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"You are not forgotten"

When on 14 October 1996, Osman (Ossi) Murat Ulke began to serve his sentence in the military prison of Mamak in Ankara, a flood of protest and solidarity letters soon poured in. His case shows how effective letters to Prisoners for Peace can be. Ossi's imprisonment had been expected and partner organizations in Western Europe (including many sections of the WRI) and in Turkey were prepared.

During his first days of imprisonment, Ossi received up to 100 letters a day. He felt that the prison walls were tumbling down. He was in a cell and still he was in contact with so many people nationally and internationally. “This motivated me very much. I tried to answer all letters and I was spending my whole day in the cell writing letters. Fortunately I knew from my lawyers and from replies that my letters had actually been dispatched”.

Many people write short postcards or greeting cards. On one Christmas card there is the encouraging sentence “We know of your fate and we wish you strength”. Ossi comments, “It is curious that living in an Islamic country and being an anarchist and an atheist, I have received so many Christmas cards. But, each card expresses that someone has thought of me, and that gives energy.

”The most motivating letters were those where people also tell me their own story.

And what do they think of the reasons which sent me to prison? What is their opinion about conscientious objection, about war, about civil disobedience and such topics? Their opinions stimulate my thinking and give me great satisfaction.

”The best of all is of course if a person writes to you regularly and even sends you parcels. There was a Dutch English teacher living in France who sent me seven or eight parcels. Her son had refused to bear arms as well and so she supported me with all the more understanding. She sent me chocolate, books and newspapers.”

Of course, governments know very well the supporting strength of solidarity mail, and they prefer that such letters do not always reach the prisoner. During the first month, Ossi received at least 30 letters and cards every day, but later on his mail was intercepted and kept by the authorities. So the Association of War Resisters of Izmir which had coordinated the mail action, requested friends to send the letters and cards to the address of the association instead. Thanks to this, quite a few letters could enter the prison walls together with papers from his lawyer.

But even if mail does not arrive in the prisoner's cell, the mere existence of these letters is a warning to the government that they cannot just do what they please. Each letter raises the “barrier” against torture a little higher, each letter means a bit of protection for the person behind bars. “We can only conjecture about the influence of such letters of protest, or of international observers' delegations, on the sentences handed down. So for instance we had to watch helplessly in the case of (Kurdish parliamentarian) Leyla Zana when not even conspicuous international solidarity was able to influence the Turkish criminal justice system into treating its own citizens according to the rule of the law”, said Hülya Ücpinar, a lawyer and the head of the Centre for Human Rights and Juridical Research, Izmir.

”When I was transferred to the Eskesehir military prison, the director of course knew who I am, and so I was able to retain the rights which I had won through my hunger strike at Mamak: I was permitted to receive books and periodicals. And my influence was visible at other times: one day I was led past the guards' day-room. There, seven or eight soldiers were sitting around a table on which there was a heap of solidarity mail which the soldiers were reading from and quoting to each other for entertainment. Who would be able to say if that activity may not have had some unexpected influence on them?” reports Ossi.

Translated by Konrad Borst.

Osman Murat Ulke was released from prison on 8 March 2000; under Turkish military law he is still considered a deserter but has not been re-arrested.

Topics: War resisters | Prison