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Greek rights activist lingers in prison in Turkey

Yannis Vasilis Yaylalı, an ethnic Greek human rights activist and freelance journalist jailed in Turkey since April 22, is suffering from his deteriorating health in prison.

Meanwhile, his only means of communication, Meral Geylani, who is his partner and fellow rights activist that helps him contact the outside world, has also been jailed. Geylani lived in New Zealand for 20 years before returning to Turkey in 2012, and is a dual citizen of both countries.

Her lawyer, Ebedin Altınkaynak, told the Philos Project that Meral was detained by police on October 12 and brought to court on October 23. “She is accused of being a member of a terror organization and propagandizing for a terror organization. She has been put in a prison in the city of Antalya.”

Yannis Vasilis is a former Turkish nationalist who once said in an interview [1] that he was proud of his hostility to Kurds and Christian peoples of Turkey, particularly to Greeks. His original name was Ibrahim Yaylalı. He changed his name after learning that he was actually of Greek origin.

The initial accusations against him included “disrespecting the president of Turkey,” “inciting the population to disobey the laws” and “propagandizing for a terror organization.”

According to the news website Dihaber, Yannis, who has been held in a prison in the city of Elazığ, is also accused [2] in his latest indictment of “openly inciting sections of the population to enmity or hatred,” “causing fear and panic among people,” “denigrating the religious values of a part of the population,” and “praising a crime or a criminal.” His social media posts are used as “evidence” against him.

Meral also said [3] that in the lawsuits filed against Yannis, he is also accused of “discouraging the public from military service” and “publicly disrespecting Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.”

So what did Yannis do that made him end up being accused of dozens of alleged crimes?

“We know you. You are Greek”

In 1994, Yannis, who, according to his own testimony, was a “Turkish racist” back then, voluntarily joined the Turkish military as a commando to fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the city of Şırnak in southeastern Turkey. That was when his political transformation began as he witnessed how Turkish soldiers persecuted Kurdish villagers and tortured even dead Kurds.

In September 1994, during a clash with the PKK, he was injured and was taken as a captive to a PKK camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he said [3] he was treated humanely.

When his father, who is from the Black Sea city of Samsun, went to Ankara to talk with military authorities to seek help from them in the third month of his captivity, a military officer told him: “We know you. You are Greek, after all. We can call you ‘Greek members of the PKK’ and if we say that, you will be in a bad situation. So, don’t tamper with this too much.”

Yannis learned this from the press, which covered his father’s remarks about his confrontation with the military officer. Yannis said that his experience as a commando in the Turkish military and as a prisoner of war at the hands of the PKK, as well as his discovery of his Greek identity, completely transformed him and his worldview.

If he had died, he would have been declared a “martyr” by the Turkish government. But upon his return to Turkey, he was brought to court and put in jail, where he said he was tortured. He was then accused of being a member of a terror organization but was released pending trial. The trial lasted until 2013 and he was acquitted.

He settled in the Kurdish village of Roboski in Şırnak with his partner Meral in 2012 to support the victims of the Kurdish massacre that took place on December 28, 2011.

In late 2013, he went to court to change his Turkish name and became Yannis Vasilis. He told [4] the news website Demokrat Haber that changing his name is about “regaining his right and his identity:”

“I went to court to change my name. And this is done with money. In countries such as ours, they create special difficulties for you when you want to embrace a non-Turkish name. They want two witnesses. My friends who know I am Greek became my witnesses. But when you want to investigate your state register of persons, they introduce new obstacles. You can only investigate up to two generations before: You, your father and your grandfather. I applied with my father. We learned that my grandfather’s father’s name was Constantine. Their village is in Bafra [in Samsun]. The state archives also say that the state attacked and killed the Greek people there. Constantine was also murdered and my grandfather, who was three back then, was given to a Turkish family instead of a Greek orphanage.

“And the child who was going to be my grandfather was called ‘Mehmet’ by his new family… He converted [to Islam] and it was over. No information was shared with us about it. We then learned that our great-aunt told my mother about my father’s situation. Then they covered it up. The underlying reason could be fear or an unwillingness to accept reality. For being a non-Muslim is used as a swearword in our region.

“If they had told me 30 years ago that I was a Greek, I would have sworn at them.”

However, following his political awakening, he started researching and writing extensively about historical and political issues on his blog websites, including Yannisvyaylali [5], Pontosforumtr [6], Yasayanpontosdayanismasi [7] (Solidarity with Living Pontos), and Barisicinaktivite [8] (Activity for Peace).

Meral said that Yannis, who is also a member of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), is in jail because of his writings. “He was not arrested during a demonstration. All of the accusations against him target his writings on his websites or social media.”
Yannis particularly focused on writing and speaking out about the history of his people: Pontian Greeks.

Pontian Greeks

Pontos is an ancient Greek word for “sea,” which refers to the Black Sea and the surrounding coastal areas founded by Greeks during the 8th and 9th centuries B.C.

The Pontian Greeks, also known as Pontic Greeks, are an ethnically Greek community who traditionally lived in the region of Pontos, which is today within the borders of Turkey.

In the eleventh century A.D., Turkic people from Central Asia arrived in the Armenian highlands (today’s Eastern Turkey) and invaded the area, which was then ruled by the Greek-speaking, Christian Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. Beginning from the town of Manzikert (Malazgirt), the Turks, who had converted to Islam by the end of the tenth century, started occupying the cities in the region.

In 1204, the Greek Empire of Trebizond (Trabzon), which also included Amisos (Samsun), Yannis’ hometown, was established in the Pontos region. In 1299, the Ottoman state was formed in Anatolia and Ottoman Turks invaded Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) in 1453, bringing an end to the Byzantine Empire.

