I Am Free — but Turkey Is Not

Max Zirngast, the Jacobin contributor jailed for several months in Turkey, was acquitted on all charges last week. Here, in his first English-language article since the ruling, he reflects on the trial, the repressive state of Turkish politics — and why he’ll keep fighting for democracy and socialism.

Max Zirngast (third from left) with his lawyer, Murat Yılmaz, and two of the other (now formerly) accused, Hatice Göz and Mithatcan Türetken. (Johanna Broese / Free Max Zirngast Solidaritätskampagne)

On September 11, 2018, I was taken into custody along with two friends of mine following a 6 AM raid by Turkish anti-terror police. Last week, exactly a year later, my comrades and I were fully acquitted of “membership in an armed terrorist organization.” We had spent roughly three and a half months in prison and had been barred from leaving Turkey even after our release.

Both the verdict and the timing came as somewhat of a surprise. In recent years, as the regime led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cracks down on opponents of all ideological stripes, politically motivated trials like ours usually drag on for years and involve multiple court hearings. For us, it only took a year and two court hearings.

So what explains the relatively speedy acquittal? And what does it tell us about the broader state of Turkish politics?

The Case

Austrian media and government officials watched our trial closely (and possibly did more than just watch), which certainly helped our cause. But that alone wouldn’t have been enough: in the days following our acquittal, both an Austrian and a German citizen were found guilty on various terror charges.

What was different? First, they were of Turkish or Kurdish origin — and crucially, their cases flew under the radar. I was the beneficiary of a solidarity campaign from the very beginning that spanned from Vienna to New York and which brought my case to the attention of mainstream media outlets and Austrian state officials. This is critical to note because it shows what international solidarity can achieve.

Still, we shouldn’t overestimate the importance of pressure from the West. Domestic issues in Turkey played an important role in our acquittal, particularly in two ways.

First, Turkey’s judicial institutions are in shambles. Trials take forever, and officials’ work is very often sloppy. This is largely a product of the mass purges since the July 2016 coup attempt against Erdoğan and the ensuing state crisis. In recent years, many officials have been replaced by young and inexperienced personnel. The judiciary simply lacks the capacity to pursue cases like ours for years, when an eventual acquittal is likely. This has become such a big problem that the government itself is proposing a judicial reform bill that would introduce slight liberalization (while leaving the basic system untouched).

The second domestic factor is the changing political climate since the local elections on March 31 and June 23. Erdoğan’s government was dealt a blow, and the restorationist forces in the opposition — those who seek not systemic change but instead to dislodge Erdoğan and rebuild some of the state institutions in line with business demands — scored a major victory. Ever since, the balance of power in the state apparatuses has shifted. While the opposition has failed to take full advantage of their win, it is clear that the government has been forced to forge new alliances and navigate stormy waters between various state factions, all seeking greater influence.

As a consequence, we’ve seen multiple positive court decisions of late. Persecuted academics are getting acquitted, and other cases like ours are ending quickly.

Yet things are not looking up everywhere. Canan Kaftancıoğlu, the Istanbul chair of the centrist Republican People’s Party (CHP), received a nearly ten-year prison sentence for tweets from six years ago. Erdoğan’s government is removing mayors from the leftist, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in the three major Kurdish-dominated cities.

In short, the turbulent times in Turkey continue, with manifold, often contradictory, tendencies at work simultaneously. Precisely because of these contradictory tendencies, it would be ridiculous to claim Turkey has now become a genuine democracy or that the rule of law has been established.

For me personally, the court ruling is, of course, a great relief. But the idea that this in itself is an auspicious sign for Turkey as a whole is wrong and can only be claimed if one abstracts from the totality of developments. The struggle for genuine democracy in Turkey has been waged for a long time, and it will have to be waged going forward. Along the way, there will be upsurges of positive change. But the country will need systemic reform and legal guarantees, such as a new, democratic constitution, to speak even of partial victory.

Our Weapon Is Solidarity

The last year has been a trying one, but it hasn’t been a lost year. I continued with my work as well as I could — always with others, always in a collective effort. The Turkish state generally tries to scare, isolate, and curtail oppositional forces. They seek to punish without a verdict, by entangling dissident political currents and individuals in lengthy trials. In my case, it backfired. The state neither scared me nor isolated me. If anything, they fostered more collaboration and solidarity.

The powers that be will never be happy about the struggle against the order they preside over. They will try to sabotage it, at times by soft means, at others by not-so-soft means. They will claim we are terrorists, keep us in pre-trial detention, prosecute us in interminable trials — anything to hamper popular-democratic and socialist efforts.

Yet despite everything, we will carry on. We will continue to fight for democracy and socialism, for a free world that ends the exploitation of humans and nature, patriarchy, and racism.

Their weapon is brute force. Ours is solidarity.