‘While I breathe, I hope’: In conversation with Ali Gharavi of the #Istanbul10

A picture of #Istanbul10. Photo credit: Amnesty International via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0].

Editor's note: This interview is republished through a partnership between Global Voices and IFEX. Read the full interview here.

Ali Gharavi is a strategy and holistic security consultant working with human rights defenders, their organisations and communities. He is one of ten people — including İdil Eser, former director of Amnesty Turkey — who were arrested in Turkey in July 2017 at an information management and well-being workshop on Buyukada island. The hashtag #Istanbul10 was used in the sustained advocacy efforts that called for the dropping of all charges against them and their immediate release.

In March 2020, ahead of an anticipated – but since postponed – verdict hearing, Ali spoke with IFEX Regional Editor Cathal Sheerin about how his experience being arrested in Turkey and jailed for four months has affected his life and informed his work.

CS: How do you feel about the upcoming hearing?

I feel a combination of anticipation and anxiety. It’s been a roller coaster of emotions over the last almost three years and the verdict was supposed to have been reached at the last hearing. In terms of realistic outcomes, we’ve talked about two or three possibilities with our families, lawyers and the authorities in Sweden. I’ve been trying to keep my wits about me and not putting all my eggs in one basket, but we’re pretty optimistic that the outcome could be acquittal.

What makes you optimistic for acquittal?

I’m only nominally optimistic really because these things can turn on a dime. At the hearing before the last one, the prosecutor said that – of the ten of us plus Taner Kılıç – he would accept acquittal for five because of lack of evidence, but the rest he wanted to convict. I was in the acquittal group. All of us are quite adamant, however, about not having this ‘split’ decision.

Why do you think you were divided into two groups?

It’s really hard to say. Two of us in the acquittal group – Peter Steudtner and I – are not Turkish, so it’s possible that they want to remove the international angle from all of this. However, that’s just my speculation. It’s actually quite arbitrary, and I think this is partly because they have no evidence. It might even be a way to ramp this down: Let’s acquit half of them now and then acquit the rest in a trickle.

What has been the impact of your arrest, detention and trial on your family and friends?

This is a really important question for me, because we always tend to concentrate on the person who’s at the centre of the crisis. However, I compare the experience to a cluster bomb, where the first detonation is our arrest and the subsequent explosions take place in our families, among our friends and at our work as people discover what has happened. It’s not just confined to the ten or 11 who are in prison – it spreads like a virus, infecting everyone it comes into contact with. My partner went through great trauma, as did other members of my family, because of this. It can be all-encompassing for some people, as it was for me.

It changes one’s life. You become a different person because of the trauma you endured: four months of being in various Turkish prisons leaves its footprint; and then, for your partner, there’s not knowing where her loved one is for two months, whether he is alive or not.

My wife, Laressa Dickey, Peter’s partner, Magdalena Freudenschuss, and our colleague, Dan O’Cluanaigh, ended up creating a de facto response organisation that helped coordinate and inform the activities of all the other advocacy groups, such as IFEX. We called it the ‘Family Unit’ and its activities were informed by the work that Peter, Dan and I do – holistic security – which is about being actively aware that a crisis has many different aspects, including the digital footprint, physical security, health and psychological well-being.

The ‘Family Unit’ did strategic planning and set objectives, such as caring for the families of the incarcerated and providing systematic communications so that each family had all the relevant information about their loved ones. They also developed protocols with our lawyers; some of this was as mundane as giving the lawyers our shoe and underwear sizes so that they could buy things for us. It’s basic, but that’s the stuff that makes it easier for the lawyers to do their actual work. The lawyers became the only mode of contact with us; my own lawyer is now my dearest friend because he was my lawyer and also my personal shopper, confidante, adviser and therapist.

Ali Gharavi. Photo credit: Annie Game

How aware were you when you were detained of the advocacy that was taking place on your behalf? What impact did it have on your morale?

