14 December 2019
HDP Kocaeli Deputy and Member of the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA) Human Rights Inquiry Committee, Mr. Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu (ÖFG) tells the stories of pregnant or puerperant women and children who have never seen a bird or a tree in overcrowded prisons far beyond their capacities, inmates who suffered torture because they refused strip-search, destroyed families on their way to a prison visit, sexually harassed women, those who mysteriously disappeared and then found after being subjected to heavy torture…
Mr. Selahattin Demirtaş, who got the votes of millions both as an MP and as a presidential candidate, has been jailed simply for being a dissident regardless of an ECHR ruling in his favor and of his deteriorating medical condition. He continues to be the most talked-about name of the Turkish politics despite all the media embargo, the bans, and the repression.
While Mr. Demirtaş is dealing with his health issues, his family narrowly escaped a traffic accident on their weekly commute of thousands of miles from Diyarbakır, their hometown, to Edirne where he is confined. His family members almost died.
The story of Mr. Demirtaş and his family has a lot in common with those of tens of thousands of prisoners and their loved ones. People who couldn’t escape death on their way to prison visits, whose family members were forcibly disappeared, women who got cops poising over during labour, children stuck within prison walls, growing up unable to have crayons, to see a bird or a tree…
Described by a friend as “A man like Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)”, someone who endeavors to prevent all kinds of human rights violations, whom prisoners, detainees, convicted and their relatives alike can reach and appeal for help, a decree-law victim himself, former chairman of The Association for Human Rights and Solidarity for the Oppressed (MAZLUMDER), well-known by the conservative circles, HDP Kocaeli MP Mr. Gergerlioğlu is portraying images of incarceration.
Q – Human rights organizations documented 1,123 incidents of torture and ill-treatment in prisons in 2019. What’s happening in jails?
ÖFG – There are growing problems since the state of emergency period. During this span, prisons were gravely overpopulated. Normal capacity is 120 thousand, extended is 211 thousand, whereas 288 thousand people are currently imprisoned.
Q – So, in theory how many people are sleeping on the floor in the prison wards?
ÖFG – There are almost 80 thousand inmates over the capacity.
Q – How many of those are political and how many are ordinary prisoners?
ÖFG – Around 60 thousand people are incarcerated with FETO (a term used by the Turkish government to refer to Gulenists) charges and I assume there are around 15 thousand detained or convicted for Kurdish or leftist cases. Under the state of emergency, 550 thousand were taken into custody with FETO allegations. The number of ordinary crimes are already significantly increasing too. When you add those peace narrative activists who were put in jail on terrorism charges, and the increasing pressure on the leftists, the prison capacity has been far exceeded. The rights violation statistics I just referred to are nothing more than the ones detected by the human rights organizations. The actual figures are much higher.
‘EVEN THE PREGNANT WOMEN ARE FORCED TO STRIP NAKED AND TO SQUAT MULTIPLE TIMES’
Q – Particularly in what areas and by whom is torture and ill-treatment in prisons perpetrated?
ÖFG – Stript-search in the admission stage to prisons is one of the primary violations. In an inhumane and degrading manner, inmates are stripped and searched bare naked. We know that even pregnant women are forced to strip fully naked and tortured with squatting instructions multiple times.
Only ideological inmates are object to this practice. If you obey, you’re subject to torture of fully nude strip-search, if you protest then you’re tortured in a different way. Prisoners are beaten and forcefully body-searched. The report on this issue by the Van Bar Association is very striking.
Q – What does that report say?
ÖFG – Van Province Bar Association issued a report revealing that the political prisoners who were to be transferred from Tekirdağ province to Trabzon Beşikdüzü Prison rejected fully nude body search and thus they were bastinadoed. Despite that horrendous incident, the government has not made a single comment nor has it taken even a tiny step.
Likewise, even after the report, a similar incident took place following a dispatch on a holiday at the same prison. After the relatives of the inmates reached me and I shared it on social media, Trabzon chief public prosecutor’s office denied it although the incident was obvious and there were witnesses.
Q – What kind of responses do you receive from the government, the ministry or the prison administrations regarding such cases?
