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Punishment for dissent begins with lengthy pretrial detention in Turkey

As the Turkish judiciary takes a summer recess, nearly 60,000 people remain behind bars as the trial process for political and terrorism-related charges drags on.
Silivri Prison complex is pictured in Silivri near Istanbul, Turkey, June 24, 2019. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir - RC1D23495C00

One month ago today, Yigit Aksakoglu was released from prison after being held on charges he’s still trying to understand.

The early childhood services advocate was taken into custody on Nov. 17, 2018, for “attempting to overthrow the government” during the 2013 Gezi Park protests, and was released on parole after seven months to continue his trial, in which he faces a life sentence without possibility of parole.

“I was picked up for no reason, that’s the only way I can explain it,” Aksakoglu told Al-Monitor.

Aksakoglu was included in a 657-page indictment along with 15 other defendants including prominent Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala in what would become known as the Gezi Trials. The group was charged with organizing and financing the 2013 protests that prosecutors claim sought to topple President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party.

Initially detained without charges, Aksakoglu only became aware of the accusations four months into his detention. The Gezi indictment was unsealed in March 2019 – by which time Kavala had been in pretrial detention for 16 months. As he gets back to normal life, Aksakoglu maintains he was lucky to be released and that many detainees remain in Turkish prisons with neither charges nor convictions.

“Time passes by in prison and there is not a moment that you aren’t thinking about when you will be released,” Aksakoglu said, adding he was held in solitary confinement with daytime access to a “nine-step-by-nine-step” outdoor courtyard.

“I lived in shock for the first 50 days or so,” Aksakoglu continued. “But then I established a routine. I read four or five newspapers a day. I read work-related stuff. … I played my ukulele at least an hour every day. I exercised every day at least an hour.”

Aksakoglu’s time in prison highlights the growing use of lengthy and arbitrary pretrial detention in Turkey. Though the practice is not new and international courts and human rights groups have long condemned its liberal application by Turkish courts, extended pretrial detentions have increased dramatically following the mass purges ongoing since a 2016 coup attempt.

Now, as the Turkish judiciary begins its summer recess, from July 20 to Aug. 31, about 58,000 people remain imprisoned in Turkey without charges or convictions, according to Ministry of Justice data from November 2018 analyzed by the Turkish Human Rights Association. Several high-priority cases will continue during the period, but most others have been postponed until after the break.

The broad use of prolonged pretrial detention, particularly in cases involving politically motivated terrorism charges, has raised concerns that it's become a form of summary punishment in post-coup Turkey.

“Just by saying you are arrested on suspicion of being part of a terrorist organization, that’s such a strong charge that justifies the court’s argument to keep people inside and keep renewing their detention every month,” Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey director for Human Rights Watch, told Al-Monitor.

Normally, pretrial detention is reserved for cases in which there is reasonable suspicion a person is guilty, poses a threat to society or in which the defendant might flee the country, tamper with evidence or interfere with witnesses. While the European Court of Human Rights recommends countries restrict the period of pretrial detention to 18 months, in Turkey, a defendant charged with high-level crimes can be legally held up to seven years without conviction or acquittal.

Such a judicial device can easily lend itself to abuse in an arena like Turkey, where one-fifth of the prison population – 48,924 of 246,426 – is charged with or convicted of terrorism-related offenses, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Sinclair-Webb said the problem is compounded by the “bogus charges” applied to some political cases, and criticism of faulty evidence can go unheard in the courtroom.

“We talk about hearings, but there is no hearing going on,” Sinclair-Webb said. “Nobody listens to all the arguments that are made and then the detention is just continued.”

She added, “In theory, every 30 days you can have your detention looked at … but [the court] mostly ticks the box and rubber-stamps the continuation order. It’s not a proper assessment.”

The streamlining of such procedures, introduced to increase the capacity for cases handled in the post-coup period, has had grave impacts on some detainees. Ziya Ataman, a Kurdish journalist with the now-shuttered Dicle News Agency (DIHA), had critical health problems when he was taken into custody in April 2016 and has received limited medical attention, according to his attorney Baris Oflas.

Ataman was apprehended on terror-related charges linking him to a Kurdistan Workers Party attack on Turkish security forces in 2015. Ataman has denied the allegations, and his lawyer said the witness who made the accusation later said he had been forced to testify through torture and pressure. For more than three years, Ataman has remained behind bars without conviction as he suffers from a digestive tract condition in which growths hinder the function of his intestines.

Though Ataman was allowed to visit a hospital for an examination in 2017, Oflas said he has yet to receive the results, much less the necessary treatment for his condition. Speculating on Ataman’s prolonged detention period, Oflas said state officials were seeking collective punishment for the deaths of two Turkish soldiers in the 2015 attack.

“The state has taken a special interest in this case and they are looking for scapegoats; they are looking for someone to punish to make an example,” Oflas told Al-Monitor.

Seda Taskin, also a former DIHA journalist, was imprisoned in January 2018 and released nearly a year later. She was first taken into custody in December 2017 in Mus, where she was on assignment for the Mezopotamya News Agency.

Charged with “aiding a terrorist organization” and “making news that could motivate and give moral support to the members of the organization,” Taskin said she was subjected to physical and psychological torture while in detention.

“I had a panic attack my first day in prison,” Taskin told Al-Monitor. “I was cold, hungry and held in dirty room with no windows or air flow.”

After her release, she continues to attend hearings and was acquitted of the charge of “aiding a terrorist organization” in May, but sentenced to nearly two years in prison for making terrorist propaganda. Her case continues in the Court of Cassation. She views the trial as an intimidation tactic.

“The long pretrial detentions of journalists are an attempt to discourage them,” Taskin said. “The courts in Turkey right now are very much like theaters. They allow the trials just to keep tradition. I don’t think the judges or prosecutors listen to our defenses because they arrive to the courtroom with their decisions made in advance.”

State officials have said they are currently working on a “Judicial Reform Strategy” that would help Turkey move its long-stalled European Union accession process forward. As human rights advocates await further details, some have voiced concerns the reforms might be limited to misdemeanors and lower-profile cases while terrorism-related cases continue under the current parameters.

Meanwhile, Aksakoglu is slowly getting back to work for his employer, the Bernard van Leer Foundation. He said he’s enjoying time with his children, friends and the “open air.” As his trial continues, Aksakoglu remains under judicial control, meaning he has to sign in at a police station once a week and is restricted from traveling abroad.

He remains hopeful that the proposed reforms might bring about improvements, but noted that change will not come overnight. Still, he said reforms are not needed to end unjust detentions.

“If we don’t have trust in justice, then we lose everything,” Aksakoglu said.

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