Maintaining my morale was one of the biggest challenges for me. I was held at four different sites. At one point, they transferred us to the anti-terrorism headquarters for interrogation, which sounds like – and was – quite a harrowing experience. Then my family heard that, because of overcrowding, they’d placed me in a two-person cell with four others, two of whom were ISIS members.

Obviously, when you hear that, it sounds like the most horrendous situation, but in reality it was actually a very supportive environment. Those two supposed ISIS members were actually just two religious boys who’d grown beards. I walked in to this very compact area where they’d all heard that these ‘super-spies’ were coming, and this young nineteen-year-old supposed ISIS member started speaking to me in German, knowing that I’d lived in Germany. He said: “You’re our elder, you’re our uncle, this is your home, whatever you want we’ll provide.” The moments which – from the outside – looked quite devastating, were sometimes actually moments of amazing solidarity.

Most of our incarceration was spent in a maximum security prison. Because they supposedly thought we were super-advanced spies they put us in the Number Nine Prison, which has extra security. I had only one hour a week to see people – usually my lawyer or sometimes a diplomat.

You begin to forget what the outside looks like and you assume that the outside doesn’t remember you either. But every week my wife would email details to my lawyer of everything that was being done for us, so that my lawyer could print it all out and pretend that it was a legal document (because that was the only thing I was permitted to look at).

I’ve done letter-writing campaigns in the past, and I never knew for sure if they had any effect on the people who were in jail, but having been on the inside, I can say that those moments were life-saving. Sometimes my lawyer would search for my name on Twitter and print out all the tweets that had been posted that week about me; there was also this Twitter campaign, #haikusforAli, and demonstrations in Brussels, sit-ins in front of embassies.

All of those moments reminded me that people on the outside were thinking of me and mobilising. I’m not exaggerating when I say that those were the things that saved me when I was in the depths of an abyss.

How has the experience affected how you work?

The kind of work I’d been doing was intended exactly for this kind of situation, where you need to pay attention to the whole person, not just their devices or the organisation’s activities. Because of my incarceration, I now understand that at a molecular level. For me, the whole experience has placed a higher premium on understanding people – who they are, where they are – as a big part of how we can actually help them regardless of whichever aspect of their work we’re trying to assist them with.

One thing the experience revealed was how inadequately resourced and researched care and crisis response is: how do you care for not just the person incarcerated, but also his family, the community around him, his colleagues?

Once the crisis is ‘over’ the assumption is that life goes on as usual, whereas there’s actually recovery that needs to be done. Often there’s also a massive financial burden due to legal costs and the inability to work for a while. After my release I went to Berlin and arrived into a very supportive debriefing environment. It’s a very privileged situation to be in – those ten days were very helpful in making me understand that I’d be going through this trauma and recovery and that it’s not just business as usual. There was a crowd-funder created for me so that I didn’t just have to drop back into work, and there was physical and psychological therapy too.

I knew it intellectually, but now I know it viscerally, that just because you get released the trauma doesn’t just go away. It takes years to be functional again. People assume that when you recover you’re going to go back to being who you were, but that’s not true.

Would you ever return to Turkey?

It would be very difficult for me to feel safe there, but I would go, if only in order to ‘get back on the horse’. If the verdict doesn’t go the way we expect, then I’d be incarcerated if I turned up there, so I obviously wouldn’t return. I love Turkey – the people and the environment – and I feel like a big part of my life and friends is now off-limits to me. But I dream of when I’ll be able to go back, hug the people who were inside with me and eat baklava with them. As Cicero said: ‘While I breathe, I hope.’

The humanity of what I experienced in detention was humbling. Regardless of why those people were incarcerated with me, they – that young 19-year-old who spoke to me in German, and others – were an amazing source of inspiration and support. During the toughest times I’d be angry with them, but they were amazingly unwavering. I’ve heard via word of mouth that those two supposed ISIS members are now back with their families and all is well. I owe them a big debt of gratitude.

Most of the time I was incarcerated alongside political prisoners who faced trial on specious charges, or who had been (and continue to be) detained for years on end as they wait for an indictment. And now we hear that despite the mortal threat of COVID-19 sweeping through the prison system, those prisoners will stay behind bars.

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