just doing our jobs, as journalists, had landed us behind bars.
By the second day in this max security “ISIS prison,” Rasool brought some relief to the otherwise excruciating minutes and hours. He started planning the party we’d have upon our release. Inside our horrible little cell we prepared a week of madness for the outside, momentarily ignoring the fact that none of us at that point knew when we’d be getting out.
“I’ll have to come to London with you guys,” he laughed, his face lighting up at the thought of it. He’s never visited the UK. “Oh man, it’ll be great. I don’t think we’ll sleep for days.”
We discussed the inner workings of a British night out. Rasool listened intently, laughing every now and then at me and Phil’s stupid observations, sometimes comparing them to his own haunts in Istanbul, where he lives. It was a much-needed respite from the frightening uncertainty inside the prison.
The party never came though. Not for Rasool. Today is his hundredth day behind bars. He is seemingly no closer to being released, or even sent to trial, than he was when Phil and I had to leave him behind some 89 days ago. Rasool is caught in a state of limbo. Turkish authorities say they’re still investigating — an investigation that has gone on for one hundred days with no progress or end in sight. And things are getting worse.
One week ago today, our lead lawyer, Tahir Elci, was shot dead in Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey. He’d been giving a press conference in the Sur neighborhood, calling for peace between Turkey and the PKK. His last words before a bullet struck him in the head were, “We don’t want guns, clashes [or] operations in this region.”
Tahir was 49. He leaves behind a wife, a daughter, and a son. I watched his funeral on the television. One of his daughters, Nazenin, screamed “Bavo ez bimrim!” (Let me die dad!), as she walked with his coffin. Thousands of people walked behind her, all showing their respect for Tahir and his lifelong dedication to human rights.
This is all very bizarre.” He explained that he was the head of the bar association in Diyarbakir and would do everything he could to help us. He fought hard for us in the courtroom but ultimately couldn’t persuade then prosecutor to set us free. His last words to me: “Now you go to prison. Do not worry.”
No one quite knows for sure yet who killed Tahir Elci.
Within the hundred days that Rasool has been inside, Phil and I have tried to bring attention to the case. We have many people and organizations to thank for helping us do this by raising the profile of Rasool’s situation: VICE, the Committee to Protect Journalists, PEN International, PEN’s English branch, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, the Rory Peck Trust, and hundreds of other people all over the world.
People we’ve never met approach us every day to ask how they can help. It’s been overwhelming and incredibly humbling. People genuinely want to help. Yet no matter how many awards ceremonies we attend, how many faces we smile in and hands we shake, none of it feels right, because Rasool is not there with us. He’s still in prison.
For Rasool, on the inside, I can’t even imagine. With all three of us sprawled out in that airless cell it was one of the loneliest places in the world. Now he’s in there with people he doesn’t know, and it’s been so long. He’s turned 25 in that prison. We worry every day that he’ll ending up spend another birthday in there.
But despite this seemingly endless waiting game, hope is not lost. Rasool is innocent. He’s also strong.
“Real men go to prison,” he said to Phil and I one night as we were driven from custody to a nearby hospital, for “check ups.” We cracked up laughing. It sounded like a typical statement for Rasool to come out with — deadpan and comedic. He explained though. What he really meant was “Strong people can endure prison.” I couldn’t hack it, but if there’s anyone I know who can, it’s Rasool.
There are now around 30 journalists in prison in Turkey. Mohammed Ismael Rasool, Ali Konar, Erdal Susem, Erol Zavar, Ferhat Ciftci, Gurbet Cakar, Hamit Dilbahar, Hatice Dunman, Hidayet Karaca, Kamuran Sunbat, Kenan Karavil, Mikail Barut, Mikdat Algul, Mustafa Gok, Tahsin Sagaltici, Nuri Yesil, Sami Tunca, Sevcan Atak, Seyithan Akyuz, Sahabattin Demir, Yilmaz Kahraman, Mehmet Baransu, Ozgur Amed, Gultekin Avci, Cevheri Guven, Murat Capan, Idris Yilmaz, Vildan Atmaca, Erdem Gul, and Can Dundar. All were detained for doing their job.
Since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gained a majority victory in the country’s second election of 2015 in November, many journalists have been arrested in Turkey. Most recently, it was Erdem Gul and Can Dundar, the editor and a writer from opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper, who wrote a story in May claiming that Turkey’s intelligence agency had transported weapons to the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. They, like Rasool, are now held in pre-trial detention on terrorism charges.
Phil and I can’t actually speak with Rasool directly, but we hear that he’s doing okay, all things considered. But things can never really be okay while he’s still in that cell. They won’t be okay until he’s out here with us, enjoying that week-long party.
We’re still battling to get our friend and colleague Mohammed Rasool free from prison. You can help by signing the petition for his release or by raising awareness, using #FreeRasool on Facebook and Twitter.
Visit the VICE News #FreeRasool page for more information.