ÖFG – The responses are exasperating. They can lie and deny so casually. There is not an entity that could inspect or investigate when an official denies or lies publicly.
One says “Such an incident never happened” but the incident is obvious. So, what do we do then? “It’s over, case closed” that’s it! Again this year in May, when we present the authorities the photos showing the torture and ill-treatment toward detainees at the backyard of a police station in Şanlıurfa Halfeti, they said “these photos are fabricated” or “taken somewhere else”. For God’s sake! These pictures were taken not by me but in fact by the officials there. But they brush it off saying “There is no such thing, the end.”
‘TGNA HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION HAS NO INTENTION TO TACKLE VIOLATIONS’
Q – Does TGNA (Turkish Grand National Assembly) Human Rights Inquiry Committee take the initiative and say “Let’s go and see, investigate and inspect this” in such “dubious” situations?
ÖFG – No. Do you see these (pointing the bulky folder beneath his hand)? I have submitted more than one thousand parliamentary inquiries to the TGNA chairmanship and around three thousand petitions to the Human Rights Committee. That means, I authored one third of all petitions from all around Turkey that reached the Committee. But unfortunately, the Human Rights Committee chairmanship has no intention to tackle a violation and to get some results. There are countless violations, tragedies, and sufferings in this folder I just showed you.
Q – What kind of violations for instance?
ÖFG – Last May, a torture incident occured in Ankara Police Headquarters and I was the first to announce that to the public. Horrific torture methods including inserting police truncheons to the detainees’ anuses… Those who experienced and revealed this are 111 former high level Ministry of Foreign Affairs personnel. What they’re accused of or what they did does not concern me. I only care whether there is a violation.
Q – How did this incident transpire?
ÖFG – When I received information regarding this issue, I made a public announcement. This caused an uproar of course. The police said “Such an incident did not happen” like always. However as a rare occurrence in the history of the Republic, Ankara Bar Association paid an unannounced visit with 8 of their lawyers and despite the obstruction efforts by the chief public prosecutors’ office, they managed to speak with the detainees.
Five people out of the six the Bar Association interviewed disclosed that they experienced this gruesome torture method, and the other acknowledged that he heard and knows of it. Unfortunately torture victims usually choose to keep quiet fearing further backlash. But the news about the incident at Ankara Police Headquarters suddenly spread and I got calls from many national and international media outlets as well as international human rights organizations.
Q – What did those 6 detainees tell?
ÖFG – That they were put into a dark room, were stripped fully nude and got truncheons inserted in their anuses… The report by the Bar was very grave. These six people spoke out even though they were still under custody and subject to threats such as “We will come again tonight!”. They already knew once the lawyers left they’d be alone with their tormentors.
‘ZAMAN REPORTER ONCE CRITICIZED ME OF PRESSURING THE STATE TOO MUCH’
Q – Did an investigation start regarding to the torture as a result?
ÖFG – Neither Ankara Police nor the Ministry of Interior issued an announcement but as a result of growing pressure the public prosecutors’ office started and investigation. Frankly though, I think this will be covered up.
Q – Were these detainees accused of being Fetullahists?
ÖFG – Neither in my time in Mazlum-Der nor at the parliament, I’ve never advocated the human rights depending on the identity of the victims. When I was with Mazlum-Der, I was once making a public remark on human rights violations, a Zaman (one of the top selling newspapers in Turkey affiliated with the Gulen movement which was shut down by a decree-law in 2016) reporter criticised me for pressuring the state too much.
But when the conditions change, this time you become the victim of a violation. Thus, one has to oppose torture and rights violations whoever the victim is. People are slowly learning this albeit through immense sufferings. Though one shouldn’t necessarily be a victim in order to defend another.
‘THE 8-PAGE LETTER BY THE KIDNAPPED ZABİT KİŞİ HORRIFIED ME’
Q – Human rights organizations have recorded that 7 persons were kidnapped in 2019. Numerous cases of disappearances under custody since the state of emergency period are being cited. Since the aftermath of the coup attempt how many people disappeared, how many of them were found? What did they tell us?
