- Interview by
- Franziska Tschinderle
The twenty-nine-year-old political scientist, journalist, and Jacobin contributor was released from custody on December 24 after spending three months in a maximum-security prison in Turkey. Charged with membership in a terrorist organization, Max’s trial begins on April 11. He is not allowed to leave the country until then.
In the first extended interview with Max since his release, Austrian journalist Franziska Tschinderle spoke with him about his work in Turkey, the accusations against him, and why he doesn’t see himself as a “hostage.”
Mr Zirngast, right now we can only see each other over Skype. What has it been like in the days since your release?
I’m in Ankara. My parents flew back to Austria early this morning (December 30). After my release my closest circle of friends visited. Now just my girlfriend and I are in the apartment.
I’m slowly trying to put my life back together. I’m starting to write again. For the time being I’m taking a break from university.
Every Monday I have to go to the police station and sign a document to show that I’m still in the country. Fortunately, I don’t have any problems either of a psychological or physical nature.
Was it a coincidence that you were released from custody on Christmas Eve, of all times?
I don’t think so. The timing of the release surprised me, too.
How did you find out you were being released?
At 8:30 PM during the nightly count on December 24. The attendants came into our cell and mentioned, “Oh by the way, you’ve been released.” Then we had half an hour to pack our stuff into trash bags.
Before that happened, I’d said to Mithat, my roommate and friend, that today was Christmas and we had to do something special. But how can you do anything special in jail? [laughs]
During the months you spent in prison, Mithat was the only person with whom you had regular contact. What are prison conditions like in Turkey?
We were isolated from the other prisoners. Our room had two floors. Up above were beds and metal cabinets, down below a sink, a plastic table, a toilet. Sixty square meters in total plus a fifty-square-meter courtyard. In the courtyard we worked out — jogging, pushups, sit-ups. We used five-liter plastic bottles for weights. We wanted to stay physically and mentally fit.
Who were the other prisoners?
The large majority were people accused of being part of the Gülen movement [a movement led by a former Erdogan ally, the imam Fethullah Gülen, accused by the regime of fomenting a 2016 coup attempt]. Others were there on charges of being members of the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party]. Others because they allegedly fought for the Islamic State. The inmate in the courtyard next door had already been there for two and a half years. We were fortunate that our lawyers visited us weekly.
You were allowed to talk on the phone with your mother once a week for ten minutes. What did you talk about?
She’d tell me who’d sent their regards. That was important since letters were always delayed and were read by a commission. As I was released, I learned that most of the letters sent from Europe never arrived. Many letters which my girlfriend sent me never made it through. My acceptance speech for the that I sent to Vienna was censored. My closest friends were not allowed to visit me — for completely arbitrary reasons. The goal is to wear you down psychologically.
The Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs saw you as a “consular case.” In contrast the German Federal Foreign Office in Berlin constantly referred to the journalists Deniz Yücel and Mesale Tolu as “political prisoners.”
I don’t see myself as a special case in the sense that the Yücel case was. I wasn’t arrested because I was Austrian. I’m not a hostage deliberately taken into custody during the [Austrian leadership of the] Presidency of the Council of the European Union. I’m collateral damage.
In Turkey there’s a crackdown against the democratic opposition. Therefore, I too was arrested. In this sense, of course, I’m a political prisoner. In Europe I might be a special case, but here in Turkey I’m not. I’m just one of many tens of thousands of cases. To say that I’m special would do an injustice to all other political prisoners, journalists, and academics in Turkey.
Your first court date is April 11. Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl has called for a “fair trial.” Are you expecting a fair trial?
When she said that, I was in prison, so I didn’t get the full context of her statement. But suffice it to say in general that it’s farcical to expect a fair trial.
What are you being tried for?
Not for slandering the president. Not for spreading propaganda from a terrorist organization. But rather for membership in a terrorist organization.
The TKP/K. The abbreviation stands for Communist Party of Turkey/Spark. The organization was never listed as a terrorist organization. Its history ends in the year 1995. It hasn’t even been proven that this organization still exists.
Everything started on September 11 — the day of your arrest. How do you remember that day?
I was very happy that they didn’t get me in my sleep. On that morning I’d already woken up at 5:00 to work on an article. At 6:00 there was a knock on the door. In Turkey it’s common knowledge that the police usually come around this time of day. I thought to myself, “Okay, now it’s happening.” I looked out the window, carefully pushed the curtain aside. Then there was a second knock. I waited. The third time, my roommate woke up and went to the door half asleep. But sooner or later they would have forced their way in anyway or gotten a locksmith.
What happened then?
Fifteen to twenty police officers were standing there. One asked whether Max was there and showed me the warrant. Then I let them in. The police officers didn’t storm in but rather strolled in calmly, without weapons drawn. Is that how you enter the apartment of an allegedly dangerous terrorist? Later I found out that they didn’t even put Mithat in handcuffs. He said to a police officer, “That’s not really necessary, right?” And the officer said, “No.”
Then you entered police custody. In your letters, you wrote of long, unbearable days.
The air conditioning was set to 17 degrees Celsius (63 degrees Fahrenheit), and there was basically no daylight. White neon lights flickered twenty-four hours long. The food was cold. We could almost never shower and change clothes. We cleaned our teeth with salt on our fingers. I had back pain from the wooden plank beds.
