Turkish Gambits – Rough Justice at Ataturk Airport

I was saddened to read Monday’s report of the death of Jacky Sutton at Ataturk Airport (see Briton Dies at Istanbul Airport). Ms Sutton was in transit between London and Iraq, inexplicably arrived too late at her departure gate to make the flight connection, and was later found dead in the airport’s toilets.

There’s no reason at this stage to suspect foul play. Perhaps the inexplicable will come to make sense. It often does. But it reminds me of my own lesser difficulties at the airport in 2013, when I was arrested, finger-printed, photographed and deported from the country. Behind the gloss, Ataturk Airport is a dark place.

ataturk airport

My ‘crime’, if that is what it was, was ‘entering the country illegally.’ My passport bore an entry stamp dated two weeks’ earlier, and an exit stamp dated a week later. And yet I was still in Turkey, attempting to leave, with no means of showing that I was properly there at all.

Of course, there was a perfectly good explanation, but what was especially upsetting about the incident was that the border police were unwilling to hear it. That afternoon I lost all faith that Turkey is a modern and just society, policed reasonably, ready to meet the standards of the European Union.

The ‘crime’ is complicated to explain. I was on holiday for two weeks on the Aegean coast and I’d boarded a boat with my partner for a day-trip to Rhodes from Marmaris. We’d both received exit stamps from Turkey, but just as we were about to leave my partner was told that, due to his nationality, he wouldn’t be able to return by boat (only by air) and that he would therefore be best advised to abandon the trip. I waited on the boat whilst he was being told this, and whilst his exit stamp was being cancelled. And when he returned to tell me, I also decided to abandon the trip. My problem was that the border police at the port had, by that time, gone home, and I found myself on Turkish territory without the right stamps in my passport.

I should perhaps have gone immediately to the police, but I didn’t, believing that common sense would prevail at Ataturk Airport when I came to leave. But it didn’t.

I have never in my life understood as clearly as I did on that afternoon at the airport what it means to lack the right papers and stamps. I ended up feeling like a character at Rick’s Bar in Casablanca. Never mind that I possessed a strong passport bearing those glorious words, ‘Her Britannic Majesty requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty …..’. I was suddenly a criminal.

After being turned away by the border guards at passport control (I simply wasn’t allowed to pass) I queued for hours in a dark corridor in a part of the airport you wouldn’t be aware of, with dozens of others (largely from the Central Asian Republics) who had mostly overstayed their welcome. Insults and contempt flowed liberally. Police power was being exercised without the constraints of due process. It was certainly a far cry from the patient interviews that you see on reality TV shows about immigration at British Airports, where extenuating circumstances are reasonably considered by kind officials. The Turkish border police had no interest in anything other than that my passport didn’t contain the right stamps.

‘Why would I have entered the country illegally?’ I asked. ‘And how?’

Shrug of the shoulders. ‘Not our problem.’

‘But I have explained what happened.’

‘You are lying.’

It was a one-sided application of rough justice, and I probably got off more lightly than the other unfortunates in the queue. No translation was supplied. At the end of the process I had no complete idea of what had happened. I strongly support the idea that Turkey should become a member of the EU, but I can’t see it happening soon if this is the way justice is done.

So, I have a police record in Turkey and cannot enter the country until the end of next year. Even so, I hope to return. Turkey is a wonderful place and the vast majority of its population are nicer than its police force.

When I got back home, I wrote to the Turkish Consulate in Prague. They were sympathetic and offered to solve the problem. They called me just three weeks later to say that the ban would be lifted. Would I come to see them?

But when I did, they asked me to sign an admission of guilt and a promise not to break the law again. I refused, of course. I can’t see that it could ever be wise to admit to a border violation. How could I know what the consequences might be? More shrugs of Turkish shoulders when I asked them that question.

One small piece of advice. If you ever find yourself in difficulties with the police in Turkey, don’t mention Midnight Express. It only provokes anger.

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