By: Daniel McElroy
Earlier this month, a Turkish criminal court sentenced Zehra Doğan to 2 years, 9 months, and 22 days in prison because she produced a painting based on a photo originally taken by Turkish authorities. Citing no other justification or charge for Doğan’s imprisonment, the Mardin Second High Criminal Court which decided the verdict has further proven the lengths to which the Turkish state is increasingly willing to go in order to repress political opposition or any perceived threat to the status quo.
Doğan, an ethnically Kurdish painter and journalist, was originally taken into custody just one week after the attempted coup last July that almost ousted President Erdoğan from power. She was released from state custody in December, but her trial resumed in March and resulted in the swiftly handed down prison sentence. While Doğan’s charges initially rested on her alleged membership in the “illegal” Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), for which the government claimed she was creating propaganda, all of those allegations were dropped prior to her sentencing.
Authoritarianism is taking over Turkey’s democracy with increasing speed. The circumstances of Doğan’s case show just how unpredictable, dangerous, and unjust it has become. While the court could not prove her participation in illegal activity, they still sentenced her in proportion to that crime, using the painting/propaganda angle as justification.
Since last July’s failed coup, Turkish authorities have shut down dozens of news outlets and publications and targeted journalists around the country as well as artists: singer Nûdem Durak, sentenced to ten and a half years; academic and writer Sedat Laçiner being held without trial on indefinite detention; pop singer and actor Atilla Taş, currently on trial, facing up to ten years in prison.
In the case of Doğan, the Turkish court has tried and failed to prove that she supported the coup, has an affiliation with the PKK, or produced either artistic or journalistic work with the purpose of undermining the government. And yet, in sentencing her for creating the painting, the court has essentially shown that any perceived expression of dissent is grounds for imprisonment.
The actual subject matter of the painting is a crucial element of this story. The photograph that served as its inspiration depicts a section of the mostly Kurdish town of Nusaybin, which sits on the Turkish-Syrian border, almost completely destroyed from heavy fighting between Turkish military forces and the PKK. Turkish flags hang from several buildings and there are several military vehicles in the foreground. The fact that the photo was released by Turkish authorities illustrates their clear lack of concern in being associated with the general state of destruction in the town.
Doğan’s interpretation of the photo isn’t far off, other than a handful of artistic choices one might describe as expressionism. The rubble itself is somewhat blurred into generally colorless background so that the five red Turkish flags stand out much more starkly than in the photo. Additionally, Doğan has added scorpion-like antennae and pincers to vehicles in the foreground.
While the artist’s statement is certainly not concealed or difficult to discern, it is also far from terrorist propaganda. Its critical nature is obvious, but it does nothing to suggest violence against the state. In fact, Doğan posted the painting to social media without comment. The problem with the court’s labelling of the painting as propaganda, as Doğan herself says, is that “With this penalty, in essence they accepted that shooting victory photos by hanging Turkish flags on the walls of the destroyed houses is inhumane and must be punished. But they punished the wrong actor: Not the one who destroyed the town, not the one who posed, not the one who shot the photo but the one who painted the photo.”
Doğan’s prison sentence is a verifiable manifestation of authoritarianism at work: a dissenting opinion on factual reality is unacceptable. According to the court that sentenced her, the only valid truth is that of the state, and support for anything else is a dangerous offense.