Carleton student Cihan Erdal now detained in Turkey for three months

December 23, 2020

Camille Vinet

In October 2014, protesters in dozens of cities and towns in Turkey tried to pressure the government into acting against Islamic State militants in Kobani, a Kurdish town in Syria. Police and demonstrators clashed violently. Among those thought to be involved were opposition political parties such as the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Six years later, on Sept. 25, 2020, Carleton University PhD student and Canadian permanent resident Cihan Erdal was arrested in Turkey, along with 81 others, for his involvement in HDP at the time of the 2014 violence.

With the actual charges against him still unclear three months later, supporters in Canada are pushing to get him freed.

Erdal’s partner, Omer Ongun, close friends and family have set up a website campaigning for his release, and a letter-writing event took place Dec. 20 to send letters of love and support to Erdal in his Turkish jail cell.

Carleton University was one of the first institutions to denounce Erdal’s arrest and demand his immediate release. Since then, petitions have started, such as one at Change.org, and more than 40 organizations, including the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Association (OCUFA) and Amnesty International, have condemned his arrest and demanded his release. However, the Canadian government has said little about the case.

Omer Ongun (left) and Cihan Erdal (right) have been together for 10 years. Ongun is working for the release and safe return of his partner. [Photo ©NOW, an organization cofounded by Omer Ongun/provided courtesy of Omer Ongun]

According to Ongun, he and Erdal travelled to Turkey in July to visit Erdal’s family. Erdal then stayed to work on his thesis, which centred on the experiences of young activists, with a specific focus on the cities of Athens, Istanbul and Paris. Ongun said neither of them felt at risk during their travels.  

“We felt very secure and safe. We didn’t necessarily think about any risks, because, you know, he had nothing right, like no calls from the police, nothing right? He never thought of any risks.”

Ongun described Erdal as a kind, non-violent person and said his partner would never condone violence. “He really showed up as this gentle soul, wouldn’t hurt anyone, never assertive or opinionated, always open to differences, different people, extremely empathetic, very romantic I should say, and very emotional at times.” 

He also said Erdal was a member of the HDP at the time of the 2014 protests but was not very involved in the party. The Turkish government cracked down on the party with unusual severity, said Ongun, an indication of the country’s increasingly authoritarian leadership. 

Abram Lutes, vice-president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees 4600 (CUPE 4600),  which represents Carleton University’s teaching assistants, said the union has been involved in pushing for Erdal’s freedom because Erdal was a TA.

“He was held in solitary until his hearing, went back in solitary for a few days but they finally moved him to a portion of the prison, where he is being held. He has a roommate basically, like a cellmate, he is allowed to receive mail and he does get some exercise and things like that.”

Chart: Camille Vinet Source: Freedom House Get the data Created with Datawrapper

Here’s how Turkey stacks up in terms of political freedoms and civil rights in relation to its close geographic neighbours, according to Freedom House. In comparison, Canada scores 40 on political rights, and 58 on civil liberties. Turkey is ranked, overall, as “not free.”

Freedom House is an American organization that researches and reports on issues related to political rights, civil liberties, and democracy. It scores countries on metrics such as how they are governed; the conditions of political rights and civil liberties in that area; whether or not the territory’s boundaries are stable enough to allow assessment; if it can be expected to remain stable in the foreseeable future; and if the territory is large or politically significant. Turkey, the organization concluded, was “not free,” and was ranked overall in the bottom one-third of 100 countries studied.

According to Amnesty International’s report on Turkey and human rights, Turkey has been cracking down on real and perceived dissent since 2019, even after the end of a state of emergency. Criminal prosecutions and investigations have taken place under anti-terrorism laws to silence dissent even when there is no evidence of wrongdoing.

Cihan Erdal has been detained for almost three months in Turkey and needs Canada’s help to come home. [Photo ©Fidel Kılıç/provided courtesy of Omer Ongun]

According to Amnesty, journalists, human rights activists, scholars and politicians have been affected by the crackdown. There have also been credible allegations of torture and mistreatment of detainees.

Blair Rutherford, chair of Carleton University’s anthropology and sociology department, where Erdal was doing his studies, said there are many things the community can do to help.

“Continue to send notes and emails to your MPs to make sure that they are aware. It doesn’t matter if they are a Liberal MP, Conservative, NDP, Green, Bloc, the pressure right now needs to be placed on the Canadian government to make sure they put the pressure on the Turkish government.” 

