Ottawa Citizen, February 22, 2021
A Carleton University PhD student arrested while visiting Turkey last year will stand trial in April on charges stemming from protests in Turkey in 2014, his common-law partner says.
Cihan Erdal, 32, was detained on Sept. 25, 2020 along with 16 others, after Turkish officials accused the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) of Turkey — in which Erdal was once a high-ranking member — of urging people to take part in protests across Turkey in 2014 that left 37 people dead.
Erdal, a permanent resident in Canada, is accused of inciting terror and violence. Conviction for this crime carries a life sentence, but Erdal is adamant he is innocent.
In a letter obtained by this newspaper Monday, he says he has been subject to “completely unlawful and baseless allegations” for “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 specific evidence for his charges, which wasn’t made clear until January, cites two social media posts by Erdal, which his partner, Omer Ongun, says have no connection to the 2014 protests.
Last month, several members of the European Parliament released a statement urging the Turkish government to release Erdal, along with other political prisoners.
“It is beyond absurdity that he is facing an indictment calling for 38 counts of aggravated life sentence based on the evidence of two tweets, while Cihan was only trying to make Turkey a better place. We ask for his immediate release and call for an end to this travesty of justice,” their statement reads.
The Canadian government has not made a similar public statement.
According to Ongun, Erdal joined the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) of Turkey – the third largest official party in the Turkish government – in 2014 as a youth member of the party’s central executive committee. He stayed in that role for a year, working as a representative of youth, LGBTQ and the green movement, before resigning in 2015 to focus on academics. Erdal came to Canada in 2017.
He was visiting family in Turkey and researching his thesis on youth-led social movements when he was arrested in September.
Ongun said he awoke to a phone call from Erdal on the night of the arrest.
“He’s like ‘Police are at my door, they’re taking me away. I love you and just do whatever you can. I need your support,’ ” Ongun recalled.
Ongun said Erdal was held in solitary confinement for 21 days, with no access to the outside world, no books or school materials and was served unsanitary food. “It was just a torture for 21 days,” Ongun said.
Ongun said he’s only been able to communicate to Erdal through letters or via lawyers. Phone calls are reserved for family members and Turkey doesn’t recognize same-sex partnership. In his own latest letter, Erdal says he has always been against violence “in all its forms and layers. As such, “I find it disgraceful for law and justice that I am subjected to terrifying accusations regarding a painful incident of violence.”
Since his partner was detained, Ongun has petitioned friends, family, lawyers and the academic community for support. More than 20 organizations have issued statements of solidarity demanding that Turkish authorities release Erdal, among them the Middle East Studies Association of North America and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents teaching assistants and contract instructors at Carleton University.
Ongun has set up a website dedicated to freeing Erdal and a GoFundMe page which has raised over $16,000 towards legal fees and the purchase of books and clean clothes for Erdal, who is currently imprisoned in Sincan F2 Prison in Ankara, Turkey’s capital.
Ongun said Canadian government intervention appears tricky, since Erdal is only a permanent resident, not yet a full citizen.
“Nevertheless, Cihan is a Canadian,” he said. “This is our home.”
In an email statement, Global Affair Canada spokesperson Jason Kung said the department is aware of the detention of a Canadian permanent resident in Turkey.
“Canada has raised concerns with Turkish authorities and continues to monitor this case closely,” he said. He declined to respond to other questions.
Ongun said the government has contacted Erdal’s lawyer in Canada. Still, Ongun said Erdal’s case deserves more attention – especially since Erdal’s April 26 trial is not far off.
“It’s unclear if the Canadian embassy in Ankara will actually be observing the trial,” Ongun said. “We just want Canada to ask questions, to make inquiries and to observe the trial.”
“We know Turkish courts will make the decision, but we need Canada to remind its NATO allies that this is not right, that this is all arbitrary and unlawful.”
Ongun said he also wants Global Affairs to assign Erdal a consular officer. Global Affairs did not answer questions regarding consular representation.
Blair Rutherford, chair of Carleton University’s anthropology and sociology department, where Erdal was studying, said the best thing Canadians can do right now is write to politicians.
“(People need to) send an email to their member of Parliament and ask them to demand the Canadian government have very strong conversations with the Turkish government to try to free Cihan,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford’s department at Carleton condemned Turkey for its actions in an official statement on the day Erdal was detained.
“It’s crazy that he’s been detained for more than five months on something as innocuous as posting Facebook posts,” Rutherford said.