ÖFG – 28 persons, 27 male and 1 female, were kidnapped. The males are known to be close with the Gulen group. The woman, Ayten Öztürk, is leftist. At the court hearing, she revealed how she was kidnapped and tortured. Some among the remaining 27 didn’t speak up and say they were tortured.
We can still guess what might have happened to them through those who recounted since they were all kidnapped by the same methods, same vehicles and found nearly in the same condition. We received the most evident petition and the account from Zabit Kişi, the victim who was kidnapped and then found.
Q – What did Zabit Kişi tell?
ÖFG – In his 8-page letter to me, he recounted how he was kidnapped and that he was confined somewhere for 108 days.
Q – Is he imprisoned at the moment?
ÖFG – He’s now in Kandıra Prison. I’ve been a human rights advocate for years, witnessed numerous cases but that letter still horrified me. He was kept in a kennel-like place blindfolded. They threw in a piece of bread and some water barely enough to keep him alive. During this 108-day period he lost 30 kilograms.
He records that he was tortured until he bled from his mouth, nose, and rectum. On the 75th day, even the torturers were disturbed by the smell and washed him with a hose.
He tried to kill himself over and over. I could barely bring myself to finish the letter in 4-5 hours. While reading that, I promised myself that fight against torture will be my paramount priority, though it already is.
“ZABİT KİŞİ BEGGED THE JUDGE ‘TO HAVE HIM ARRESTED’ AT HIS FIRST COURT HEARING”
Q – So how did this person reemerged?
ÖFG – He was thrown in front of the Ankara Polis HQ by people who identified themselves as “state officials”. Zabit Kişi writes in his letter that he begged the judge to have him arrested at his very first court hearing. I then conveyed the letter as a parliamentary inquiry to the ministry without adding a single word, asking “this person has this claim. Are the kidnappers indeed state officials or are they rather mobsters and thugs?”. After all, they might commit this posing as government officials. I urge them to check the CCTV recordings. (A postman comes in and hands a letter to Mr. Gergerlioğlu.) The letter is from Antalya Döşemealtı L-prison. I receive such letters very often and we detect many violation findings.
Q – What response did you get from the Ministry of Justice regarding Zabit Kişi’s letter?
ÖFG – I presented the letter to the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Interior and the Presidency without adding a single word. This person has such a claim, who kidnapped him? There has not been a single statement about it. I presented it to the TGNA Chairmanship as a parliamentary inquiry. The chairmanship responded as “Your question was not proceeded due to having coarse and hurtful remarks.”
“MANY KIDNAPPEES DON’T TALK AFTER BEING FOUND”
Q – What are those coarse and hurtful remarks?
ÖFG – Zabit Kişi’s torture descriptions. Parliament Chairmanship returns questions from us, HDP deputies, when it spots words like “massacre” and “invasion”. But in my inquiry, I only attached the letter and asked whether these claims are true or false. As the national assembly, what are you going to investigate if you don’t examine such a letter written by a member of this very nation, for God’s sake? Coarse and hurtful remarks my foot! How can one tell inserting a truncheon in one’s rectum politely?
Several people have called us from Turkey and overseas, telling us similar experiences they had on the condition that “we keep it between ourselves”. Some were dumped at a remote mountain area, some in front of Police HQs. Hasan Kala, for example, was found 250 days after disappearing in Batıkent, in central Ankara. His wife and father had met with me. After 250 days, he suddenly reemerged. This man didn’t get arrested but he then disappeared.
Q – Was he forcefully disappeared one more time?
ÖFG – No, but I presume they vanish in order not to experience the same incident again. Take Salim Zeybek. He was kidnapped when he was with his wife and two kids in Edirne. They take him, and drive his wife and the children from Edirne to Ankara to their house. They even give the lady some money. She then submits the CCTV recordings in front of their home, the car plate number, along with the money she received in case the fingerprints of the kidnappers are found. Since she’s a good painter, she also submits to the police the sketches of the kidnappers. Salim Zeybek too reappeared at Ankara Police HQ, six months after he was kidnapped in February.
Q – Did he tell what happened to him?
