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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

So long Lior... we hardly knew ya

I'm dating myself here, but in order to understand the gist of this post it would be helpful to have seen the 1978 movie Midnight Express. I'll give you a very brief synopsis, but to fully grasp what follows, the film is an important frame of reference.

On one leg (meaning a very short, simple explanation), Midnight Express was based on the true story of a misguided, but likable young American named Billy Hayes who, at the end of a visit to Turkey, decides to tape 2 kilos of hashish to his body and smuggle it out of the country.  He's caught at the airport, sentenced to 5 years in an extremely brutal/primitive Turkish prison, and the Turkish authorities decide to make an example of him and extend his sentence. After much brutality, he finally escapes.

That's where the true story and the film part ways... and the division between them becomes deliberately hazy.

Besides being extremely manipulative and xenophobic*, the film deliberately changed certain facts to make sure the audience's sympathies never wavered from the central character and the supporting characters he befriends in the hell-hole of a prison. 

From the length of his sentence (the film said it had been extended by 30 years but it was actually significantly less) to the absolute lack of redeeming quality in any Turkish or American legal/judicial or political player, the audience was sent continuous messages throughout the film; 'these are the good guys and those are the bad guys'.  White... black.

Maybe it's the cynic in me, but when someone tries to tell me anything in the world is that black and white, I tend to start looking for the missing bucket of gray.

I bring this up today because of a recent news story about a young Israeli who is on the verge of being extradited by US authorities to... yes, you guessed it... Turkey, on drug charges.

All the news reports I've seen on this case seem to be (perhaps unconsciously) spouting the same tropes that made me so uncomfortable with the film:

  • The evil, primitive Turks.
  • The deliberate miscarriage of justice
  • The uncaring government of the accused
  • The despair of the accused's parents and friends.

What's noticeably absent from news coverage of this case - as it was missing from the script of the film - is the hard truth about the risky business in which the central character was engaged.

Lior Atuar is a convicted drug dealer.  He was convicted in the US for conspiracy to traffic in Ecstasy and served a relatively light sentence of a little more than six years in prison.  However, once he was incarcerated in the US, the Turkish government took notice and made an extradition request to the US for whenever he would be released from US custody.

You see, before he went and got caught with about about a gazillion doses of E in the US, he had allegedly been involved with the lower-tech end of the drug trade in a scheme to smuggle an undisclosed quantity of heroin out of Turkey with an associate named Fahri Yasin (who was the one who was actually holding the 'smack' when they were arrested).

I use the term 'allegedly' because; 1) by rights Atuar hasn't been convicted of the heroine smuggling charge; 2)  his colleague, Mr. Yasin seems to have fingered him while being aggressively questioned (tortured) by Turkish officials; and 3) Atuar fled Turkey within hours of being accused so a full airing of the charges and any plausible defense have never taken place (other than in the press).

The first and third of these points bother me very little because of his later drug conviction in the US.  I'm sure some legal eagles will leave comments telling me that later offenses can't be used as evidence of a previous crime.  But I can't get away from the fact that Mr. Atuar was no stranger to the drug trade. 

The second point is more serious, and actually rests at the heart of the 'Midnight Express' comparisons in the press.  You see, the US is a signatory to international conventions barring torture, and any evidence gathered against a suspect using torture should therefore be excluded from legal proceedings (including the current extradition proceedings). 

However, there is a compelling issues that bears examination before we set aside the decision that already seems to have been rendered by the court of public opinion:  The accomplice (Yasin) later repeated his accusations against Atuar when not under torture.

Now, don't get me wrong... Is it a family tragedy that a son/brother is likely to be sent to a prison setting far less comfy than the country club where he served his time in the US?  Yes, but again... he wasn't arrested while doing charity work in Calcutta and accused of dealing drugs.  He was in a US hoosegow for dealing drugs and nobody's heartstrings were pulled.  Yet now that he is likely to do some real hard time for the same kind of offense in Turkey, the public outcry to protect this poor boy is enormous.

Is Lior Atuar likely to be singled out for special cruelty (as his lawyer alleges) for being an Israeli/Jew in a Turkish/Muslim prison?  I'm not sure, but it isn't an entirely unreasonable assumption.  However, Israel and Turkey enjoy pretty warm relations and cooperate on diplomatic, economic and military levels.  Israeli tourists, businesspeople, military officers and tourists are a common sight in Turkey... and Turkish reciprocity in all these areas is certainly on the rise.  It is also worth noting that in Midnight Express there were several Israeli prisoners portrayed (not coincidentally, also convicted drug dealers), and even back then in the 70s when Israeli/Turkish relations weren't so advanced, they didn't seem to have been singled out for their nationality or religious beliefs.

The drug being smuggled in the movie was hashish, and this was convenient for the screenwriters since to my knowledge deaths from hashish overdoses have to be incredibly rare occurrences.  This makes the whole 'victimless crime' angle easy to sell to an already sympathetic audience.

