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Renowned authors speak up for jailed Turkish writers, journalists

Protesters, in a demonstration last June in Istanbul, hold pictures of Turkish journalists and rights activists who were arrested for alleged ‘terrorist propaganda.’

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Nobel laureates and prominent authors, including three Canadians, are throwing vocal support behind 150 imprisoned Turkish writers and journalists, most of whom were scooped up in the massive crackdown after last summer's failed coup attempt.

Free speech advocates say Turkey has become the world's biggest jailer of writers and journalists since the July 15 military coup attempt against the Turkish government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that killed 270 people. Tens of thousands of bureaucrats, teachers, police officers, judges and other civilians have been jailed or fired from their jobs, often for suspected links to the opposition.

Canadian philosopher and essayist John Ralston Saul joined 22 other writers, publishers and PEN International officials for an eight-day mission to the country where they lobbied Turkish cabinet ministers and presidential advisers to respect freedom of expression. They also offered support to jailed writers and their families and held a vigil outside the prison where most of them are held.

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Mr. Saul said Turkish government officials were cordial and listened to lengthy pleas for free speech and the release of the writers in a series of meetings. They did not make any promises. The reception outside Silivri Prison where 135 journalists and writers are detained was less welcoming. The delegation was effectively detained for several hours when they had their passports seized by security agents.

"We just wanted to make a statement of solidarity and found ourselves boxed in by about 75 armed police. They took our passports three times when we tried to leave. There was a lot of shouting and confusion," Mr. Saul said in an interview from Istanbul. No arrests or injuries were reported.

To mark the end of the mission Saturday, dozens of authors – including Canadians Margaret Atwood and Yann Martel and Nobel laureates Elfriede Jelinek, J.M. Coetzee and Mario Vargas Llosa – signed a message of solidarity for the imprisoned writers, many of whom were charged with terrorism offences but have not had court dates or had allegations against them spelled out.

"We are writing to you to let you know that you are not alone," said the message. "We are writing to tell you that we will not stand idly by in your time of need. We will not be silent while your human rights are violated. We will raise our global voice against any effort to silence yours."

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Some 50,000 people were imprisoned and 100,000 civil servants fired from their jobs in the weeks after the July 15 military coup Turkish officials say was orchestrated by Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

The coup, bombings by Islamic State and Kurdish militants, and an economic downturn have set the atmosphere for Mr. Erdogan's campaign to exchange Turkey's parliamentary democracy for an all-powerful presidency. Opponents fear a further turn toward authoritarianism while the President's supporters say the country needs stability. A referendum on the change is expected in April.

"You cannot hold an election or referendum intended to change the direction of a country during a state of emergency when you've effectively removed the opposition," Mr. Saul said. "It's self-defeating and self-destructive. You may pull off a victory but it will have no legitimacy."

Efforts by PEN International and others to push for the release of writers have had some success. After a fall letter-writing campaign that included a piece by Ms. Atwood, celebrated novelist Asli Ergodan (no relation to the President) was released in late December after 132 days in prison as her trial began on charges of creating terror propaganda. She awaits a verdict.

She spoke to the PEN delegation in an emotional session and has described being "thrown in a hole" for trying to build a bridge of peace through her literature. "It was astonishing and moving to hear her and the others speak," Mr. Saul said.

The delegation also heard from the widows of murdered writers and family members of jailed writers. The Committee to Protect Journalists says four Turkish journalists have been murdered since the start of 2015.

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On the same day Ms. Erdogan was released, the police arrested investigative journalist and government critic Ahmet Sik, accusing him of spreading terrorist propaganda on Twitter. "I'm being taken before a prosecutor for a tweet," he tweeted as he was put under arrest.

"It's a classic example of a fearful leader imposing completely unnecessary misery on a country," Mr. Martel, the Saskatoon-based novelist, said in an interview. "The President is scaring away investors, he's scaring away tourists, he's hurting the economy. Soon the people will be dissatisfied and eventually the regime will fall. In the meantime we have all this squandered potential."

Of the 150 jailed writers, 81 are journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, putting the country far ahead of chronic human rights violators such as China (38) and Egypt (25).

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