Nurcan Baysal has been accused of treachery, terrorism and spreading hate on Twitter. She tells Caroline O’Doherty her fight against human rights abuses in Turkey will go on
Nurcan Baysal was meant to be in court, defending herself against charges of trying to destroy the state of Turkey, but she slipped out to Ireland to pick up a human rights award instead.
It was a calculated gamble as she risked angering an already prickly prosecution by sending her lawyer to seek an adjournment.
But the publicity she gets from being named recipient of the 2018 Front Line Defenders Global Laureate award may just save her from a three-year prison term when the case resumes in October this year.
So what is it that Nurcan, a slight, smiling United Nations employee turned journalist has done to so upset the powers that be in Turkey?
They accuser her of terrorism and treachery but, in reality, tweeting is more her thing.
“I am charged with threatening the indivisible unity of Turkey,” she says brightly.
Nurcan is from south-eastern Turkey, otherwise known as Kurdistan, although that’s not a name the Turkish government allows its citizens to use.
The region is home to 20m Kurds, a people with their own language and culture, among whom there are some who have taken up arms in a struggle for independence, and many who simply want the right to speak their own language and honour their own traditions within an equal and diverse Turkey.
Turkish leaders have never looked favourably on Kurdish aspirations, but after the attempted coup by members of his own military in 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unleashed a dramatic crackdown on journalists, academics, activists, opposition politicians and anyone else deemed to be capable of critical thinking. Thousands were sacked or jailed and many remain in detention.
That crackdown, severe as it was in Ankara and Istanbul, was even more so in Kurdistan. Erdogan sent in his troops, bombing, burning, shooting and shelling as they went. They killed members of the main militant group, the PKK, which also managed to inflict casualties on the state forces, but several hundred civilians also died while many more have been left injured, homeless and frightened.
Nurcan was relatively new to writing at the time. From a family of 10, raised by a greengrocer father and housewife mother, she had fulfilled the dream of all Kurdish parents and got herself a university education that led to a job in the United Nations Development Programme.
But she also did voluntary work on the side, quietly undertaking activities that might be deemed political.
But Nurcan also worked quietly with Yazidi women living in camps after fleeing persecution by IS in Iraq, and visited villages made to suffer for resisting being turned into military bases for the Turkish forces, and eventually she felt there was too much silence.
She left the UN and began to write — books, blogs, columns, and those oh so subversive tweets.
It was in the wake of the 2016 attacks that her writing shifted up a gear as she chronicled the devastation, particularly in the town of Cizre where even before the coup, Turkish forces had mounted a major operation ostensibly aimed at PKK.
Nurcan witnessed the aftermath and interviewed survivors as they sifted through the ruins of their homes where at least 189 adults and children were trapped in cellars for two months, before being burned alive in a targeted shelling campaign.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has since collected the same testimonies and condemned Turkey for deliberately demolishing the buildings to prevent recovery of the bodies and frustrate investigators.
Nurcan has continued to write about this and other human rights abuses and early this year, she was sentenced to 10 months in prison for an article expressing her opposition to military operations.
The charge against her was that she was spreading hatred. “In Turkey it is a crime to call for peace,” she says.
The sentence was suspended on the grounds that she refrain for expressing such views again but of course, she hasn’t, and she now stands accused of threatening national unity through her tweets.
The first time she was arrested, 20 officers with kalashnikovs forced their way into her home after midnight, terrifying her two young sons. She regularly receives death threats, her husband’s small business has suffered and her parents often plead with her to take a step back. But she refuses to be frightened into submission.
“I don’t think about what they can do to me because if they want to hurt me, they will do it. I can’t stop them,” she says.
The restrictions on broadcasters and print journalists make social media all the more valuable — or dangerous as the state sees it — but getting the word out internationally is also very important.
So potentially annoying a judge by coming to Dublin to receive the Front Line Defenders Award is worth the risk. “What happens to me in October will depend on the solidarity I have from international NGOs and journalist organisations,” she says.
“Also, I want to show people in Kurdistan that I am not afraid so they will speak out too. I always smile in photographs, even if the subject is serious, because we don’t have power or money or weapons, but we have strength and belief and courage. And if you have courage, why not use it?”