In the early hours of September 11, 2018, Austrian journalist Max Zirngast was arrested in Ankara by anti-terror police, who raided his flat and confiscated books. The 29-year-old Zirngast was jailed in Sincan prison – even though, to the best of his knowledge, he had never broken Turkish law. Days, weeks and months went by.

Finally, on December 24, 2018, Zirngast was released (“a nice Christmas gift”, as he called it). Authorities also finally presented a formal indictment, accusing Zirngast – without credible evidence – of membership in a terrorist organization. Subject to a travel ban, Zirngast remains in Ankara, awaiting trial in April. Given the arbitrariness currently present in journalist trials in Turkey, the outcome is unclear.

In a recent interview with the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), Zirngast said it was precisely such uncertainty that has made an already difficult experience worse. He had no idea how long he would have to endure prison. “If someone tells you that you will be imprisoned for three months – no problem, you brace yourself”, he said. “But the uncertainty wears you down.”

The story of Zirngast’s arrest and indictment is not unique. Nearly 150 journalists are currently behind bars in Turkey as part of a wide-ranging crackdown on media and free expression, according to International Press Institute (IPI) research. Suspicion that Zirngast was targeted for his journalistic work arose immediately after his arrest. On September 12, IPI Head of Advocacy Ravi R. Prasad called Zirngast’s detention “an assault on press freedom and a gross violation of all international norms on freedom of expression”.

Zirngast had reported critically on the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and on sensitive Turkish-Kurdish issues. He contributed to the book “The Fight for Kobanê” and wrote for leftist magazines such as re:volt and Jacobin. For the latter, he published one particularly critical article in 2015 titled “Erdoğan’s Bloody Gambit”, in which he accused the Turkish government of instrumentalizing an ISIS suicide bombing in order to “wage war – not on ISIS, but on the Kurdish liberation movement”. In a letter to the Washington Post in November, Zirngast called himself a “political prisoner”.

Isolation and uncertainty in prison

The rights of prisoners in Turkey have been eroded one step at a time since the state of emergency declaration in July 2016, Zirngast said. During his three-month stay in Sincan prison, he witnessed these developments first-hand. “Our isolation was quite severe”, he told IPI, describing how his requests for visitors other than family members were repeatedly rejected due to negative “security screenings” of the visitors. His cellmate never even received a reply to his own visitation requests. “De facto, our visitation rights were taken from us”, Zirngast said.

Other examples of measures curtailing prisoners’ rights included the reduction of the number of books allowed in cells, the reduction of physical activity time from once a week to once every two to three weeks and – greatly worsening prisoners’ isolation – the abolition of weekly chats with other inmates from the same cell block.

There was also a shortage of warm water. At first, Zirngast had warm water for two hours in the evening, then only cold water for a week due to a “defect”. Eventually, warm water was rationed at 30 litres a day. “It may not sound that little, but you lose 10 litres until it gets warm, the next 10 litres are full of rust, and then you can shower with the rest”, Zirngast said. “Not too comfortable in winter.”

But the worst part was the uncertainty that defined life in the prison. Prison guards would regularly violate rules. For example, Zirngast said he and his cellmate were forced to stand up straight while the guards did a head count, even though Turkish law mandates that prisoners be allowed to sit. “This might seem minor – some might wonder why I make such a fuss about it”, Zirngast noted. But he said with these small, arbitrary acts of the denial of rights the guards “attempted to influence the psyche of prisoners”, who could no longer be certain of their protections and would ask themselves which rights would be undermined next.

A ‘phantom’ armed group

An indictment in Zirngast’s case, with a concrete date for his trial, came at long last on December 24, the day of his release. The 123-page document confirmed in black and white what Zirngast had presumed all along: The charges of “membership in a terrorist organization” lacked any solid evidence. In the text, Turkish prosecutors allege a link between Zirngast and an “armed illegal terrorist organization” called “TKP/K” (“Türkiye Komünist Partisi/ Kıvılcım, which translates into “Communist Party of Turkey/Spark”). Zirngast is even accused of leading this group’s operations in Ankara.

However, according to detailed research by the #FreeMaxZirngast campaign, which is led by friends and supporters of Zirngast, there is no evidence that the TKP/K even exists – much less engages in “terrorist” activities (the group is not on the Turkish government’s list of active terrorist groups). During a similar trial in 2015, a Turkish court concluded that TKP/K’s existence could not be proven. Almost comically, the indictment against Zirngast actually refers to that decision. The campaign’s analysis also shows that the rest of the “evidence” consists of seemingly random observations about Zirngast’s life and activities without establishing how they support charges of terrorism.

These absurdities also make it difficult to prepare a defence. “It is hard to defend yourself against something that does not exist”, Zirngast said, noting that nothing in the 123 pages shows that he committed a crime. “But they needed to construct something, anything, to justify putting me in prison for over three months.”

All the lawyers Zirngast has spoken to said that, given the shaky evidence, a conviction for “membership of a terrorist organization” should be – almost – out of the question. But prosecutors could come up with some other, slightly less serious charge, such as spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization. “Anything other than acquittal would be absurd, which does not mean it is impossible”, Zirngast said with a cynical smile.

A pattern of arbitrariness

IPI Turkey Advocacy Coordinator Caroline Stockford said prosecutors’ Kafkaesque approach and the lack of any real evidence in Zirngast’s case mirrored other journalists’ trials in Turkey.

“Max Zirngast’s ordeal, rather than being unusual or isolated, fits a pattern of arbitrary jailings and prosecutions of critical journalists and reflects the overall collapse of the rule of law in Turkey”, she said. “Anyone who questions the Turkish government’s policies or writes critically on sensitive issues is a potential target. Once again, we call on Turkey to drop all charges against Mr. Zirngast and allow him to go home.”

For his part, Zirngast is adamant that he won’t be silenced. He told IPI that he would reject conviction on a less serious crime such as the spreading of propaganda and “use every tool at (his) disposal to prevent the creation of precedent” for future cases.

Pessimism, he added, was not an option. “Critical media are being pushed back, not just in Turkey, but in Europe as well. But critical initiatives exist, and if we support one another and share experiences, we will grow stronger. It will be over only when we believe that it’s over.”