A Look Into the Turkish Justice System Through the Broken Glasses of a Teacher

On the night of the attempted coup in 2016, the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan – without any official investigation had been completed, has accused the members of the Gulen Movement of trying to overthrow the government. This accusation against a large group of civilians has not been accepted to be true by any of the international organizations since then because the Turkish government has failed to provide hard evidence. Even though there isn’t any hard evidence, the Turkish government has been committing many systemic human rights abuses against the members of this group (and many other groups) such as torture, social death through firing them from their jobs, and unlawful imprisonment. My job is not to argue the innocence of the Gulen Movement as a whole but I am arguing for the right of an individual to a fair trial – which has not been the case in Turkey for a long time now. The human rights abuses that have been committed by the Turkish government have all been documented by international human rights watch organizations such as Amnesty International and HRW.

Almost a month after the attempted coup, the previous governor of Istanbul, Kadir Topbaş came up with a horrifying idea: a separate graveyard called the “Graveyard for Traitors” which would be reserved for members of the Gulen movement. Topbaş suggested that all members of this organization should be buried in a Grave of Traitors while withholding their rights to a religious burial. To provide some context, the accused were mostly teachers, government officials, students, and even homemakers who had no idea about what was happening. We will come back to this horrifying concept of a graveyard later in the post.

A photo of the Graveyard for Traitors. This was not only an idea, the government made sure that it became reality.

It was a  few days after the attempted coup when history teacher Gökhan Açıkkollu was fired from his position through an unlawful decree. A day later, the police came to his home and handcuffed him from his behind pushing him to the floor. The building manager was present at this point because he had unlocked the door for the police. His family was not present in the house.

While the cops were pushing him to the floor on his back, Açıkkollu went into diabetic shock. The police then applied an insulin shot but kept on brutally beating him up in that position, continuing with their questioning. At that point, the building manager told the police to take Açıkkollu to the police station instead of torturing him there because he could not stand watching what was happening. The police continued beating him up as they took him into the police car. There are reports of abuse and torture in his official health report as well as the first hand account from the building manager.

History teacher Gökhan Açıkkollu with his students

His wife Tülay Açıkkollu called police stations for the next four days demanding to know where her husband was taken but the reply was the same each time: “We can’t provide you with any information at this moment.” At the end of the fourth day, she was informed that Gökhan was at a police station in Istanbul. Later she learns that Gökhan was sent to the hospital because he got into more diabetic shocks during his time in the cell. The doctors gave a report stating that he can go back to his cell each time. In the next few days, he got panic attacks many times but each time he was sent back to the cell where he stayed with 4 others in a small room with three beds. A forensic specialist who was also in the same cell at the time reports that Gökhan would be taken out of the cell and brought back 8 hours later, severely beaten up. A lawyer who was also present in the cell reports that Gökhan cried on his shoulder many times in those 13 days they shared the cell. The cell mates gave a statement saying that they want to officially witness to the torture but the courts did not accept their statements. The case was closed.

One night, Gökhan gets a heart attack and even though everyone in the cell pleads to the guards, the guards do not take him to the hospital or provide any help for more than 30 minutes. Later he is taken out of the cell by the guards when he shows no sign of life. The surveillance camera records all of this.

A screenshot from the video recording that shows the last moments of Gökhan Açıkkollu. The guards did not help him for more than 30 minutes as he had a heart attack in his cell.

His family is later called to the forensic lab so they can take his body for the burial.

Human life is always simple for the torturers and their enablers -the judges, the medical staff, the guards, the media, and anyone else who stayed silent. They all took a part in an innocent teacher’s death.

Gökhan’s glasses were broken during the brutal tortures so he was not even able to see properly in his final days. Tülay Açıkkollu requests the glasses be returned to her but the police tell her that they threw it in the trash. She writes on her official statement that she did not get the glasses back from the police. The police start an argument with her saying that she can’t write that on the report. She leaves the police station without changing her declaration. 10 minutes later, the police call her back to let her know that she can take the glasses if she changes her written statement.

Gökhan Açıkkollu’s glasses that were broken during the brutal tortures in the police station, now being exhibited in the Tenkil Museum in Brussels.

Thanks to the courage of Tülay Açıkkollu, Gökhan’s glasses are now bearing witness to the police brutality that took his life away in the Tenkil Museum in Belgium. Through his glasses we see the rotten government agencies -the justice system and the police state clearly.

At this point of my post, I would like to take you back to the “Graveyard for Traitors”. After all this, you would expect that they would let this family have some peace right? No. Gökhan’s family had to start another fight against those who wanted to bury him in the Graveyard for Traitors.

The officials told the family that if they want to bury Gökhan within Istanbul, he will be taken into the Graveyard for Traitors where he will not receive a religious burial. I don’t even need to explain this, but for Muslims a religious burial is a very important ritual. The family starts applying to many government agencies saying that the history teacher Gökhan was not even found guilty by any court, how could it be that they could decide to bury him in a Traitors’ Grave? But once the government decides to announce you a terrorist in Turkey, there is no way to clear your name.

Gökhan’s wife Tülay Açıkkollu says that her husband has always wanted to be buried in his hometown in Konya. So in the end, the family gives up and takes him to Konya to be buried.

Two days after his burial the prosecutor reaches out to the village head asking him why they let Gökhan to be buried there. His family thought that they might remove him from his final resting place. Thankfully (!) no one dared to do this.

So in the end, Gökhan was able to rest in his hometown where he wanted to be buried during his life.

A year and a half after his passing away, the courts (government) found him not guilty (not that I believe in court verdicts) and sent a statement to his home saying that he has been reinstated to his teaching position with a simple apology attached.

Yes, what I am saying sounds unbelievable but it is all backed up with written and visual evidence. The government fired him, tortured him, took away his life, refused him a religious burial, and in the end reinstated him and said sorry. They did not even pay attention to the fact that they killed Gökhan before they sent the apology letter to his home.

“They did not even pay attention to the fact that they killed Gökhan before they sent the apology letter to his home. “

A caricature drawn by Carlos Latuff in 2018

There are many more details to his story but I would like to finish by saying that the founder of the Graveyard for Traitors, Kadir Topbaş died because of COVID-19 in the past year. As a Muslim, I believe in only one court of justice where the teacher Gökhan and the governor of Istanbul will be seen as equals. He will not need his glasses to bear witness to him in that court and all oppressors will be judged harshly regardless of the positions they held on Earth.

Note #1: If you would like to look into more examples of police brutality and the death of justice in Turkey, I suggest that you visit the website for the Tenkil Museum where the objects of people who lost their lives to the Erdogan regime are exhibited. There are also objects of those who had to leave Turkey through the Maritsa River in flimsy boats exhibited in the museum. These objects are witnesses to a terrorist state.

Note #2: Most of the factual information on this post (timeline, witness statements, documents, and videos) is from the Bold Medya website which is in Turkish.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s