His cell phone is beeping again. Hüseyin Tolu interrupts the conversation to see who is trying to contact him. He must, he has no choice, though this has been going on all morning. Mostly it has been inconsequential emails, messages he can ignore. But one note makes him jump out of his seat.
He swallows hard, fighting back tears even as he is smiling. “Look, look, here, here,” Mr. Tolu says. “This is my father, and this is Serkan. Serkan, the little one. My father got him out of prison. They are letting him out today. My father did it. Serkan is being allowed out to visit his father, in the other prison.”
The emotional scene unfolding on a Wednesday morning at a downtown Berlin hotel is part of a dramatic and desperate story.
Turkish police officers raided Ms. Tolu's Istanbul apartment on the night of April 29. Why? Just because.
Hüseyin Tolu, 36, is the uncle of Serkan, age two-and-a-half. Serkan is in a women’s prison in Bakirköy in Istanbul because he wants to be with his mother, Mesale Tolu, 33, who is incarcerated there. Serkan has one toy, a plastic ball, and can play in the yard for one hour a day. He spends the rest of his time with his mother in a 50 square-meter (540 square foot) cell he shares with 24 other women.
When he leaves Bakirköy this Wednesday, Serkan, guarded by policemen, will visit his father, Suat Çorlu, who’s being held in a different prison. Serkan’s mother and father are awaiting trial which can take up to five years in Turkey.
As German journalists, we only have third-hand knowledge of these circumstances; we have not been to Bakirköy, we haven’t seen the cell and are not personally acquainted with Mesale Tolu or her husband Suat Çorlu. And we only met Hüseyin Tolu, Mesale’s brother, the morning after he had appeared on a talk show hosted by German journalist Dunja Hayali.
Mr. Tolu manages the Hornbach hardware store in the southern German city of Ulm. With his employer’s blessing, he is traveling on behalf of his sister, brother-in-law and nephew. In the lobby of the Berlin hotel, with a shaved head, designer glasses and a goatee, he keeps stopping to swallow his tears.
Mesale Tolu and her husband are journalists and translators. She was born in Ulm in 1984. Her father, an auto mechanic, had come to Germany from Turkey 10 years earlier. Mesale, whose name is pronounced “Meshale,” studied ethics and Spanish in Frankfurt, intending to become a teacher.
After graduating, she decided to drop her dual German-Turkish citizenship; from then on, Mesale Tolu Çorlu was German. Later, when she was arrested, the Turkish judicial authorities violated international law in her case and they did not notify the German authorities of the arrest of a German citizen.
Turkish police officers raided Ms. Tolu’s Istanbul apartment on the night of April 29 for no apparent reason.
Ms. Tolu commutes between Germany and Istanbul. That night, Serkan was also asleep in the apartment and awoke to police officers pointing guns at him. He was taken to a neighbor’s place though it wasn’t someone he knew. Ms. Tolu was arrested, her apartment ransacked in a search for evidence. Nothing was found but she was taken to prison anyway.
The raid took place at 4:30 A.M. Two hours later, her brother says she managed to convince one of the guards to let her call her father, Ali Riza, who lives in Elbistan, in southern Turkey, 1,300 kilometers (808 miles) from Istanbul. Ms. Tolu’s father traveled to Istanbul immediately but was not allowed to visit his daughter in prison until May 15, two weeks later. He brought Serkan who has been living with his mother in the jail ever since. Mothers are allowed to have their children with them in this Istanbul women’s prison and there’s also a playroom for minors. Ms. Tolu and her son are not permitted to use that facility though they don’t know why not.
Mr. Tolu said he has spoken with his sister twice by phone. “She says that she is doing well. But even if she wasn’t, she would say the same thing so as not to worry the family,” he says. His face says that this is no joking matter.
Since an attempted coup against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016, there has been a crackdown on the press. Deniz Yüzel, a correspondent with the German newspaper Die Welt, was imprisoned and his case is followed closely by the German press. But more than 160 journalists other are jailed in Turkish prisons, many due to vague accusations of connections to terrorist organizations or suspicions of spying.
“I believe that the German government should not allow itself to be blackmailed.”
Ms. Tolu allegedly disseminated terrorist propaganda and is supposedly a member of a terrorist organization. She reported on the funeral of Yeliz Erbay and Şirin Öter, both members of the MLKP, or Turkish Marxist-Leninist Communist Party, who were killed in a police raid in 2015.
The funeral was attended by 2,000 people. The second charge is based on photos that show that Ms. Tolu attended a memorial ceremony for a female member of a Syrian Kurdish militia, who was killed in that country fighting against the extremist group known as the Islamic State.
“Mesale requested permission to visit her husband, which attracted the attention of authorities,” her brother explains. Ms. Tolu’s husband, Suat Çorlu, has been in Silivri, a high security prison in Istanbul province, since April 5. Also for no clear reason. “It was the same public prosecutor. First he put my brother-in-law in prison, and now Mesale,” Mr. Tolu notes.
The Turkish president has made it clear to the German government that he would be willing to release German prisoners if Germany extradited Turkish supporters of Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen who have applied for asylum there. Mr. Erdogan and his supporters say that Mr. Gülen, the chief ideologue and leader of the Islamic Gülen movement, was behind last year’s failed coup.
“I believe that the German government should not allow itself to be blackmailed. To hand over Mesale in return for supporters of the Gülen movement? No. Then Mesale has to stay in prison,” Mr. Tolu says. “If we in Germany would finally treat Turkey differently, and no longer embrace Erdogan, then Mesale’s arrest will have achieved something.”
Mr. Tolu’s father is in regular contact with his daughter now. He moved into her Istanbul apartment and writes petitions every day. He is allowed to visit his daughter and his grandson once a week. On the other hand Mr. Tolu is afraid to travel to Turkey.
“There is too much of a risk that I too would be arrested,” he says. Instead, he remains in Germany to counter work against Mr. Erdogan and for the release of his sister. “We have a meeting every Friday in downtown Ulm, which is attended by about a hundred people who are all working towards Mesale’s release,” Mr. Tolu said.
Supporters of Mr. Erdogan who approve of Ms. Tolu’s imprisonment also come to the meetings though and now, German police officers come too. At first, only two came – now there are six.
Nobody knows what will happen next; it could take years for Ms. Tolu to even go on trial, let alone be released. “Mesale and Serkan are hostages, political hostages,” Mr. Tolu says. “We cannot give in to this.”
In a letter Ms. Tolu typed in prison, she describes life in the women’s group cell. Children eat the same food as the inmates, often not the kind of food a toddler likes. There are no disposable diapers. The German consulate tried to provide diapers but was thwarted by prison regulations. Serkan is not allowed to attend the prison kindergarten yet because he is too young. He is permitted to enter the playroom with a guard, but not with his mother. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t have much fun there, with a stranger in a strange setting.
More political pressure from Germany is needed, Mr. Tolu says. “There are criminals at work in Turkey. We have to treat them like criminals.”
After speaking to Tagesspiegel, a sister publication to Handelsblatt Global, Mr. Tolu left Berlin to go back home to work. Smoking a last cigarette, he recalled his last telephone conversation with Mesale. “I asked her whether she would travel to Turkey again after she is released. She said now more than ever.”
He got on the train and by the time he reached Ulm, his nephew was back in the women’s prison, his visit with his father over.
This article first appeared in Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org