Lutes said that, while it is hard to help people who are not Canadian citizens, it is important that Canada set a precedent of helping a permanent resident such as Erdal in the context of human rights violations.

Global Affairs Canada spokesman Jason Kung said in an email that 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.” Kung said the department had “nothing further to add” in response to Capital Current’s questions.

Lutes said he wished the federal government were more transparent about what it is doing to help Erdal regain his freedom. 

When the government does not provide any information on it is doing other than “monitoring the situation,” Lutes said, it usually means the government is not doing much.

Find more information about the letter-writing event to help Erdal here.

With files from Capital Current staff.

Turkey: Politicians, lawyers, activists targeted in new wave of mass arrests – Amnesty International

October 26, 2020

Index number: EUR 44/3221/2020

Since mid-September, Turkish police carried out largescale dawn raids across Turkey in which dozens of politicians, political activists, lawyers, and other civil society actors were detained under “terrorism”-related charges. The raids are the latest wave in what has become a routine practice by law enforcement authorities with a significant adverse impact on the exercise of human rights, deepening the climate of fear and repression across the country. Amnesty International is deeply concerned that continuing abusive investigations, arbitrary detentions and unfounded prosecutions under broadly defined anti-terrorism laws further erode the right to a fair trial and would result in the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of people who have been peacefully exercising their human rights in Turkey.


Choose a language to view the Amnesty report (PDF format):

Click here to read the report on Amnesty’s website.

Turkish academic in Canada caught up in Ankara’s anti-Kurdish sweep – Al Monitor

Oct 28, 2020

Amberin Zaman

@amberinzaman

Cihan Erdal, a promising Turkish academic at Canada’s Carleton University with an unshakeable faith in his country’s future, never imagined he would mark his 32nd birthday away from his loved ones in a dark prison cell in the Turkish capital, Ankara, facing a potential life sentence.

Erdal, who is openly gay, is among 20 politicians, lawyers and civil society activists who were detained in nationwide raids Sept. 25 over alleged terror links.

Many were from the left-leaning and Kurdish-friendly Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The group has been the target of years of intense judicial pressure buttressed by the unremitting and very vocal vilification of its members by Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Many of the HDP’s top leaders, including former co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, and multiple popularly elected mayors are behind bars on a panoply of thinly evidenced charges that they are acting in concert with outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels.

HDP officials believe the detentions are part of a broader government effort to lay the ground for banning their party and that like countless other arbitrarily detained innocents, Erdal was caught in the judicial dragnet.

Erdal was in Istanbul where he was carrying out research for his doctoral dissertation on youth-led social movements in Europe when anti-terror police burst into his rental flat at 9 a.m. and hauled him away in his shorts and sandals, not letting him bring any personal belongings, not even a toothbrush. They took him to the Ankara prosecutor’s notorious Bureau of Investigation for Terror Crimes, where he was held in solitary confinement in a windowless room for three days before being transferred to Ankara’s Sincan maximum security prison to await trial.

“It was Cihan’s first experience of jail, and to kick it off in a maximum security facility was pretty unsettling for him, as you can well imagine. Jail is a very frightening and often brutal place for LGBT people in Turkey,” said Levent Piskin, a prominent LGBT activist and one of three lawyers representing Erdal in Turkey. “Fortunately, he has not been subjected to any physical ill-treatment so far.”

After three weeks of persistent nagging, lawyers secured Erdal’s transfer to a less restrictive wing where he shares a cell with two other inmates and has access to TV and some reading materials. He has started teaching English to one of them.

The latest sweep is connected to the prosecution’s case against the alleged instigators of bloody demonstrations that erupted in October 2014 in response to the government’s perceived indifference to the siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani on the Turkish border by the Islamic State. At least 37 people, some 33 of them HDP sympathizers, died in the orgy of violence that ripped through towns and cities in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast region. Hundreds of others, including policemen, were wounded during the unrest that unfolded as the Turkish government was in secret peace talks with the PKK.

According to the Ankara chief prosecutor’s public statement, HDP co-chairs and members of its executive committee had provoked the violence by calling on people to take to the streets and support the demonstrators via social media.

