İlhan Sami Çomak: The poet who breeches walls and frontiers

This article by bianet editor Nedim Türfent was published on PEN Norway on the occasion of the Day of the Imprisoned Writer

“Here I am collecting countless days

While my hands braid the hair of far away daylight”

Imprisoned Kurdish poet İlhan Sami Çomak has amassed a great number of days while he brushed out the hair of poetry with his fingers. Not one day, and not a thousand days. Not months has he spent in prison, but years. He has slowly reached a terrible 29 years in prison. “Twenty-nine years have passed. So far I have managed to avoid the fiery breath of death, and now, I find myself holding out my hand out to life and to freedom, with a growing passion and sense of hope,” says Çomak.

To mark the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, 2023, Ilhan was visited by his lawyer and gave us the following personal message:

Dear Friends,

It was in prison, where I have spent most of my life, that I learned that happiness is difficult, that there are just a few possible ways to cope with life and death, but that no matter what, one must strive to remain human.

I was unjustly imprisoned as an ordinary person, but poetry and literature took me by the hand, made me who I am and presented me to you with a new identity that I will always cherish: poet and writer.

I could only cope with these difficult years by engaging in creative activity, so I did.

This will be my last Day of the Imprisoned Writer as an imprisoned writer. Prisons are no place for writers. Please let’s not forget them. Let’s keep the solidarity effort constant.

I am close to being reunited with you and with life. Freedom is very close and I cannot describe to you the excitement of the breath that this breathes into my lungs.

You have not forgotten me, you have always reached out your hands to me. I will always carry your warmth in my heart and mind.

I thank you.
İlhan Sami Çomak – 15 November 2023

Çomak, who is an honorary member of PEN Norway, was taken into custody on the 24th of August, 1994, aged just 21 years old. After nineteen days of torture he was formally arrested on the 13th of September 1994. Since then, 29 years, 2 months and 3 weeks have passed. If you work out the maths, it is more than 10,000 days. And that the young man is now 50 years old as we mark the Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2023, is something that cannot help move you to emotion.

From prison he has written his autobiography ‘Life, I love you so’. In it Çomak says,  “May life treat you as justly as you love life itself”.  And yet life has been extremely unfair to Ilhan. He is seeking justice against the ‘consistent evil’ that has been imposed upon him. He says of his sentence, “Justice is not to be tried over more than twenty years, as I have been.  Justice is when the laws are applied equally to all. Justice is not to be unjustly detained.”  But tragically, his own case was drawn out in the courts for more than 20 years and the rules and legislation that should have applied to him were not applied.  For 29 years he has been kept unjustly in a prison cell.

“A grotesque injustice”

According to the punishment meted out to Çomak, he was due for ‘conditional release’ on 21 August 2023.  His lawyers Hakan Bozkurt and Cafer Çakmak made an application on 21 August under article 105/A of law 5275 in relation to the application of conditional release.

However the authorities in charge of the F Type Prison at Silivri, north of Istanbul rejected the application.

Çomak’s lawyer Bozkurt appealed the rejection, saying, “Ilhan’s release date is 21 August, 2024. According to the law, prisoners are allowed to apply for and receive an early conditional release one year before this date.  This means that Ilhan should have been released 2 months and 3 weeks ago.  After 29 years of grotesque injustice he has now been denied an early release by some arbitrary decision.  We appealed the decision but our appeal was rejected by the higher courts.”

According to lawyer Bozkurt, Ilhan will have to remain in prison until 21 August 2024.

“It fits neither logic nor the law”

Ilhan’s visitor, McKenzie Friend and holder of power of attorney, the academic Ipek Özel told PEN Norway, “Even though Ilhan has demonstrated good behaviour, the application for his conditional release was arbitrarily disregarded. This fits with neither logic, good conscience or the law.  The fact that the judicial system can turn around and say that Ilhan is not ready for a conditional release after 29 years of the highest security detention, demonstrates just how incompetent the system is.”

She continued, “Ilhan is a world-renowned poet, who has won a number of very important prizes, has published over ten books, and has written scores of essays and articles. He has shared his inner world with the public for so many years as a poet and for it to be considered that, after 29 years in prison, he should still be suspected to have links with a terrorist organisation, and to make him serve yet one more year is a fool’s errand.”

Özel, who claims this refusal of parole is yet another sign of the breakdown of the judiciary in Turkey, went on to say, “Now that Ilhan is in his 30th year of prison it means that we have been waiting for his release for thirty years.  We hope that Ilhan will be reunited with his freedom next year, by 21 August at the latest. We hope that this time justice will be served and we don’t even want to think about any further delays to his freedom, as there have been many such delays.”

