Journalist Tunca Öğreten may finally be free after a year in a Turkish jail, but he is still awaiting his third trial on April 3.
“If you are a real journalist in Turkey — not the ones for the government, that means you are a potential prisoner — so living outside as a potential prisoner makes you think that it’s an open and sunny prison,” Öğreten told MediaFile.
Sabah’tan yine Pulitzer ödüllük bir haber… https://t.co/s4ImT0ff6l
— Tunca Öğreten (@tuncaogreten) March 8, 2018
Öğreten was arrested in December 2016 on “anti-state” and “terrorism” charges for reporting on leaked documents proving that Turkey’s minister of energy was involved in corruption with an energy company linked to ISIS’ oil trade.
After his detainment, he was kept in the police station for 24 days.
“It was the most terrible period of that one year, because I spent 24 days in a cell with … four, five people in it, so there was no water for taking a shower, and they only gave us canned foods that I couldn’t eat,” said Öğreten. “It was like a horror movie for me, and the last three days I was just begging the police: ‘Please, put me in prison.’ I was really begging them like this … because I just knew that the conditions in prison were much better than the conditions at the station.”
He was then sent to prison where the conditions were better. He spent his days with three other prisoners sharing a “common space” with a 30-square-meter place for him. There was a communal kitchen, a bathroom, a TV and Öğreten often passed the time playing chess.
Öğreten believes he did “nothing illegal,” and thought he would be released rather quickly — but that was not the case.
“I was thinking like, ‘OK, I did nothing. I just wrote about the minister’s hacked emails, that’s it. I did nothing illegal and they have to take me out as soon as possible,’” he said. “But after one month just passed, then I said, ‘OK, something is wrong. They are not going to take me out.’ Then three months, four months, and still they didn’t prepare the indictment. It was like an alert for us, then I realized: ‘OK, Tunca, they want to keep you for a long time in prison.’”
Öğreten and his longtime girlfriend Minez Bayülgen were engaged at the time, but he wasn’t allowed to see her because she was not family nor his spouse.
“We never thought of getting married and signing the papers,” Öğreten said. “But when I was taken to prison, we just learned that because of the state of emergency, I was not allowed to see her because we were not married. They only let me see my wife, so then we decided to sign the papers because we wanted to see each other.”
In a letter asking Bayülgen to marry him, Öğreten wrote, “From captivity to freedom, from autocracy to democracy, do you accept to be my wife? Will you marry me Minez Bayülgen?”
Tutuklu gazeteci Tunca Öğreten ile Minez Bayülgen bugün Silivri Cezaevi'nde evlendiler. Tebrikler ve birlikte özgür bir ömür diliyoruz. pic.twitter.com/EJYpllTYps
— Ben Gazeteciyim (@Ben_Gazeteciyim) March 1, 2017
They had a wedding in the prison chapel. After they said their vows and signed the papers, a prison guard stepped on his foot.
“That was a lovely story in a very harsh period. That was the one, only thing that when we remember, it makes us happy,” he said.
Öğreten estimates that there were about 170 imprisoned journalists at the time of his detainment, but he saw none of them. He knew where other journalists were staying, but they had no chance to communicate while in prison.
One day, after about a year in detainment, he was taken to a video conference room where the screen showed “the judge, prosecutor, my family, other journalists, PMs” gathered in a courtroom. The judge asked if Öğreten had anything to say in his defense, and then announced that he was free to go.
He was never given a formal reason for his release, but suspects that outside forces may have played a role.
“Maybe something affected the process, because my lawyers just applied to the European Court of Human Rights and they asked the government to defend themselves to the court as to why they kept me in prison for one year, he said. “I think because they cannot defend themselves, they just got me out.”
Since his release, Tunca has celebrated with his family and friends and went on vacation with his wife in South Turkey. While awaiting his third trial in two weeks time, he is still writing as a journalist for a Germany-based Turkish news site.
“I haven’t been working for one year, and had a long holiday in prison,” said Öğreten. “[Being in prison brings] personal changes in your private life … but it didn’t change my job.”