Most of the people arrested Sept. 25 were serving on the HDP’s executive committee during the Kobani incidents in 2014. Erdal was among them. He had been drafted from Turkey’s burgeoning Green Movement as the HDP sought to expand its platform beyond the Kurdish issue and win support across Turkey. The strategy paid off. The HDP won seats in parliament for the first time in the June 2015 elections, robbing Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) of its parliamentary majority, with millions of non-Kurds voting for the charismatic Demirtas. His success proved his undoing. Erdogan decisively pulled the plug on peace talks with the PKK. A 2½-year cease-fire with the rebels fell apart. The assault on the HDP began in earnest in the wake of the failed July 2016 coup. Demirtas and Yuksekdag were jailed soon after and deluged with a cocktail of outlandish charges. Thousands of fellow HDP members and sympathizers remain behind bars on similar grounds of aiding and abetting terrorists.

Erdal relinquished his HDP duties in 2015 and moved to Canada in 2017. He has steered clear of politics ever since. Erdal’s detention has received wide media coverage in Canada. More than 2,500 academics worldwide, including famed scholars Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler, have signed a petition demanding the Canadian government support his release. Diplomatic sources argue, however, that since Erdal does not hold Canadian citizenship, there is little the Canadian authorities can do to press his case.

“We were planning to get married next year,” said Omer Ongun, a dancer turned consultant who was the first of the pair to move to Canada for work. The couple has been together for 11 years. “Now the whole world knows,” the 33-year-old told Al-Monitor in a Skype interview.

He said Erdal had no qualms about returning to visit his parents and do fieldwork for his dissertation despite the cloak of repression enveloping Turkey. “He believes there’s a better future for Turkey where people of different ethnicities and creeds can co-habit peacefully. He’s never given up and he won’t; we won’t,” said Ongun.

“I know Erdal, and he was one of the most naive people in the party; he wouldn’t hurt a fly,” said Garo Paylan, an HDP lawmaker. This is literally true, according to Erdal’s father, Gurhan, who grows olives in their native province of Manisa and calls Ongun “my third son.”

“When Cihan helped out on the farm, he would not allow me to use pesticides, saying ‘those insects are living beings too, father.’ My boy is gold,” he told Al-Monitor.

The investigation has been slapped with a secrecy order, thereby restricting lawyers’ access to the files. But Piskin said the substance of Erdal’s interrogation suggests the case against him rests on his membership of the committee and a tweet he had posted with the hashtag #Kobaniisresisting. Piskin told Al-Monitor the case was “full of holes.” If he had committed a crime, why had it taken prosecutors six years to come up with the charges against him? Erdal had already been interrogated once in 2015 over his HDP connections, and no charges were brought against him at the time.

Like many, Paylan is convinced the Kobani charges are being resurrected in order to paralyze the HDP in the run-up to presidential and parliamentary elections that are due to be held in 2023. Should the party fail to scale the minimum 10% of national votes needed to win seats in parliament, this would give Erdogan and the AKP a comfortable majority and lessen their current dependency on the nationalists. “They want to annihilate us; it’s clear,” Paylan said. He and six fellow HDP lawmakers are facing prosecution over the Kobani riots as well. Prosecutors have initiated steps to strip them of their parliamentary immunity.

Others argue the government wants to shut the HDP down altogether. Proving the party was involved in violence would make any closure easier to justify — that is, assuming the government would even bother to.

Prosecutors have yet to draw up an indictment, and no trial date has been set.

“This is another case of the prosecutor’s office in Ankara taking down from the shelf a dusty folder that is about an investigation launched into these protests about the Kobani siege in October 2014 that the AKP has instrumentalized constantly against the HDP, especially against Demirtas. It’s the pretext under which Demirtas is currently held under detention,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director for Human Rights Watch.

“In calling for people to express solidarity with the Kurds of Kobani, to be critical of the government policy on Kobani and expressing that democratic right to protest, it’s very clear that Demirtas and the HDP were not calling for violence,” she told Al-Monitor.

“Yet the prosecution presumes that a political party that made this call could have foreseen that this would turn very violent and then holds the party responsible for armed separatism, inciting crime, murder, everything. The lie in all of this is that you are saying the people who called for demonstrations were actually responsible for murder,” Sinclair-Webb added.

The arbitrary nature of the case was on full display when Ayhan Bilgen, a former HDP lawmaker, became the last big-city mayor to be effectively ousted from office when he was detained in the Sept. 25 sweep. Bilgen, who stepped down as co-mayor of the eastern city of Kars in the wake of his arrest, had spent several months in pre-trial detention on the exact same charges — acting under the orders of the PKK to stoke violence over Kobani. The constitutional court struck them down, ordering the state to compensate Bilgen for his unlawful detention. “This is how they compensated him,” Paylan said.