“Life is your concern”

“It’s not only Ilhan who is suffering by way of injustice. We can say that I too, and the whole country are currently very concerned and totally disappointed in the way that the courts are being run in Turkey.”

She continued, “As someone who is close to Ilhan and who holds his power of attorney, it’s not just literary matters that I have helped him with over the years but with many personal matters or matters relating to his detention.  And after so many years of this I can tell you that to imprison someone who has as gentle a soul as Ilhan has, and to imprison them for just 3 hours, or days or months, let alone for thirty years, is to “kill the mocking bird” as Harper Lee wrote.  It’s easy to say the words ‘thirty years’.  But under any circumstances it is a very, very long time.  Twenty one years of Ilhan’s life passed outside prison and now, 29 years of his life have passed as a hostage in that cell.  In those thirty years Ilhan has experienced many losses.  Members of his family have died, others have been born without him there to see, so many young people in the family grew up that he has many cousins and nieces and nephews that he was unable to get to know as they grew up.  He missed out on a whole life. This is a deeply upsetting situation and no amount of compensation can make up for this grave injustice.”

This is where Ipek Özel claims the ‘Ilhan miracle’ comes into play, “Despite all of these things having passed that are impossible to regain, Ilhan is still full of hope, has great clarity of mind, and has not given up.  He has weathered all these injustices and pains with an uncompromising uprightness, with a language that is not tainted by anger.  The way that he has turned all that into a campaign for justice and love and the way that he has stayed on his feet by the power of that great gift of writing that he has, and that in itself can be a huge inspiration for all of us.  The miracle of Ilhan Sami Çomak can shine a light of hope to say that, on the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, no matter how many poets and writers they try to lock up, however much they try to imprison literature and well chosen words, Ilhan is proof that people will never give up hope; they will become the hope of the world.”

And Ilhan says it so, himself: “The judicial system tripped me up and I fell. But somehow I found a way to protect myself from the poisonous feelings of prison.  I did not allow the things, the good parts that make us human to stray far from my mind and in this way, I survived.”  Çomak stood up by the power of his pen, as strong and upright as a majestic tree.  He has resisted, line by line. First and foremost, with his writing he has earned himself a page for eternity in the book that keeps note of great, lasting literature. He has carved his name in it letter by letter in permanent ink and has taught his readers about life itself:

Whilst seeking a morning, on the backbone of water

Losing time is a whole new concept

Oh my desires, and this place that keeps on looking

I remember, innocence is a threshold

I remember this in the dried buds of flowers

Life is your choice.

Who is İlhan Sami Çomak?

Çomak was taken into police custody in 1994 in Istanbul, aged 21, where he was studying Geography at Istanbul University’s faculty of Science and Literature.  He was charged with having started a forest fire in the name of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and was further charged with ‘engaging in separatist activities.’

He was tortured in custody and then during his detention, following formal arrest.  He was tried in a State Security Court (DGM), a military court.  His court case went on for six years.  He was acquitted of starting a forest fire but was then sentenced to death for allegedly being a member of the PKK, engaging in a Molotov cocktail attack, being part of the firearms clash at Lice, Diyarbakır and having allegedly attacked a military police outpost.   His death sentence was transmuted to life in prison upon the abolishment of the death penalty.

In the year 2000, Turkey’s Court of Cassation upheld Çomak’s sentence.  He applied to the European Court of Human Rights in 2001, declaring that his trial by a military court (following a coup in the country) was unlawful due to the lack of independence of the judge.

In 2006 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Çomak had been tried in a manner that was not independent and ordered Turkey to pay compensation and for Çomak to receive a retrial.

The ECtHR decision was implemented with a delay of eight years.  On the 16th of January 2014 Istanbul’s 10th High Criminal Court found that he did have the right to apply for a retrial.  On 11 March 2014 Çomak was once again before the court.  His request to be tried whilst being freed on bail was rejected.  Çomak yet again received a life sentence.  The Court of Cassation upheld this decision, despite the absence of any concrete evidence.

İlhan Sami Çomak has been in prison for 29 years and during this time has published 9 books of poetry written in Turkish including, “Good Morning, Earth”, “I Came to You”, “Open Sea”, “I’m Still Alive”, “Life, I love you so”, and his autobiography, “How not to disturb the ants’ nest”.  In Kurdish, his native language, he has also written poetry under the book title “Çiyayê Girtî” (Captive Mountain).  His first selected works of poetry in English translation was published by Smokestack Books in Great Britain in September 2022, under the title, “Separated from the Sun”. (NT/VK)


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