Birthday behind bars in Turkey's highest security prison

By Fotis Fillipou, Amnesty International

Imagine if you threw a party and no one showed up.

For İdil Eser, Director of Amnesty International in Turkey, there is no danger of that tomorrow, 14 October, as thousands of people are expected to gather to celebrate her birthday.

Only one person will be missing: İdil herself.

Instead of taking part in one of the more than 200 birthday parties taking place around the world, İdil will be spending her birthday in Turkey’s highest security prison
Fotis Filippou

Instead of taking part in one of the more than 200 birthday parties that are taking place in 27 countries, İdil will be spending her birthday in the highest security section of Turkey’s highest security prison.

She was arrested, alongside nine other human rights defenders, on terrorism charges just over 100 days ago. On October 4, in an alarming development, a Turkish prosecutor filed an indictment calling for jail terms of up to 15 years for the group known as the ‘Istanbul 10’ - and for Amnesty International’s Turkey Chair, Taner Kiliç, was arrested a month earlier on similar ridiculous charges.

For more than two months after her arrest, Idil (who immediate family) was not allowed personal visitors. Despite the avalanche of birthday cards and messages sent to Amnesty International by well-wishers, she is still not allowed to receive mail.

The austere environment of Silivri prison – the largest penal complex in Europe – is a far cry from how Idil used to spend her birthday. Normally, she is in one of her favourite restaurants, sharing food, wine and laughter with friends, before going home to her cosy flat and three beloved cats.

She admits that her detention has been very hard, sharing a cell with another woman and unable to speak to the others who were arrested alongside her, such as Özlem Dalkıran.

"Özlem is only three doors away but if I want to find out anything about her I have to try and find out in the newspapers," she explained last month.

But Idil’s spirit has not been broken. "I have not committed any crime other than defending human rights,’ she says. ‘My time in prison has made me more committed to standing up for my values. I will not compromise them."

İdil is not someone who craves the spotlight. What drives her is the desire to make a positive difference to people’s lives and to the increase awareness of the importance of human rights in Turkey.

In the last year, at least 180 media outlets have been shut down and an estimated 2,500 journalists and other media workers have lost their jobs. More than 140 journalists and media workers are imprisoned, pending trial.

Dissent has become dangerous in Turkey and now even human rights defenders are being targeted.

Rounding up human rights defenders was clearly intended to send a message that dissent will not be tolerated in Turkey. But the courage of İdil and her colleagues and the support they have garnered around the world has sent a brighter message: that critical voices cannot be silenced.

Today there will be birthday parties in towns and cities across the globe – from the European Parliament to a makeshift prison in Madrid. Full-size paper cutouts of İdil will join in the festivities to highlight her absence.

Our birthday wish is for the release of İdil and her colleagues and an end the brutal post-coup crackdown that is ravaging Turkey
Fotis Filippou

Idil was never someone who craved the spotlight. Instead what drives her is the desire to make a positive difference to people’s lives and to the increase awareness of the importance of human rights in Turkey.   

In a letter to her supporters last month, İdil was in characteristic good spirits but admitted: “I miss music, my cats, being with my friends and being at my work.”

On this day people around the world are thinking about İdil and making a collective birthday wish. That wish is for the Turkish authorities to immediately and unconditionally release İdil and her colleagues and end the brutal post-coup crackdown that is ravaging the country.

This article was first published here by New Internationalist.