North Africa, West Asia

In Turkey, two Facebook posts are enough to land you in jail

In a letter seen by openDemocracy Turkish Canadian PhD student Cihan Erdal says that he is a 'political hostage' - this is his story and his letter to the world

Cihan Erdal Ömer Ongun Umut Özsu
15 March 2021, 10.27am
Erdal was in Turkey for the birth of his nephew when he was arrested
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Courtesy of authors

openMovements

In October 2014, protesters in dozens of cities and towns throughout Turkey came together to pressure the government into providing assistance to the mostly Kurdish inhabitants of Kobanî, a Syrian town directly adjacent to the Turkish border that was then under heavy siege by Islamic State forces.

Police and demonstrators clashed violently and repeatedly during these protests. Among those supporting the protests were members of opposition political parties such as the Peoples’ Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, or “HDP”).

Six years later, on 25 September 2020, Cihan Erdal, a PhD student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, was detained in Turkey, along with dozens of other academics, activists, and elected officials, for his involvement in the HDP at the time of the 2014 protests. Erdal had returned to Turkey in August to conduct research and check on his elderly parents.

During the first 36 hours of his detention, Erdal was prevented from meeting with legal counsel. He was eventually afforded access to counsel and transferred to an F-type high-security prison.

A permanent resident of Canada, Erdal has sat in an Ankara prison ever since. Much of this time has been spent in solitary confinement. No details about his case were made available until 7 January, when he and others were finally charged on various grounds, including 37 cases of homicide and disrupting the unity and territorial integrity of the state.

Erdal has been in jail for months, and the prosecutor’s office has produced no ‘evidence’ but these two Facebook posts

Erdal is a former member of the HDP’s central executive committee. A social-democratic party with roots in the movement to protect Turkey’s Kurdish minority, the HDP is the country’s third largest. It belongs to the parliamentary opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party.

Kurds in Turkey have often been subject to persecution, and many of the country’s (predominantly Kurdish) southeastern provinces have been ravaged for decades by cycles of insurgent and counter-insurgent violence. The HDP and its predecessor parties like the Peace and Democracy Party, the Democratic Society Party, the Democratic People’s Party, have long acted as the principal electoral outlet for Kurdish aspirations in Turkey.

During his time on the HDP’s executive committee, Erdal was destined to advocate for the visibility and equal representation of students, ecologists, the LGBTQ+ community and young people. He also remained a member of the Green Left Party during his time in the HDP.

Two Facebook posts

At the core of the Ankara public prosecutor’s indictment, which Erdal’s lawyers were provided only on 7 January, nearly four months after his arrest, are two Facebook posts from Erdal’s personal account. Both were reposts – one of a statement by Selahattin Demirtaş, the HDP’s then co-chair, expressing his party’s support for the Kobanî resistance, the other an article from a national left-wing newspaper discussing the execution of a young man by state security forces during the crackdown on pro-Kobanî protests.

The prosecutor claims that these posts expressed support for an upswell of rebellion, stoking the decades-long conflict between state security forces and Kurdistan Workers’ Party separatists. This is said to constitute a violation of Turkish constitutional and national security law, amounting to “terrorism” and posing a threat to the country’s unity and sovereignty.

Erdal has been in jail for months, and the prosecutor’s office has produced no ‘evidence’ but these two Facebook posts – neither of which, of course, constitute evidence of any form of ‘terrorism’.

What really feeds terrorism is treating citizens as though they were terrorists

Erdal has never previously been arrested, detained or imprisoned. Like others in the HDP, he is committed above all to promoting democracy, social solidarity and the rights of minorities and marginalised groups, within and beyond Turkey.

Actions needed

To date, attempts to secure Erdal’s release have not met with success. In September, Carleton’s sociology and anthropology department wrote a letter condemning his detention and imprisonment, as did the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Canadian Association of University Teachers, and Canadian Federation of Students.

A petition and support page was launched (the petition has since collected thousands of signatures), and the Scholars at Risk programme became involved. Human rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch intervened. Numerous articles and op-eds were published, some by Carleton faculty and students. The #FreeCihanErdal hashtag has circulated for months on social media, and there is a Twitter account – @freecihanerdal – devoted exclusively to the campaign.

More recently, the European Parliament explicitly highlighted Erdal’s case when formally condemning Turkey’s ongoing repression of opposition party members, as well as other politicians, activists, lawyers, and political prisoners.

Despite these and a host of other efforts, Erdal remains in prison, spending much of his time in isolation, without the COVID-19 vaccine for which most others, in Turkey as elsewhere, continue to wait.

Canadian officials have done nothing of substance to further his release. Erdal’s basic human rights – including the right to pursue the education for which he first came to Canada – are violated with each passing day.

Prosperous Western countries like Canada have long made a point of touting their countries’ many ‘contributions’ and ‘achievements’ to democracy, human rights, and social pluralism. If they are serious about these commitments, and want them to actually mean something, they are obligated – morally as much as legally – to do what they can to secure Erdal’s immediate release.

Below we reproduce Cihan Erdal’s letter to us from his prison cell.

***

Dear all,

I am a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Since 2017 I have been working as a research assistant at Carleton University, where I am also the coordinator of the Centre for Urban Youth Research (CUYR). As part of my position, we bring together researchers, academics, and activists working on issues concerning young people in urban centres in different countries (e.g., Canada, Kenya, New Zealand, Romania, UK, USA) to produce knowledge and policies. I work on various topics, such as civic education, curriculum content, the role of young people in social movements, and the experiences of young activists.