In 1461, Ottoman Turks invaded and captured Trabzon, which also led to the fall of Samsun and the completion of their occupation of the then Greek-ruled Asia Minor. Christians then became dhimmis, second-class, “tolerated” people in their dispossessed land, obliged to pay a tax (the jizya) in exchange for so-called “protection” (from forced conversion to Islam or even death.) During Ottoman rule, the demography of the region then started changing dramatically.

However, the greatest systematic attack against Greeks in the region occurred before, during and after World War I. According to a report [9] by the Pontian Greek Society of Chicago, “Out of approximately 700,000 Pontian Greeks who lived in Turkey at the beginning of the war, as many as 350,000 were killed.” But it was not only the Pontian Greeks. All Greeks across Ottoman Turkey (including Asia Minor and Eastern Thrace) were targeted [10] during that period.

The International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) also recognizes [11] the Ottoman campaign against Pontian and Anatolian Greeks from 1914 to 1923 as genocide.

But the persecution did not end there. The survivors of the genocide were forcibly deported as part of the 1923 population exchange treaty between Turkey and Greece. They and their descendants have since been scattered around the world − particularly in Greece, the U.S., Germany, Russia, and Australia.

According the treaty, those who were Greek and openly stated that they were Christian would not be allowed to stay in the region. Hence, they were forced to make a choice between their lives in their ancient homeland and an expulsion that would lead them to an unknown future. Many are estimated to have had to convert to Islam. Today, the cities across the Black Sea region in Turkey do not have a Pontian community that openly practices their Christian faith.

So where are the grandchildren of all those forcibly Islamized Christians?

Islamized Greeks

The issue of hidden (crypto) or Islamized Greeks is one of the hidden realities or taboos of Turkey and is much more complicated than one would think. Zeynep Türkyılmaz, a historian who studies Pontian Greeks, noted in an interview [12] the complexities and diversity of the Islamized Greek society in Turkey: “We are referring to many things when we say ‘Islamized Greek,’ just as when we say ‘Islamized Armenian.’ There is not one single group, experience or time period.”

Türkyılmaz explained that under Ottoman rule, there were Islamized Greeks called “double-religioned,” who straddled between Islam and Christianity, and were superficially Islamized but continued to practice their Christian faith more or less openly. And some of them later collectively announced their desire to convert back to their former religion, Christianity. There were also Greeks who did not have a “double-religion” experience. They converted to Islam but protected their native Greek language even when they underwent Islamization. And there were also those who remained Christian.

But “with the 19th century,” continued Türkyılmaz, “we start to see much more clearly a forced Islamization practice that is a result of the increasing violence policies. There is also another group of Islamized Greeks that appeared after 1918 and who still keep the fears of those days fresh… Some of them are probably totally Islamized and Turkified and some of them are probably aware of their history but we can never know what that feels like. We need to understand that these are totally distinct experiences and that every experience should be evaluated within the context that created it. Although there are some rumors about those groups, we do not know for a fact. And probably it will stay that way until an opportunity for them to express themselves is given.”

In an interview [4] in 2014, Yannis also explained that there are a lot of ethnic Greeks like him who would like to return to their roots, but live in fear. “There are so many people like me. But they cannot come out because they are scared. I want to give them courage.”

By jailing Yannis, the Turkish government seems to aim to terrorize into silence those who know about their Greek roots and would wish to speak out.

On April 22, Yannis posted an article [13] on his Facebook page, which said, in part:

“Whereas our [Pontian Greek] language is somewhat still spoken in eastern Pontos, it is almost never spoken in central and western Pontos due to the continued policies of assimilation and massacres implemented after Trabzon Greek Empire was destroyed by the Ottoman sultan, Mehmed the Conqueror, in 1461. Today, we are faced with losing everything that belongs to us including our existence.

Before the Ottomans overtook it, the majority of Pontos was constituted by us, Greeks. But due to denialist, assimilationist and murderous policies carried out by both the Ottomans and the Turkish republic, our existence in Pontos has become open to question today.”
Yannis was arrested the day he posted that statement. And Meral was trying to help her jailed partner by staying in touch with him until she herself ended up in jail.

Ironically, although both activists are accused of “propagandizing for a terror organization”, they are conscientious objectors and have made it clear several times that they are completely devoted to non-violence. Yannis described himself on his Facebook account as follows: “An activist from Πόντος-Σαμψούντα Μπάφρα [Greek for ‘Pontos-Samsun, Bafra’] who defends peace for nature and humanity and lives in Roboski”.

Before Meral was detained, I had the chance to conduct an interview with her twice. She told me on October 7 that Yannis has been put in a solitary cell and has been suffering from health problems in prison.
“There was a wen in his arm, which the doctor at prison said could be a myoma. He was supposed to go through a medical operation to get it removed in August but although he submitted two petitions to the prison administration, he has not been taken to hospital again ever since.”

The only way Meral could communicate with her partner was through letters, but even that was restricted arbitrarily, she said: “Prison authorities did not send out his two letters to me for a month due to some excuses. And of course, he cannot write everything in his letters openly.”

Meral added that Yannis had extremely limited access to the outside world. “Only his parents, who live in Samsun, which is miles away from Elazığ, can visit him. As we are not married, I am not allowed to visit him in prison or talk to him on the phone. Only his parents are allowed to speak to him on the phone every two weeks. But as they are elderly people, they cannot visit him regularly. And the last time a lawyer saw him in prison was two-and-a-half months ago. And the garden of his cell is 4 ft to 8 ft.”

This is the price that a Greek citizen of Turkey − a member of an almost exterminated people and the grandchild of a genocide survivor − is forced to pay for being Greek and publicly speaking out about the plight of his people.