The detention of Carleton Sociology PhD student Cihan Erdal (along with dozens of others) on September 25, 2020 in Istanbul as he was starting to carry out his doctoral research in his home country has focused attention for many on the extensive use of arbitrary detention in Turkey and around the world and its use to muzzle academic inquiry.
This seminar brings 5 speakers to focus both on the broader context of arbitrary detention and its threat to academic freedom and the specific case of Cihan Erdal, who is going to trial on April 26th for reposting two public (and legal) posts on his Facebook page more than 5 years ago.
Toute atteinte à la liberté académique mérite attention
Le 30 mars, une conférence en ligne fait le point sur les menaces pesant sur les libertés des universitaires en Turquie, en France et en Suisse.
Manifestation à Istanbul contre la nomination d’un nouveau recteur de l’Université de Boğaziçi par le gouvernement turc. Février 2021. Photo : Yasin Akgul/AFP
Peut-on légitimement appeler à la désobéissance civile quand on est professeur-e d’université? Cette question récemment posée dans le cadre de l’émission Forum de la RTS est révélatrice des débats qui entourent le rôle des universitaires dans l’espace public, à l’heure de la crise du climat et, plus récemment, de celle du Covid-19. Elle mobilise le milieu académique, qui y voit l’occasion de réfléchir à son rapport au politique tout en réaffirmant la nature intangible des libertés qui fondent la démarche scientifique. Et ce, au moment même où celles-ci font l’objet d’attaques frontales de la part de régimes autoritaires, notamment en Turquie.
Cihan Erdal, a Carleton doctoral student detained in Turkey since his arrest by Turkish police in September, is set to stand trial on April 26.
Erdal was detained on Sept. 25, 2020, while conducting fieldwork for his doctoral research and visiting family in Turkey.
Paul Champ, Erdal’s lawyer, said Erdal is accused of inciting terror and violence related to social media posts from 2014 and 2015. During that time, Erdal was serving as a student member of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) of Turkey, the country’s third-largest political party.
Turkish officials released an indictment in early January involving over 100 defendants which cited two Facebook posts made by Erdal as evidence that he had violated the unity and integrity of the state, Champ said.
In one of the posts, Erdal shared a link to a newspaper article about a man whose son was killed by Turkish forces in 2015, unrelated to the 2014 protests. The other post, which included a link to the People’s Party website, was made in September 2014.
In an open letter circulated in February, Erdal said that using the Facebook post as evidence “is not only a misdeed against [him] and [his] loved ones but also against Turkey’s future.”
Champ said Erdal is expected to stand trial with other defendants, as the Turkish government has been using similar tactics to charge other political opponents.
“Given that it’s such a complex matter involving so many different people, it’s really hard to say what the Turkish court will do,” Champ said.
“A tweet or even a Facebook post is a matter of free expression … unless the post is advocating for violent or criminal activity which was not the case here,” Champ said.
Omer Ongun, Erdal’s partner of 10 years, has been in contact with Erdal through his lawyers. Ongun said Erdal is “healthy, spiritually and physically” and was able to receive his books and school materials.
Ongun is currently working with the department of sociology and anthropology at Carleton to organize a conference on arbitrary detention and academic freedom, with a focus on Erdal’s case. Blair Rutherford, professor and chair of the department, told the Charlatan that the event is set for late March.
Ongun said he is hoping the conference brings attention to the academics, politicians, activists, and journalists imprisoned in Turkey whose human rights have been violated.
“Yes, I want to save Cihan but I also want to make sure that people understand and acknowledge that this is not only about Cihan,” Ongun said. “There [are] broader human rights implications to this.”
He also encouraged people to write a letter to their local members of Parliament and the Turkish Embassy. Ongun has also set up a GoFundMe fundraiser, which has raised $17,000 so far, to cover legal expenses and other supplies such as books and clothes for Erdal.
Steven Reid, Carleton’s media officer, said in an email that the university has “asked the Canadian government to send a consular official in order to send a clear message with respect to Canada’s position.”
Champ, who has been communicating with the Canadian government about Erdal’s case, said he is hoping Canada will issue a public statement to address the charges against Erdal and demand his release.
In his letter, Erdal said he is certain “that universal legal norms and values, and of course, love, solidarity and goodness” will prevail.
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 worldCihan ErdalÖmer OngunUmut Özsu15 March 2021, 10.27am
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.
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.
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.
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.
CH: The pressure is mounting on Turkey to release Cihan Erdal from prison. But the Canadian permanent resident learnt this week he will indeed face a criminal trial this spring. Mr. Erdal is a PhD student at Carleton University. Last September, he was in Istanbul visiting family and conducting research on youth uprisings when he was arrested and accused of inciting terrorism. While he waits for his court appearance, Mr. Erdal has kept busy behind bars with his academic research. In fact, he’s prepared presentations for two conferences this week in Brazil and Ottawa. His partner, Omer Ongun will be presenting his work in his absence. We reached Mr. Ongun in Ottawa.
CO: Omer, what does it tell you about Cihan that he is still working on his academic research while he is in prison?