I worked on my academic studies in the Department of Sociology at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University between 2013 and 2017, and in Ottawa, the capital of Canada, since 2017. I earned important research scholarships thanks to the support of my esteemed spouse, my professors, and my parents, who at sixty years of age are still working as farmers in western Turkey. As a young Turkish academic at Carleton, where I have been studying and working on a scholarship since 2017, I have tried to represent the society and culture I grew up in.

But you may have heard my name in connection with the injustice I and others have recently experienced. I was detained on 25 September 2020, in Istanbul, where I came to visit my family, to see my nephew's birth, and to undertake fieldwork for my doctoral research. I have been held in Ankara Sincan Prison as a political hostage for five months as part of a case related to the Kobanî protests that took place in October 2014.

Today, due to political calculations, my freedom has been seized arbitrarily and unlawfully due to an event for which I have no responsibility. This situation creates the risk that I may lose my doctoral research, which I have been carrying out with great effort for four years, and also my scholarship. With completely unlawful and baseless allegations and political motives, not only my individual freedom and right to education and work but also universal norms and values of law are being usurped.

The European Court of Human Rights’ (ECtHR’s) Grand Chamber decision on Selahattin Demirtaş, dated 22 December 2020, indicates that there is no concrete evidence that can persuade an objective observer that the detention of those in my situation is justified. The decision regarding Mr. Demirtaş demanded the end of such unfair and arbitrary detention, without any need for a new application.

During the last four years, when I moved away from active politics in Turkey and focused on my academic studies in Canada, I never abandoned non-violence, peace, and love

The voice of every citizen and segment of society that believes in the rule of law, human rights, democracy, and freedom from this injustice we live in will have great meaning for the democratic future of our country. Aside from the peculiarity of my trial, as a person who objected to preachers of violence in every division of life without ifs or buts, I must say that I find it disgraceful for law and justice that I am subjected to terrifying accusations regarding a painful incident of violence. The fact that I shared a link to a newspaper that reported the painful cry of a Kurdish father who lost his soldier son in 2015, adding the one-sentence comment that "This war is not our war”, cannot reasonably be presented as "evidence" of "being a supporter of a terrorist organisation”. This is an injustice not only against me and my loved ones, but also against Turkey’s future.

What I understand from many different historical experiences in the world is that what really feeds terrorism is treating citizens as though they were terrorists or “terrorist supporters”. This is the mentality that makes the wheel of hate permanent and cannot escape the obsession of creating enemies. It is not a crime to be anti-militarist, or to oppose war anywhere in the world.

The opposite of violence is not just ethical non-violence. Of course, the principle of non-violence is an indispensable condition of democratic politics. But beyond that, it is necessary to take a strong stand with words of truth in the face of violence. We cannot create a democratic society unless we take a strong ethical and active attitude against violence in all its forms and layers (physical, symbolic, masculine, etc.). I have always been of this belief. I have never defended any type of violence against citizens.

I have defended the view that words, dialogue, conversations, and negotiations are the basic needs of our century, and that this is necessary to create a world that is really different from the twentieth century, which was an era of violence.

When I was a member of the Green Left Party and the HDP’s Central Executive Committee, I believed in the potential of ending violence. An increase in the number of citizens who hear, talk to, and understand one another could, I thought, have changed the country's fate in favour of the poor, those who are considered surplus, those who are ignored. I enthusiastically supported a transition from the existing reality, in which professional politicians talk and young people die, to a democratic peaceful atmosphere in which Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, Laz, and other young people, of different ethnic, religious, sexual, and political identities, argue and act together in Turkey. It was the spirit of Ahparig Hrant Dink who made me believe strongly that it was possible to foster change through truth-telling, the power of the word, and the magic of conscience. During the last four years, when I moved away from active politics in Turkey and focused on my academic studies in Canada, I never abandoned non-violence, peace, and love.

The logic-defying charges against me – with an indictment that was prepared seven years later, especially the allegation that “I acted upon instructions” – is extremely serious spiritual violence.

Last November, we heard the following statement from Turkey’s Minister of Justice, Abdülhamit Gül: "Let justice be served, though the world perishes. This is what we expect from judges, members of the judiciary.” It is remarkable that this ancient maxim – attributed to Ferdinand I, the successor of Charles V – is recalled by authorities today. In fact, my humble expectation is neither the doomsday to come nor the world’s perishing. It is, more simply, the implementation of the decisions of the ECtHR and Turkey’s Supreme Court, which are constitutional obligations and necessary to uphold human rights and the sanctity of human life.

I would like to thank each and every person whose presence I have felt by my side from the first moment I was detained and who has lent their support with letters, messages, prayers, and good wishes. If they want to find links to an “organisation”, the only address to be found is the honest academics and intellectuals of Turkey and the world with whom I feel honoured to work, activists who are trying to make the world a better place, my friends, relatives, my family, and my spouse.

With belief in righteousness, I will continue to pursue truth, reason, conscience, humanity, nature, and the common good for all living things, without hurting anyone, without losing intellectual integrity. We will definitely see that universal legal norms and values, and, of course, love, solidarity, and goodness have won.

Hope to see you on free days,

Cihan Erdal,

February 2021

Sincan F2 Prison, Ankara, Turkey

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