You’re lethargic, weak, and exhausted. That’s how you’re brought into the Palace of Justice. And that’s the whole point. You shouldn’t be able to defend yourself too well.
What did the prosecutor ask you?
Everything is de facto just waved through. What the police want usually happens as well. The questions that the prosecutor asks are given to him by the police. The police also discussed with the judge, which is completely illegal. It had already been predetermined that we were going to be arrested.
The prosecutor asked me about articles I’d written. He showed me some pictures that were found on my phone. Photos of signs at political events or of a newspaper. Then came another picture showing me teaching children English. Then he started with the books that were found in my apartment.
Which books in particular?
Books by a Marxist theorist named Hikmet Kıvılcımlı. In Turkey he’s a historical figure. I explained to the prosecutor that I study political science and research the Turkish left. I’d held a presentation at university on Hikmet Kıvılcımlı. For me to have his books is one of the most normal things in the world. I also have books about right-wing ideologies in my library. Yet they weren’t confiscated.
You’ve been accused of having contacts at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a social-democratic foundation based in Germany. Nothing about this think tank is illegal.
I never had contact with the foundation. But a feminist newspaper was found in my apartment that is financed in part by it. Since I’m a foreigner and speak German the police probably though I’d put the newspaper and the foundation in touch with each other. At first, they tried to paint me as an agent.
Are you expecting a public statement from the foundation?
That’s up to them to decide. But yes, one could let them know [about the situation].
Your indictment was presented a few days ago. What’s in it?
The indictment is 120 pages long. It isn’t just against me but also three other people including my former roommate Mithat.
We were shadowed for three months. For five months our phones were tapped. The pieces of evidence are vague, like for example that I met unnamed people in a café. Or that I went to an educational event in a trade union office.
I offered free English lessons to children from poorer neighborhoods in Ankara. We drew, played, and made music. I organized philosophy discussions for university students. This is portrayed in the indictment as an attempt to indoctrinate children and students or to train a cadre.
How did you end up moving to Ankara in 2015?
I’ve been engaged with the region for a long time. I learned Turkish in Vienna and spent time studying Turkish literature, politics, and history. I wanted to study in Ankara and to live there.
How has the country changed in the three years you’ve lived there?
When I moved here things were going downhill. One and a half months after my arrival, there was an ISIS suicide bombing that killed more than a hundred people. I was with a friend at a demonstration for labor, peace, and democracy. That was October 10, 2015. The demonstration was the target of the attack. The bombs exploded 150 meters away from us.
I was also in Ankara during the coup attempt. I still remember how the airplanes sped over the city in low altitude and how parliament was bombarded. I’ve dealt with all this in my texts.
You haven’t just written texts critical of the government, you’ve also been socially engaged. What have you advocated for?
I am a socialist, and have also never hid this. I advocate for a democratic Turkey. I’ve campaigned for women’s rights, children’s rights, and ecology. I’ve criticized the catastrophic situation of workers.
In Turkey there are more than two thousand deadly work accidents per year. The unions have few members. Wages are low. In the construction industry, workers often don’t even have a contract and don’t get paid.
I’ve conducted research and written journalistic texts. Regardless of where I live, I will always stand up against injustice and for the weak. That is who I am.
Were you in a party?
No, I am not a member of a party. But I write for the newspaper of a socialist organization. I’ve never disputed this before the prosecutor or judge. On the contrary.
You were a student in the department of political science at the Technical University of the Middle East (ODTÜ). Was there freedom of thought and opinion there?
In this regard my university was an oasis in the desert. But, of course, there were major restrictions. Student organizations were forbidden. In spite of this we had very lively discussions on the developments happening outside. Turkey was a political science laboratory for our time. What happened there is not something you can learn from a book. We were witnesses to history.
What kind of history?
The state and society are becoming increasingly authoritarian. I would call this fascization. As part of this a social brutalization is occurring. This is visible for example in the further rise in the already enormously high rate of femicide.
After the state of emergency was issued there was a wave of arrests. Lawyers, judges, police officers, and soldiers were taken into custody. Civil servants were fired, including some of my best friends who had worked as teachers and academics. They had absolutely no interest in the Gülen movement. Their livelihoods were destroyed.
Were you scared that you might also be affected?
In Turkey you always live with the fear that something will happen. I can remember several nights where I woke up because I heard a sound and thought the police were there. Towards the end we felt that we were being watched. The noose had been pulled tighter so that we couldn’t leave.
You’re the first Austrian citizen of non-Turkish background to be accused by Turkey of being a terrorist. What do you expect from the government in Vienna?
Yes, that’s true. And for Austria this is all uncharted territory. I expect continued consular advising. I also expect that my entire trial will be observed. That means that members of parliament or the consulate come to my hearing.
There needs to be constant oversight so that nothing absurd can happen. I should be allowed to make use in practice of the rights I have.
Moreover, from the beginning I’ve never demanded anything from the government, never said that it should save me or anything like that. I would never do that. It would of course make me happy if the government advocated for me. But what it does or doesn’t do is not up to me.
Will you plead innocent?
Yes, my demand is that I am pronounced innocent.
What are you expecting from the trial?
Trials like this take a long time. Maybe the second hearing will happen this summer, the third hearing some time in October. I’m expecting at least four to five hearings. I’m anxious to have the restrictions lifted.