Bilgen and Erdal are now neighbors in the same block of cells. On Oct. 22, the sound of Bilgen’s voice filled the air as he sang a happy birthday song for Erdal. “He has a lovely voice,” Erdal wrote in a letter to Ongun, his first from prison, that was relayed by a common friend from Turkey today.

Activists call for release of Carleton doctoral student detained in Turkey – The Charlatan

By Safiyah Marhnouj – October 21, 2020 

Professors and activists are calling for the release of Cihan Erdal, a Carleton doctoral candidate who was detained in Turkey last month. 

Erdal was detained in the early morning of Sept. 25, along with 16 other politicians, academics and activists. He was in Turkey visiting family and conducting fieldwork for his doctoral research on youth-led social movements. 

According to a statement released by the department of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University, the ongoing investigation surrounds a series of tweets posted on October 6, 2014, while Erdal was serving as a student member of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) of Turkey. Erdal’s lawyers have confirmed this statement.  

The tweets—allegedly sent out by the executive committee of the HDP following an executive meeting—were urging people to join demonstrations calling on the Turkish government to assist the Kurdish town of Kobani, which was under attack by ISIS.  

In an open letter published in the Ottawa Citizen on Oct. 7., Jacqueline Kennelly, a professor in the department of sociology and anthropology and Erdal’s doctoral supervisor, said Erdal was “neither present nor aware of the decision to send out these tweets.”

Kennelly added that although Erdal was serving as a student member of the HDP at the time, he was never a major player in the party and has not lived in Turkey or been active in Turkish politics since 2017. 

In an interview with the Charlatan, Kennelly said she was shocked when she first heard of Erdal’s arrest after receiving an email from his partner, Ömer Ongun.

“Horror. Disbelief. Anger. Fear. To be honest, I read [his email] and teared up. It was such an awful, unexpected, and terrifying thing to read about.” — Jaqueline Kennelly, professor in the department of sociology and anthropology

Kennelly said that immediately after finding out, the department of sociology and anthropology put out a statement condemning Turkey’s actions, and has been providing updates on Erdal’s situation. 

While Kennelly said the school has been supportive—including sending a letter to Global Affairs Canada—Erdal’s status as a permanent resident complicates steps the government can take.

“Consular services are only available for citizens, so we’re trying to work around that and continue putting pressure on the Canadian government to support Cihan, despite the fact that he does not yet have Canadian citizenship,” she said. 

Ongun, Erdal’s partner who is currently living and working in Ottawa, said he hasn’t spoken to Erdal since a phone call he received from him while being detained on Sept. 25. 

“He basically gave me a call and he says, ‘they’re at my door, they’re taking me away, and I love you, please reach out to my school and let everybody know this is what’s happening here,’” Ongun said. 

Since then, Ongun said he has only received communication from Erdal through his lawyers. 

While detained, Erdal is only allowed to speak to his immediate family, which does not include Ongun. Despite being together for 10 years, Ongun said he and Erdal are not recognized as spouses under Turkey’s same-sex marriage laws. 

Following a hearing on Oct. 2 in Ankara, Turkey, Ongun said Erdal is currently in solitary confinement in prison awaiting trial. 

“Neither the police nor the prosecutor nor the judge really listened to his statements. They sent him to prison right away,” Ongun said, adding that Erdal wasn’t allowed to take any clean clothes or money with him. 

Hijaab Yahya, a fourth-year law and legal studies student and co-president of Carleton University Students for Scholars at Risk, has been working to increase awareness and campaign against Erdal’s detainment.

Carleton University has reached out to the Turkish embassy and ambassador to advocate for Erdal’s return. [Photo By: Saarah Rasheed]

“We need to increase recognition of this issue among other departments and faculties across Carleton. The lack of recognition and action from various departments is discouraging,” Yahya said in an email.

Yahya encouraged those who want to show support to write a letter to their local Members of Parliament and the Turkish embassy. She said she’s hopeful that efforts like these can bring more attention to Erdal’s situation. 

Steven Reid, Carleton’s media relations officer, said in an email that the university has been engaging with the Canadian government to assist towards Erdal’s release. 

The university has also reached out to the Turkish embassy in Canada, the Canadian embassy in Turkey and the office of Foreign Affairs minister Francois Philippe-Champagne. 

Reid added the school will continue to monitor the case and advocate for Erdal’s return to Canada. 

Although Ongun said he is thankful for the support from the department of sociology and anthropology, the school and members of the community, he’s hoping to see more concrete and public actions taken by Carleton. 

