The night of July 15, Seda was at home in Erzurum, a town in eastern Turkey, when she got a call from her son, a student at a military academy in Ankara, the nation’s capital. Turkey was under attack, and he was being deployed with his classmates. His unit had been given rifles but no ammunition, he told Seda from the back of an army truck bound for the city center. Then he hung up.

Five days passed before Seda heard from her son again. This time, his message was relayed through a lawyer. Her son, the lawyer told her, was in Sincan high-security prison, just outside the capital, along with hundreds of others who had allegedly attempted to seize power from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in what would turn out to be a failed coup.

Seda told me this story as she stood among dozens of parents in a parking lot near the prison. Like her, they had come to visit their sons, who had been jailed for allegedly participating in the failed attempt to overthrow the government, and were now being held in a facility built for prisoners serving life sentences. “My son wouldn’t participate in a coup,” Seda said. “He was fooled and they are holding him without charge. It’s not right. None of this is right.”

The parents I spoke to at Sincan said they had been granted 30-minute visits with their children. They spoke anonymously—for fear of further endangering their sons—of ongoing interrogations, overcrowding, and abusive conditions like those that independent rights groups such as Amnesty International have also documented.

Since there wasn’t enough room for everyone to lie down at the same time inside the prison, the detainees took turns sleeping on the floor, the parents told me. At the sports facilities and barns where they were held before arriving at the prison, many were denied food and forced to drink water out of a livestock trough. Detainees could do little more than wait for the skeleton-crew of prosecutors available to process their cases. Though Turkey has compulsory military service for men (with some exceptions), most attorneys have also declined to represent the alleged coup plotters, fearing guilt by association. Government representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment on conditions inside the prison.

One father outside the prison said he had taken a 20-hour bus ride just to be there. “I sent my son to serve the country and now he’s in jail,” he said, holding out his hands, permanently rust-colored from a lifetime of farm labor. “With these hands, I’ve worked so my son could have better opportunities than I had,” he continued. “I’ve been awake for 48 hours just thinking about what will happen. … Why can’t they separate those who are guilty from those who are not? How can they put everyone in prison like this?” Once he finished talking, I watched as plain-clothes police officers swept in, asked for his identification, and dragged him away from the interview.

In the month since the coup attempt, Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have launched the largest political purge in Turkey’s recent history, with 40,000 people detained and 81,000 public servants dismissed, suspected of infiltrating state offices on the orders of exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom government officials blame for masterminding the attempt.

This list of the unpurged would come in handy the day after the failed coup, when Turkey’s Higher Council of Judges and Prosecutors declared that 2,745 judges and prosecutors were to be suspended on suspicion of being part of what it called “the Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Group/Parallel state structure.” Arrests followed; of those currently held in pre-trial detention, 1,684 are judges and prosecutors. The AKP has drawn international criticism for appearing to use arbitrary detention as its core purge strategy, said Emma Sinclair-Webb, director for Human Rights Watch in Turkey. “If evidence doesn’t count, if there’s no criteria, if people draw up lists of who they think is guilty, then why have trials?” Sinclair told me. “It becomes a travesty of justice. It becomes an empty process.”


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