From Turkish prisoner to symbol of lingering kiss

When he was released from prison after midnight late last month, Kadri Gursel walked straight to his wife, Nazire, and embraced her. Their lingering kiss in front of the prison, and a soldier's shy glancing away, was caught on camera by a Turkish photographer and sent round the world.

By CARLOTTA GALL in Istanbul
  • Published 15.10.17
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Kadri Gursel kisses his wife after his release from Silivri prison in Istanbul
on September 26. (AFP)

Istanbul, Oct. 14: When he was released from prison after midnight late last month, Kadri Gursel walked straight to his wife, Nazire, and embraced her. Their lingering kiss in front of the prison, and a soldier's shy glancing away, was caught on camera by a Turkish photographer and sent round the world.

The kiss came to stand for freedom in more ways than one in today's Turkey. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested or purged from their jobs under a state of emergency declared after a failed coup attempt last year, but that is not the only source of tension. There is also the government's deepening religious conservatism, which is changing the face of the republic.

For Gursel, the kiss was spontaneous, but it symbolises much of who he is. A senior columnist for Cumhuriyet, Turkey's leading Opposition newspaper, and board member of the International Press Institute, which works for press freedom, he is one of the most prominent political prisoners to be swept up in the government crackdown.

"We behaved not politically but naturally," he said of the kiss. But he recognises that it signifies more to many people. "This has been interpreted as a disobedience to the political culture, the invasion of the public sphere and the imposing of religious conservatism," he said. "I think we did well. This was needed."

In one of his first interviews after 11 months in prison, Gursel, 56, a lean, soft-spoken intellectual, told of his anger at what he called the baseless charges against him and his colleagues, and described the chronicle of persecution that has steadily closed down news outlets in Turkey and shut down independent voices under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Accused of aiding a terrorist organisation in a group indictment with 18 others, he still faces serious charges. Most of the accused are from Cumhuriyet, including reporters, executives, a cartoonist and an accountant.

Detained 11 months ago, only three of the group remain in jail: a reporter, Ahmet Sik; the editor-in-chief, Murat Sabuncu; and the paper's chief executive, Akin Atalay.

"I control my anger. I am not a captive of my anger," he said, speaking in English and pausing to choose his words. "But someone who stayed 11 months in prison, should be angry. I am very angry."

As with tens of thousands of other Turkish citizens, they were rounded up in countrywide purges, many of them accused, like Gursel, of having links to Fethullah Gulen, the US-based cleric who is blamed by Turkey for directing the failed coup.

More than a hundred news media outlets have been closed and more than 120 journalists detained - more than in any other country in the world, human rights organisations say.

Erdogan has denied jailing masses of journalists, saying that all but two of those arrested are journalists. The rest he described as terrorists.

The Cumhuriyet group was charged with pursuing an editorial line that favoured Gulen's movement, as well as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and a third far-Left group. The Turkish government treats all three groups as terrorist organisations.

Gursel was specifically charged with communicating with Gulen supporters through the Bylock encrypted messaging app. He vehemently rejected the accusations in lengthy testimony in the opening phases of his trial in July last year, and now says that he should never have been detained or charged in the first place.

He pointed out that he never had the app installed on his phone, and although he received scores of messages a couple of years ago from Gulenists in a campaign to win his sympathy, he did not respond to any of them.

His persistence, what he calls his "boring defence", as well as international pressure paid off with his release from prison, though he still faces a potential 15-year prison sentence if he is ultimately found guilty when his trial resumes at the end of the month.

Sitting in his sunlit apartment overlooking the Bosporus, he said he would not complain about conditions in the Silivri prison, where he was held along with hundreds of other political prisoners - district governors, police chiefs, wealthy businessmen, militants of the far-left, Kurdish members of Parliament and, lately, human rights defenders.

People would call out his name when he was led along the corridor, banging on windows of their cells. "They were trying to speak to me but the windows were very thick," he said. "They were saying hello."

He says he spent most of his time in prison with two other colleagues in a set of rooms with a kitchen and bathroom: "You cannot call it a cell, they were rooms." But communication with the outside was limited, and access to a lawyer restricted and without privacy.

"I was jailed when there was no instrument left to silence me," Gursel concluded. "They wanted to silence the newspaper and punish it for its disturbing articles, and they wanted to settle accounts with me."

New York Times News Service