But Atuar was convicted in the US of selling Ecstasy, a drug that has been implicated as at least a contributing factor in many deaths worldwide, and is suspected of long term health risks in those who habitually use it.  And heroin... well you don't need me to use pictures and arrows to explain the potential public danger a smuggler/dealer represents.

Many people would argue that the dealers and smugglers aren't responsible for drug-related violence and overdoses.  That it is the end user who makes an informed decision to use the drug... or not.  We'll leave aside the issue of 'informed decision making' because the number of children using drugs makes that argument a non-starter. 

Instead I'd like to approach the concept of 'informed decisionmaking' from another, perhaps unexpected angle:

Don't drug dealers and smugglers also understand the risks of their actions?  Just as the user is responsible for where, how and how much of the drugs they use (and any potential health or legal consequences associated therewith)... don't the dealers and smugglers make the same informed decisions?

Personally, I feel bad for most people who pay the price for bad decisions.  I feel bad because good people often make bad decisions on the spur of the moment... and the difference between the bulk of the people in jail and a good cross-section of the people who are not in jail basically boils down to who was unlucky (or stupid) enough to get caught.

In the case of Lior Atuar, we're not talking about a guy who had the bad luck to buy a dime bag of weed on the only day of the semester his college dorm was raided by campus security.  This is a guy who has gone to considerable time and expense to travel to several foreign countries in order to traffic in dangerous drugs (or at least drugs for which he knew the penalty to be relatively steep).

If the parent of some kid who had OD'ed on heroin or overheated and gone into a coma after taking Ecstasy had confronted Lior Atuar I'm pretty sure he would have told them that he didn't force anyone to take the drugs... it was their decision so the consequences are entirely theirs.  I mean, how could a drug dealer/smuggler say otherwise?

Well, I feel bad for Lior Atuar.   But if the club kids and junkies are expected to suck it up and take legal and medical responsibility for their decisions... then the same rationale should apply to the dealers and smugglers who supply them.

Source: Here

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Posted by David Bogner on May 31, 2006 | Permalink

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Wait a sec... you mean to tell me that the last time I was in Turkey and an Israeli on the street said "achi, rotzheh l'knot E?" [trans: bro, wanna buy some E?] he wasn't offering me ersatz Kahlua®?

Posted by: President, Kippot Srugot for Kadima | May 31, 2006 3:08:08 PM

I have read nothing about this story, but perhaps people are suspicious of the legitimacy of the Turkish legal system and feel he won't receive a fair trial, guilty or not. Despite this fellow's likely misdeeds, due process is important. His implication by his partner in crime while under torture (despite its acceptance by the current American government)does not instill confidence that he will be judged fairly.

Posted by: Jersey Boy (Larry Stiefel) | May 31, 2006 6:17:20 PM

I don't think you mentioned his age. If he was over thirty while involved in the heroin trade I could not care less what happens to him. I can make excuses for youth, especially in this licentious age we live in, but if he pushed heroin as a fully adult person he is scum and the world is better off without him.

Then there is also the Darwin factor to consider. Drug dealing in TURKEY?! Monumentally stupid. Insanely greedy. Perhaps this is one deathwish we should grant.

Posted by: Scott | May 31, 2006 6:46:48 PM

hmmmmmmm not many comments on this one. Maybe it's just too close to home.

Posted by: Scott | Jun 1, 2006 1:35:34 AM

Good riddens to him.
By the way trepp, say it ain't so...dramatic license with Midnight Express? I loved that movie back in 1978...it curtailed my drug smuggling career.

Posted by: cruisin-mom | Jun 1, 2006 6:15:38 PM

There's always some story in the news here about Aussie drug smugglers getting caught in Indonesia. Recently quite a few were put in prison for life and one was executed. The media always try to drum up support but I think most people feel like me about it; if you're dumb enough to try to smuggle drugs into a country that you know will hang you for it if you get caught, well then, that's your problem if you play the roulette and lose.

Posted by: MamaWombat | Jun 2, 2006 7:12:53 AM

Seems like you make some good points. I tend to agree with both MamaWombat and Scott - I am more likely to make allowances for youth, and for apparently one-off bad decisions. But for 'responsible' adults who choose to take those risks - I see it as pretty much their own look out, despite my own anti-death penalty convictions.

Posted by: Kay | Jun 3, 2006 7:27:20 AM

I think the lack of comments to this post may be due to the fact that there's still a tendency to assume that individuals connected to drug-dealing represent the shameful exception, as opposed to the norm, within Israeli society. Most people would, understandably, prefer to believe that there is no drug underground, no woman trafficking, no incest, no homelessness in the Promised Land, and thus would prefer not to pay too much attention to such stories.

Posted by: PP | Jun 7, 2006 12:33:45 PM

Dear David Bogner

Please, go fuck your self.
I wish somone will blam you for somthing you never done , maybe only than you will understand how the israeli accuzed felt !!

Posted by: Gil Gordon | Mar 18, 2007 10:04:47 PM

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