ÖFG – Zeybek was found at Ankara Police HQ together with three others who have been kidnapped from Ankara and İstanbul. However these people who are currently held in Sincan Prison do not talk.
Q – Are these men former MIT (National Intelligence Organization) agents or people with very sensitive information?
ÖFG – The persons who were kidnapped and reappeared are all being tried at Ankara 34th Heavy Penal Court allocated for MIT cases. The MPs and IHD (Human Rights Association) are not permitted to attend the hearings.
Most of those who disappeared during the 1990s were never found or only their corpses were discovered…
Maybe only the bodies of these men would have resurfaced but as a result of immense pressure they were found alive. Having received the news of their reemergence, at the crack of dawn, the spouses together with their lawyers stood ready in front of the Police HQ. But the detainees sent word that “they didn’t want to speak with private lawyers”. Then we saw that these people had curiously found themselves attorneys at the stairs of the Police building! “Who’s this lawyer? How did you manage to find one under custody? why don’t you talk to the lawyer we hired?” One lady asked her husband. He doesn’t even know the name of his supposed attorney.
“Forget where we are. I heard you applied to national and international institutions, withdraw them at once. You spoke with Sezgin Tanrıkulu (CHP MP) and Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, stop that. You opened up social media accounts about us and keep writing, don’t write a single word again. We have a family, kids, let’s drop this incident.” All four of them said the same thing to their wives. According to their spouses, the kidnappees lost around 25-30 kilos. Their skins were so pale that they probably didn’t see sunlight at all. They looked uneasy, sometimes glanced at the cop who was watching. They were adamant about not revealing what they’d gone through though. After 12 days in custody these people got arrested but their spouses don’t know why and on which charges they’re arrested. That is an enigma. Two people who reemerged later also instructed their wives the same direction.
“POLICE AND PUBLIC PROSECUTOR’S OFFICE ARE QUITE ‘CAREFREE’”
Q – Are there still missing persons?
ÖFG – On 6 August, the same they that these two persons were arrested, Yusuf Bilge Tunç who has an arrest warrant on him disappeared in Ankara and is still missing to this day. I went and saw his deserted car at a spot where there’s hardly any security cameras. He’s a former employee of the Ministry of Industry, purged with a decree-law. His wife goes to the Police but nobody pays attention. Even the prosecutor to investigate the case was not appointed for 1-1.5 month. She then tries to obtain the security footage on her own from the stores nearby, to no avail. Both the police and the prosecutor’s office are quite carefree about the case. Let me add by the way, the families of the 6 people I mentioned earlier applied to international institutions when they couldn’t get a result domestically. Thus, those missing were found right before the urgent action requests by ECHR and UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances were due.
“MANY WOMEN WERE TOLD; ‘COME ON, GIVE BIRTH ALREADY SO THAT WE CAN ARREST YOU’”
Q – One of the topics you, together with Sezgin Tanrıkulu, raised the most throughout 2019 is women arrested while pregnant or right after the childbirth, children growing up in prison… How many kids are in jail with their mothers as of now?
ÖFG – This figure once went up to 864. After the First Judicial Reform Package, it dropped to 780 as of November. However, since even during the last week mothers with babies were arrested the numbers constantly increase. Likewise, three days ago two pregnant women were jailed. There have been more pregnant, puerperant or nursing mothers, women with children or who just delivered imprisoned during the state of emergency period than ever in the history of the republic.
Afterall, the Fethullah group, differing from classical organizations, had a structure that included families, mothers, fathers, children within. Therefore, number of female inmates peaked when these people began to be punished. Throughout this span, the humanitarian aspect of these events have followed a tragic course. Article 16/4 of Law no. 5275 stipulates that the execution of the prison sentence against a woman who is pregnant or who gave birth less than six months ago shall be postponed. Article 116 of the same law reiteraterates this provision. But this law has been disregarded altogether. Hundreds of pregnant and puerperant women were arrested. Women who go to hospital for labor are told; “come on, give birth already so that we can arrest you” by the hovering police officer. There have been many women who delivered with such stress and tears while they had cops waiting for her.
Q – Were these people sought for their membership of an (illegal) organization?
