[Analysis] Death in prison: the case of 3 Turkish lawyers

In the aftermath of the coup attempt of July 2016, the Turkish government initiated a crackdown against actual or perceived members of the Gulen Movement which President Erdogan said was behind the coup attempt. To be exact, 332,884 have been arrested over their links to the Gülen movement, while more than 101,000 of those were put into pretrial detention. Of those 332,884, 116,702 people have so far been convicted of membership in a terrorist organization, while 115,714 are still being investigated or standing trial. Those arrested naturally included people with serious medical conditions.

The Turkish government used ill-treatment and torture at detention centres as an instrument to instil terror hoping those arrested would turn against each other and those who had any links, however small it might be, to report others to the government. This also caused public officials like judges, public prosecutors, police officers, prison staff, doctors etc who served as part of the Turkish prison service to either actively participate in the torture and ill-treatment of arrested victims at worst or at best to unlawfully ignore their suffering.

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Of course, lawyers are no exception to this crackdown.  Despite the unequivocal UN principle that  Lawyers shall not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions, more than 1600 lawyers have been arrested since  July 2016. The arrests were also made in clear breach of the Turkish Law on Attorneyship which prohibited the arrest of a lawyer save for instances of flagrante delicto529 lawyers have so far been sentenced to 3242 years in prison for trumped-up terrorism charges. The evidence against them often included nothing more than their client lists and “anonymous witness” statements.

Fethi Un was one such lawyer. He was a respected member of the Izmir Bar Association with more than 35 years of professional experience. In his own words “during 36 years as a lawyer, I acted for thousands of clients from different backgrounds and political views at the same desk in the same small office”.

His clientele however included one very significant person; Fethullah Gulen himself. Fethi Un had acted for Fethullah Gulen between 1989 and 1993 mainly in connection with his civil law matters. In a country where even the remotest members of Gulen’s extended family had been targeted, this would of course not go without punishment. He was arrested soon after the coup attempt but subsequently released by the court. But a few months later, in October 2016, a public prosecutor, acting upon an anonymous tip-off, sought his arrest. The climate of terror which Erdogan created was so fierce that neither he nor the judge who ordered his arrest was in a position to consider his case on grounds of criminality.  He was eventually arrested and taken into custody. At the time of his arrest, he was suffering from diabetes and chronic high blood pressure.

“… I was forced to share a one-person cell with 6 other people” he would later say during a court hearing.  “There were not enough beds and I was left to sleep on a blanket on the floor. I  had to eat food contrary to my dietary needs. My requests to order food from outside the police station were dismissed. My insulin pens went bad. I collapsed a few times. Only after my 3rd collapse, a doctor was called. We had no hot water during the 7 days I spent in the cell. There were always around 70 or 80 detainees in the detention centre where I was being held. All of those people had to use 2 toilets and a bathroom between themselves. It was all filth, stench, and infections”

Fethi Un after spending 4 days in such conditions was finally taken from the police station to the courthouse to be interviewed by the prosecutor and then to appear before a judge. But the prosecutor refused to interview him and asked him to be taken back to the police station.

“I was subjected to inhumane treatment for another 4 days after which they took me to the public prosecutor’s office, unwell and utterly exhausted,” he said before the Court.

Fethi Un’s ill-treatment did not end when he was finally detained by the court and sent to prison. He was made to share a 20-square metre cell designed for 5 inmates only with 11 other inmates.

His health deteriorated alarmingly. In July 2017, his lawyer almost begged the court:

“Your Honour, when my client was first taken into custody, he weighed 90 kilos. He barely weighs 60 kilos now. He is in extremely bad shape. He has been moved to Denizli Prison (some 250 kilometres away from Izmir), even though his case was being tried here (in Izmir). He was kept in solitary confinement for about 21 days. He says for 10 days he was only given dry bread for food. If the court orders to keep my client in prison, we believe what will be released from prison is only going to be his dead body.”

Izmir 13. Heavy Penal Court sentenced Fethi Un to 12 years in prison for membership in an armed terrorist organisation in 2017. Headlines of government media  that “12 years prison time to Fethullah Gulen’s lawyer” was an admission of the fact that he had been targeted only for representing Fethullah Gulen.  In 2020, the Court of Cassation upheld the decision.

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In late May, after almost exactly 5 years from his lawyer’s plea, Fethi Un suffered a brain haemorrhage in prison and died in hospital. The evidence against him consisted only of client files and an anonymous witness statement linking him to the Gulen Movement.

Unfortunately, he was not the only Turkish lawyer who died as a result of ill-treatment in prison. Murat Korkmaz from Aksaray, central Turkey, was already fitted with a pacer when he was imprisoned for being a member of the Gulen Movement. His heart was in such poor condition that he was taken from the prison he was being held in and underwent heart surgery in the hospital. After his surgery, however, he was taken back to prison where he would have to spend a total of 20 months in pre-trial detention. His health deteriorated rapidly and when he was finally released for treatment it was already too late. He succumbed to his heart condition shortly after.

Metin Yucel, a 51-year-old lawyer, died as a result of Covid-19 in Düzce prison in January 2021. He was a member of Bilecik Bar and was arrested in October 2016 as a part of a post-coup attempt crackdown. Despite an outcry from numerous human rights organisations as to the lack of precautions taken against the pandemic in Turkish prisons and calls on the Turkish government not to discriminate against political prisoners in the early parole bill dated April 2020 that was passed to reduce the prison population in the face of Covid-19 outbreak, lawyers, human rights defenders, journalist were excluded from the early parole possibility that led to the preventable death of lawyer Metin Yucel.

Their untimely deaths were totally preventable. Courts, law enforcement and prison officials and health authorities were either too oblivious to the gross human rights violations, including ill-treatment and torture, the detainees were subjected to, or they were actively involved in them.

The Turkish Bar Association (TBA) is also to blame. When in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt detainees were being systematically tortured in detention centres, Metin Feyzioglu, the president of the TBA, was quite busy doing Erdogan’s bidding on hastily arranged foreign trips, telling the international public that there was no torture as such. It is therefore not surprising that the only assistance the dead lawyers received from TBA was a copy of the Turkish Penal Code, which the prison authorities did not give them anyway.

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International human rights organisations should also be braver when it comes to defending the human rights of people persecuted for their links to the Gulen Movement. They will otherwise be discriminating between the victims of Erdogan’s reign of repression and persecution as already believed to be the case by so many.

Fethi Un, Murat Korkmaz and Metin Yucel were nothing but lawyers. They were unlawfully identified with their clients and targeted. They were arrested and whilst in detention treated -in late Fethi Un’s own words- “worse than an animal” and their lives were stolen.  Let us hope that no other prisoner shares the same fate.

 



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