CBC Radio · Posted: Feb 24, 2021 6:23 PM ET
OTTAWA STUDENT TURKEY
Guest: Omer Ongun
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.”