ÖFG – Those who had cops waiting during labor are the ones with an arrest warrant on them. These women maintain a fugitive life since they are wanted. But when the child labor time comes they need to go to hospital, so the Police busts them there. By the same token, there are many cases of women, being arrested when they are 3 weeks pregnant, hospitalized for birth and sent back to prison a few hours after delivery without even spending a night at the hospital.
Gülden Aşık, Nurhayat Kılıç and Hanife Çiftçi are three women I can remember who had miscarriages in prison. I followed their situation from the beginning, even at the court stage these women weren’t heeded when they told they were having a distressed pregnancy. Nurhayat Kılıç lost her twins. Four babies whom only I was following were gone like that. Some women had preterm delivery. Throughout three and a half years, hundreds of women have gone through this affliction solely because the law was not implemented.
“PARENTS ARE IMPRISONED WITH RIDICULOUS EXCUSES, CHILDREN LEFT STRANDED”
Q – What is the hardest story for you not as an MP but as a doctor?
ÖFG – There are countless stories of course. Just yesterday, a woman who has an 8-year old with Down syndrome was jailed. You can’t tell this child of her mom’s disappearance. It’s the same with autistic children. One kid, for instance, had been cured up until 90 per cent by his/her family. The father, a former teacher, was imprisoned for 17-18 months. Then the recovery ratio of the child dropped to 26 per cent. As a doctor, this story hurts me. The parents had progressed inch by inch and had cured their child with sublime struggle. All of a sudden all this progress was turned to dust.
Q – Is the father still imprisoned?
ÖFG – He was released but with a huge cost. Majority of those people are incarcerated with ludicrous pretexts and subsequently released. But until then, so many lives are ruined… They both break the law by detaining pregnant or perpuerant women, and turn detention, a preventive measure, into punishment. Whereas, these people can very well be released pending trial. Besides, this practice affects not only FETÖ suspects but everyone. For example, there were women with children in “PKK wards” when I visited Diyarbakır and Elazığ prisons. Take Semra Akgül from Diyarbakır Prison. Her husband is incarcerated too. They participated in a demonstration and all. She just had her 6-year-old sent back home because you can’t keep a child older than 6 with you there.
Q – Who takes care of that child if the both parents are in prison?
ÖFG – This 6-year-old child stays with two older brothers at the age of 17 and 18. 3 kids on their own, can you imagine? There are thousands of families like that. An operation was carried out toward our party’s, HDP, Kocaeli offices from HDP. Our friends Emine and Mehmet Karaarslan were detained and they have three children. What is the accusation? “Why did you dance the halay (Turkish folk dance)? Why did you meet with a party higher-up? We listened to your phone calls, you said: ‘bring the ‘the piece (emanet)’’, what is the piece, a gun?” I went and asked them one-to-one what that piece really was. They had meant the banners by that! Husband and wife were arrested with such absurd pretexts and the children were left stranded. Mekiye Aydın, who has four 10-year-old kids, got arrested… Osman Kurum was looking after his children while the mother in jail. He’s imprisoned too and his child is alone now. These are our friends from HDP.
“A CHILD HAS TO SEE TREES AND BIRDS FOR GOD’S SAKE!”
Q – How do the prison conditions affect the kids growing up in jail with their mothers?
ÖFG – We saw those children in Diyarbakır and Elazığ prisons. Dilda in Diyarbakır, and a girl in Elazığ, whose name I can’t recall. Their psychologies weren’t good at all naturally. 20-25 women in a 10-person ward, four walls… They don’t even give the children colouring books because of “dangerous colours”! We start to feel cramped inside after only five minutes, what would these children do? The walls are too high with a tiny ventilation opening. Especially in Elazığ, they had the ventilation fenced.
Q – Why? So the inmates wouldn’t fly away?
ÖFG – Probably! You start to grasp some things are so vital in such a setting. In Diyarbakır there was a bird coming through the ventilation, even its voice was giving the inmates some respite. Even the birds were blocked in Elazığ. A mother told me that when she once was on her way to hospital from prison, her child asked: “What is this mommy?”, pointing a tree and a bird. Apparently, the child had never seen a tree or a bird, been raised in jail. A child has to see trees and birds for God’s sake! The same kid is said to dash toward the door to get out every time the warden opens it. When it’s shut on her, the child starts crying as she can’t make sense of it.
