Victims of Turkish crackdown deserve more than a pardon

Every day you hear about the thousands of people who have been affected by government decrees issued under Turkey’s ongoing state of emergency. In a country like Turkey, where thousands have been arrested and hundreds die in violence each month, lives can easily be turned into numbers. Today I want to share one story, one life behind these thousands.

Gökhan Açıkkollu was a young history teacher. After the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, he was fired from his job under an emergency decree. On July 25, 2016, he was detained due to allegations of having links the Gülen movement, accused of carrying out the coup.

Açıkkollu stayed in police custody for 13 days. He was subjected to physical and psychological torture. Every day he was taken from his cell and tortured. Afterwards he would be rushed to the hospital when his condition worsened. He told his doctors about the torture. His official statement was never taken. After 13 days in detention, it was announced that he had died from a heart attack.

The people who shared a cell with him said that he died from torture. Professor Şebnem Korur Fincancı, the president of the Human Rights Foundation in Turkey prepared a report about his death. In the report , she concluded Açıkkollu had lost his life due to the torture he suffered.

The torture did not end after his death. When his family went to the Istanbul Forensic Medicine Institute to claim his body, the authorities told them his body would be released on the condition that he was to be buried in the traitors’ graveyard. The graveyard of traitors was prepared by the Greater Istanbul Municipality after the coup attempt in order to bury the alleged traitors.

Due to strong adverse reactions, no one was ever buried in the graveyard. After the coup attempt, the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate made a public statement, saying, funeral prayer should not be performed for traitors. Therefore, imams refused to prepare his body and perform funeral rights and prayers for Açıkkollu.

Last month, some 18 months after his death, the Education Ministry posthumously reinstated Açıkkollu in a tacit acknowledgement of his innocence. The official document sent to his wife, who had also been dismissed from her teaching position by emergency decree, simply said, “pardon”.

Açıkkollu is not alone. According to a report issued by the UN Human Rights Office last week, “routine extensions of the state of emergency in Turkey have led to profound human rights violations against hundreds of thousands of people – from arbitrary deprivation of the right to work and to freedom of movement, to torture and other ill-treatment, arbitrary detentions and infringements of the rights to freedom of association and expression”.

The report states that in the 18-months of Turkey’s state of emergency, 160,000 people have been arrested and 152,000 civil servants, teachers, judges, lawyers, doctors and academics have been dismissed from their jobs.

Without an independent media, it is not easy to hear the voices of these people. Some of them have lost family members, some of them have died trying to leave the country and some have committed suicide. In the last two weeks, three people who were affected by the emergency decrees have committed suicide. Each of them left families behind. The cost continues to be felt.

The Rights and Justice Platform (Hak ve Adalet Forumu), an Islamic leaning Turkish NGO prepared a very detailed report about these thousands. According to the report, “Social Burdens of the State of Emergency in Turkey”, more than 1.2 million people have been affected by emergency decrees. They lost their jobs, economic and social status. They are treated like traitors and terrorists. In the report, emergency decree victims said that, “they are only breathing, they are living dead”. Many of them said they faced torture in prison and had thoughts of suicide:

“I tried to commit suicide because of allegations of being a traitor, a terrorist, and I did not do anything to deserve that. I have never received a formal warning in my life. I hold onto life because I have little children and they need me”.

Many of the KHK victims and their families reported serious psychological problems and said they had no hope. They lost their trust in people. Not only their neighbours and social network, but also family members stopped greeting them. They have been totally excluded from society:

“Two of my brothers rejected me. I left home. No friends call anymore,” one said.

“Nobody called for months. People do not want to contact us. Our neighbours do not say ‘hello’. My friends were arrested one by one. I have been ostracised both in social and cyber worlds. Nobody would give me a job. I also stopped looking.”

Today thousands live as social outcast with no jobs and no hope for the future. These people live in complete uncertainty and insecurity.

While writing this article I watched an interview with Açıkkollu’s family a number of times. When they came to claim his body, his father was trying to speak to the cameras. He struggled through the tears. He could not believe his son would be buried in the traitors’ graveyard. He said through tears:

“They did not even take an official statement from my son. This is like a banana republic. We can’t claim our rights, we can’t do anything. How could my son be accused of being a traitor without taking his statement? How can I bury him in the graveyard of traitors? They are saying that they have been cheated by Gülenists, maybe my son has also been cheated.”

Surely these lives deserve more than just a not saying “pardon”.