“The question for Carleton University right now is what will they do to make sure they evaluate their relationship with Turkish universities and the relationship with some of the funding that might be coming from Turkish resources,” he said.

“When these rallies for freedom of speech and democracy or the safety of their researchers and academics are under threat, where is the university’s stance on this?” Ongun added.

Lawyer urges government to press Turkey on detained Carleton student – CBC News

Cihan Erdal, 32, in solitary confinement at detention centre in Ankara

Oct 24, 2020

Cihan Erdal, a 32-year-old PhD candidate at Carleton University and a permanent resident of Canada, is being held at a detention centre in Ankara, Turkey. (Submitted by Ömer Ongun)

The lawyer for a Carleton University PhD student in solitary confinement in Turkey says he hopes the Canadian government will raise the matter with Turkish authorities.

“Canada does have the right to make inquiries or ask questions of Turkish authorities in a situation like this, where it appears that there may be fundamental human rights at risk,” said Paul Champ, Cihan Erdal’s lawyer. 

Erdal, a 32-year-old PhD candidate at Carleton and a permanent resident of Canada, was taken to a detention centre in the Turkish capital, Ankara, in late September. Erdal was in Turkey in August to check on his parents during the pandemic, and stayed a few more weeks to conduct his doctoral field research.

He was among dozens of people across Turkey named in warrants and arrested on Sept. 25.

“Cihan is a loved member of the Ottawa community and … we’d love to have him home.” – Paul Champ, Cihan Erdal’s lawyer

“Many of the people in prison with him right now are elected officials — mayors, parliamentarians — and so Canada can reach out in those kind of circumstances and ask questions and [raise] concerns about the reasons for his arrest,” said Champ.

Allegations against the detainees relate to a letter written in 2014, which called on the Turkish government to step in to help the Kurdish town of Kobani, in Syria, at the height of ISIS attacks. The Turkish government accuses the signatories of supporting demonstrations that ensued in 2014, as people filled the streets to protest the Turkish military’s inaction.

Champ said he doesn’t know for sure what Global Affairs Canada has done in Erdal’s case, if anything.

Ömer Ongun, left, poses with his partner Erdal in this submitted photo. Erdal was among dozens of people named in warrants and arrested on Sept. 25. (Submitted by Ömer Ongun)

“Even when it’s a Canadian citizen abroad, I don’t always know exactly what the Canadian officials are doing,” he said. “It’s very sensitive obviously, because it deals with sovereignty of another nation, and Canada doesn’t want to overstep and make the situation worse.”

In September, Global Affairs Canada told CBC it was aware of Erdal’s detention, and said “Canadian officials continue to monitor this case closely.”

In an email response to CBC Thursday, Global Affairs said it “has raised concerns with Turkish authorities,” but did not expand on exactly what officials have done.

WATCH | Federal government could make inquiries, says lawyer:

How Canada may be able to help a Carleton PhD student detained in Turkey

Paul Champ, lawyer for Carleton PhD candidate Cihan Erdal, says the federal government could make inquiries about why Erdal has been detained in Turkey. 1:06

Erdal ‘doing much better,’ says partner

“It’s very difficult. You feel like you’re outside of the prison, but you’re somehow in a different prison,” said Erdal’s partner Ömer Ongun, a permanent resident living in Ottawa. Ongun hasn’t been able to see or speak to his partner since he was detained. 

“It’s day 27 behind bars,” said Ongun on Wednesday, explaining that Erdal is waiting for a trial without formal charges being presented to him.

WATCH | Professors, activists are calling for the release of Carleton student:

Ottawa community calls for release of Carleton student detained in Turkey

Professors and activists are calling for the release of Cihan Erdal, a Carleton doctoral candidate who was detained in Turkey last month. CBC News spoke with Erdal’s partner, Omer Ongun. 

Ongun said Erdal’s parents were able to visit him this week, and brought back news that he’s doing better than earlier. He said Erdal was able to receive newspapers and a few books. 

“He’s doing much better mentally, but of course the conditions are challenging.”

He said Erdal is “receiving a lot of respect” from guards at the detention centre. “He said they’re calling him ‘professor,'” Ongun said.

Champ said the next step is getting Canadian authorities or the ambassador in Ankara to get involved.

“Hopefully [get them] just asking questions and reinforcing with Turkish authorities that Cihan is a loved member of the Ottawa community and that we’d like him home,” said Champ.

With files from CBC’s Adrian Harewood and Priscilla Hwang