The women then start crying, perhaps the ward who just shut the door is crying but nobody can do anything. Everybody watched the video of baby Miraz whose mother was in prison. He’s just one example captured on camera but there’s hundreds of similar cases, stories. Some children don’t want to visit their imprisoned parents since they undergo so much maltreatment up until they pass through the turnstile. In Silivri, for instance, they flock 600 visitors at once with a “Come on in!” command. Visitors feel the need to get in as soon as possible so they won’t lose time. Naturally, while doing so, children get almost crushed. I have received petitions from many female visitors regarding their claims of being sexually harassed during their visit.
“PRISON ADMINISTRATION SAYS; ‘SIR, IT’S NOT A CELL BUT A ROOM. IT’S COMFY EVEN WITH A KETTLE”
Q – Besides, like in the Selahattin Demirtaş example, there are inmates held thousands of miles away from their families…
ÖFG – The car accident that Mr. Demirtaş’s family had was surely something expected. Some guy from Kars is held in Antalya, some other from Diyarbakır in Edirne. Many families have been destroyed by traffic accidents on their way to visit their relatives. An inmate from Diyarbakır told that his father couldn’t visit him for four years due to financial hardship. The other day, at 3 am a lady wrote me; “Sir, I’m on my way to visit my husband kept in Konya-Ereğli. My car has broken down. I’m stuck with my kid in a desolate place in this cold weather, please help us!”
Eventually, the family of a major presidential candidate of the country barely escaped death… Prisons are paralyzed. Even the detainees are kept in F-type prisons where convicts stay. It’s outlawed, you can’t do that. Nevertheless they do it, detainees are put in solitary confinement cells. Upon my call, the prison administration says; “No sir, it’s not a cell but a single room. it’s extremely comfy. It even has a kettle.” I had a look at the solitary wards in Elazığ, oh my God! I couldn’t stay for five minutes! Prisoners are kept there for months. Hot water, bathroom, toilet problems… A ward shared by 25 detainees has only one toilet. These people are denied the right to satisfy their basic needs.
Q – What proportion of the current 288-thousand prison population is in pretrial detention or convicted?
ÖFG – I don’t have the exact figures but the number of detainees, I mean of people who have not been convicted is higher. The biggest issue is when both parents are in custody. Their children suffer immense psychological problems. At least fit an electronic tag to one parent under house arrest, do something! They don’t care at all!
“WE HAVE SEEN THAT THE ISLAMIC PUBLIC OPINION LOST ITS CONSCIENCE”
Q – How do you sum up the situation vis-a-vis the Turkish prisons and the stories around them?
ÖFG – Turkey itself has turned into a massive prison. Inmates live a prisoner’s life in prisons. Many that were released tell me; “Outside is not that different after all.” In prisons, one suffers from physical and psychological torture but outside the prison the same oppressive atmosphere is present outside too.
State of emergency victims are not allowed to go abroad nor they can earn their bread in Turkey. Even the slightest expression of thought can put you in jail. We have a government which resorts to persecution out of the feeling of being cornered. Thus they spiritually become more evil. Because they suppress their conscience to justify this persecution to themselves.
Q – Do you ever discuss these issues with AKP MPs?
ÖFG – Some grumble about it. The other day, one of them came and said; “Do you think only you’re concerned with the decree-law victims? I once talked to one of them for half an hour”. They make up excuses with stories like “We need to stay in power, foreign forces are our enemies” to suppress their conscience. When asked about the pregnant women, they allege that “these women get pregnant upon instruction”.
Is this your answer? Really? Nearly 30 people, 18 children and babies, drowned trying to cross the Agean and Evros out of desperation. Then you get the answer “So they shouldn’t have attempted a coup”. Religious public opinion has suppressed their conscience with this narrative for a long time. Now there are people here and there who says that this probably went too far. Still, throughout this period, we witnessed that the religious public opinion has lost its moral sense.