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'We thought it was an earthquake; it was men with kalashnikovs at the door' - the woman documenting human rights abuses in Turkey

Kurdish journalist Nurcan Baysal is facing a three-year jail term for calling out the government of Recep Erdogan regarding atrocities committed on the Turkish/Syrian border.

IMG_0117 Nurcan Baysal Source: TheJournal.ie

IN JULY 2016, an attempted coup d’etat by the Turkish military against ruling president Recep Erdogan ended in failure.

Erdogan’s response was swift, with mass internments seen across the country, 170 of whom were journalists, as the state clamped down on any dissension with an iron fist.

43-year-old Kurdish-Turkish journalist Nurcan Baysal has been writing about human rights abuses in her own country for 20 years.

She wasn’t among the group that was arrested in the aftermath of the goings-on on 15 July 2016.

She is however currently facing up to three years in prison. Why? Because she sent five tweets in January of this year condemning the atrocities taking place in the city of Cizre, in the Kurdish region of southeast Turkey, on the border with Syria.

Events in the region had seen Erdogan go to war once more with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2015, after a two-year peace process had foundered (the two have been at war in some shape or form since the late 1970s).

Coups of any sort in Turkey don’t tend to end well for the 20 million Kurds in the country.

“Whenever anything happens, it is taken out on the Kurdish,” Baysal tells TheJournal.ie.

She’s in Ireland on a flying visit to collect the Front Line Defenders Global Laureate award (“I’m really nervous, but very happy”). It wasn’t even certain that she would be able to make the journey until earlier this week given her tribulations at home. This is her fifth time in Ireland – she first travelled here at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, a time that saw her meet both Bertie Ahern and Gerry Adams.


Back home, her tweets in January led to her arrest at the hands of kalashnikov-wielding Turkish forces the same evening that she denounced what she sees as the warmongering going on in her homeland.

BRITAIN-LONDON-TURKEY-PRESIDENT-VISIT Theresa May and Recep Erdogan, pictured in London this week Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

“At first we thought it was an earthquake,” she says of the arrival of security forces on her doorstep. “They were trying to knock down our door.”

Baysal was relatively lucky on that occasion. She spent just three days in detention away from her family (she has two sons, aged 10 and 14, with her husband). However, the prosecutor in her case has suggested that she go to prison for three years. Think about that. For sending a tweet suggesting that diplomacy with tanks does not exactly equate to an olive branch.

Her court case was due to be heard yesterday. Baysal’s presence in Ireland means it has been put back until October.

Meanwhile, she’s currently serving a suspended 10-month sentence over a 2016 article she wrote criticising what she described as war crimes in the town of Cizre. The terms of that sentence mean she can remain free so long as she doesn’t repeat “the same crime” any time in the next five years.

The things she witnessed in Cizre are war crimes, she insists, including people being burned alive in basements under bombardment from Turkish forces.

All this is happening in a country that aspires to be a member of the European Union.

“All these other countries are also responsible for these massacres,” Baysal says, when we ask her for her opinion on Erdogan’s current visit to the UK (Theresa May is angling for a trade deal with Erdogan post-Brexit). “Because they denounce his war crimes, but they also supply him with arms. The UN knows what happened in Cizre. I’m not talking about a normal human rights violation. I’m talking about burning people alive, about leaving bodies in the street. If these other countries really want to hurt Erdogan, they should be doing it with sanctions.”

Regarding her conviction she says the judge was surprised to see her in court. “Because I don’t look like a terrorist,” she says.

It is not just me. Under Erdogan, half the country is seen as a terrorist. I know two wedding singers who are considered terrorists.


Baysal, who is highly articulate, and very engaging company, will admit that life in Turkey at present is certainly difficult.

“But that has always been the way, for the last 20 years,” she says. “When all of life is like that, you have to just enjoy it as best you can. After a while the war becomes your life. It has been all my life. Not one or two days, every day.”

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She has told her sons that if she is arrested, it is not necessarily because of something that she has done.

“It will be because I am struggling for our human rights, struggling for peace. They know what is going on. When we are under bombardment, my son comes to me and tells me how many bombs have dropped on us today,” she says.

“They know everything.”

We ask if she has hope that anything can change?

Situation In Kurdish Town of Cizre, After Army Operations - Turkey A man walks among the ruins of houses in Cizre, southeast Turkey, on 2 March 2016 Source: Depo Photos/PA Images

“I want to believe that. If Erdogan ever goes (he has been in power in some shape for form since 2003), then there is hope. If millions hit the streets, then there is hope. And if Erdogan goes then he will end up in court. Unfortunately, he knows this, so he will not go easily,” she says.

So why continue to do what she is doing? When death threats follow her every utterance daily, does she really feel she can make a difference?

“Because it is important to record what happens. Always it is the powerful who write history. Some day it will be important to show what really happened. And locally, definitely, I can have an effect,” is the answer.

Does she ever get scared?

“I’m not too afraid, no. Maybe that’s stupid. I’m not thinking about tomorrow. If I think about all these things then I will be afraid, and that is what they want,” she says.

“I see myself as part of a long struggle in humanity, a struggle for freedom.”

Today maybe it is not so powerful, but I am part of the freedom movement everywhere. That’s how I feel.

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