OMER ONGUN: It doesn’t surprise me. That’s who he is — always making the best of his conditions. And he actually sent me a note and he says, “I will continue to work for the public good, seeking the truth, reason and justice without ever losing sight of intellectual integrity.” And that’s what he’s trying to do — producing, working, reading.
CO: It’s an irony that he is doing his research on his thesis, he is studying youth uprisings, and he’s in jail for his political activities.
OO: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s really interesting I will say, maybe in a sense shocking, to see that he has become the subject of his own research. He was really trying to understand peaceful protests, youth political participation of young people. Now he’s become that he’s behind the walls in prison. And I am doing my best, and I suddenly got pulled into this, so I am presenting on his behalf in different conferences. He’s not giving up. I’m not giving up.
CO: Well I guess you can’t go to these conferences, but you will be presenting his work.
OO: Yeah, I am actually presenting his work. I’m first studying it, I’m trying to understand. And there’s a conference this Thursday in Brazil, which I am presenting live on video. So that’s going to be also an interesting experience for me.
CO: When we spoke with you last September, you told us how Cihan called you in the middle of the night, he was in a panic, the police were banging on his door, they had come to arrest him. What have you learnt since about the accusations that he is facing?
OO: Four months after his initial arrest we finally have the indictments. He’s being criminally charged for fomenting disunity of the state. And this is really based on these two Facebook posts that he had on different dates. Those are just anti-war posts. His defence lawyers believe that actually Turkish authorities realised they could not directly connect him to any of these about the Kobani protests in tweets and letters. So therefore, they support his social media accounts or anything that could be viewed as subversive.
CO: In the fall that was the theory is that he was linked to a letter, simply a letter, written in 2014 that had called for the Turkish government to step out to help this Kurdish town of Kobani that they haven’t been able to tie him to even that, and now they have found some other things?
OO: Yeah, what they did is basically two Facebook posts and those are basically linked to news, to other webpages or articles that are vaguely critical of the governments on different dates. It has no connection with the Kobani protests. But it shows the arbitrariness of this arrest.
CO: Cihan was in solitary confinement at the beginning — horrible conditions, having inedible food served to him. Have things improved? Are his conditions any better?
OO: His conditions are better. He had to stay there for about a month, which was extremely worrying. We had to campaign a lot, write several petitions, and then he got out of that. He’s been receiving letters and books. Basically, Carleton University professors have been sending articles and materials. But we also had to fight for it because Turkish prison management basically told us that there is nobody here that speaks English. So we don’t know what these books are talking about, so they refused to give them to him. And then we were like, come on, right — you can do better. Finally, they did. And in fact, he’s been receiving tons of letters from all around the world, which keeps his morale high. So he’s in a much better condition at the moment.
CO: Cihan is your partner, but he is not recognised as your partner in Turkey. And does that mean that you can’t see him? You don’t have the visiting rights as a family member?
OO: This is also one of those things that we probably take for granted, because, I mean, here in Canada, we are a common law partner. He’s my spouse for 10 years. But now in Turkey, where he’s detained, I am not seen or I’m not recognised as his family member, so I’m not able to speak with him. The last time that I spoke with him was on that night in September.
CO: Oh my gosh. The reason why he was in Turkey at that time was to see his parents. He was worried about them. Are they able to see him and have contact with him?
OO: Yeah. They are over-60 farmers in the Greek border of Turkey, olive farmers. So you can imagine, right, this was a big shock to them. They were able to speak with him. They got pretty emotional at first, but now they’re really trying to stay strong. I talk to him every day and they really see me as their son right now, which is actually amazing.
CO: There are members of the European Parliament who have condemned Cihan’s imprisonment. He has support — as you say, letters coming from around the world, human rights organisations. Has the Canadian government helped?
OO: Global Affairs Canada has been monitoring. But unfortunately, they haven’t really condemned the arrest. We know they can do more. But I also want to mention this, some people also tell me, “Cihan is not a Canadian, right?” And then I say, well, it’s true that Canada has limited say in what happens to Cihan as he’s not a Canadian citizen — Canada should not approached us only as a consular matter, but as a human rights issue. Arbitrarily rounding up and arresting leaders of an opposition party, so we cannot say that this is outside of Canada’s interest because it goes against Canadian values.
CO: Do you think he is destined to become a Canadian citizen while he’s in prison in Turkey?
OO: He is. Because again, this is our chosen home. This is where we feel Canadian. So he is destined and he is aspiring to be a Canadian citizen.
CO: Omer I wish you success with presenting the work of your partner in that conference in Brazil. And I appreciate getting an update from you today. Thank you.
OO: Thank you so much for giving me the floor and the platform. Have a wonderful day.
CO: You too.
CH: Omer Ongun is the common law partner of Cihan Erdal, a Canadian permanent resident who’s been in a Turkish jail since September. We reached Mr. Ongun in Ottawa. In a statement, Global Affairs Canada said it was aware of Mr. Erdal’s detention and that Canada had, “raised concerns with Turkish authorities and continues to monitor the case closely.”