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.


From Posting a Tweet to Sleeping Inside the Turkish Parliament: The Case of Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu

Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a Member of the Parliament from the pro-Kurdish party HDP (People’s Democratic Party) was stripped of his MP status last Wednesday in Ankara/Turkey. The court order condemning him to a two and a half year prison sentence was read in the Turkish Parliament while other HDP members banged on their desks in protest. And the reason for the court order? It’s a tweet he shared in 2016.

Gergerlioğlu after the court order has been read in the Parliament (AP)

In his tweet dated 2016, Gergerlioğlu shared a news article by T24. The article is about a PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) statement that says “peace with the Turkish government will be achieved in a month if the government takes a step towards negotiating”. On this news article, Gergerlioğlu  commented “There should be a response to this call because there is no end to this problem”. His tweet was considered “terrorist propaganda” by the courts in 2018 and Gergerlioğlu was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. But why was his sentence approved now in 2021? The answer is clear. It is because he has been making a lot of noise in the Turkish Parliament.

A Short History of PKK and the Peace Negotiations with the Turkish Government

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was formed in 1978 with an emphasis on armed struggle for Kurdish independence in Turkey after the government forced systematic assimilation on Kurds such as banning the use of Kurdish language. The first armed assaults against the Turkish military started in the early 1990s. The attacks later included the killing of the civilian population using tactics like placing bombs in crowded areas or suicide bombings. At the height of the armed conflict between PKK and the Turkish government in 1994, there have been 5000 civilian deaths related to terrorism.

During the peace negotiations between the Turkish government and PKK (2009-2015), the number of deaths decreased drastically to 20-50 per year. Unfortunately, these negotiations started crumbling after the pro-Kurdish political party HDP got 13% of the votes in the 2015 General Elections. The victory of HDP caused the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to lose majority rule after being the leading party for the last 12 years. 

As Turkey got ready for another election due to Erdogan’s inability to form a majority government, the Turkish military intensified its violence in the Eastern regions of Turkey where the majority of the Kurdish population reside. The PKK also started attacking the Turkish forces, and the death of two Turkish policemen in Ceylanpınar created polarization in the population. The peace negotiations officially ended and the number of deaths rose over 500 once again after a long period of peace. As a result, the Justice and Development Party was able to gain the majority of seats in the next election. Since then, Erdogan has expanded his presidential powers in the 2017 referendum and the rule of law has been affected the most. In this political environment, Gergerlioğlu’s tweet calling for peace between the government and PKK posed a threat to the regime and he was charged with spreading “terrorist propaganda”.

Gergerlioğlu as a Human Rights Activist

Gergerlioğlu has been a human rights activist for more than 20 years. In the past, he has advocated for human rights as the President of Mazlumder – an Islamist association found to protect civil rights in Turkey. He has also participated in many other organizations that advocate for peace and minority rights over the years.

In 2016, he was suspended from his role as a medical doctor in a public hospital as part of the government purges against members of the Gulen Movement. Since the attempted coup in 2016, the government has been accusing members of the Gulen Movement of “being a member of a terrorist organization”. This accusation is also being used to oppress others who criticize government policies even when they do not have any ties to the Gulen Movement, which has been the case for Gergerlioglu. The effects of these purges have been drastic. People describe it as being handed a “social death sentence”. Those who have lost their jobs are unable to find any other positions even in the private sector and are excluded from social life in most cases.

After losing his position in the hospital, Gergerlioğlu became a member of the parliament in 2018 and has been bringing forth accusations regarding the human rights violations committed by the Turkish government in the Parliament. He has advocated against torture, arbitrary naked searches, and unsanitary living conditions in Turkish prisons. He is also standing up against the arbitrary jailing of pregnant women and terminally ill patients.

He states that during his election, only 90 thousand people had voted him in, but in these past 2 years, he became someone who represents millions that need representation. People who have been purged from their jobs by unlawful decrees, people with loved ones in prison, others who have been oppressed in many different ways have all found refuge in Gergerlioğlu. He listens to people who have been made to feel worthless in Turkish society and brings forth their problems in the Parliament to make their issues visible. This is why he is being specifically targeted by the media and other members of the Parliament. He is giving people courage to speak up and make change.

What Is Next?

Gergerlioğlu has stated that he does not accept the unlawful court order and that he will not be leaving the Parliament until justice is restored. He has been sleeping in the private room of HDP inside the Parliament and keeps on hosting live broadcasts on Twitter with other human rights advocates and members of the Parliament. I do not know if the government will send police forces into the Parliament to detain Gergerlioğlu or if there will be any kind of resolution without the use of violence. All I know is that he is teaching the people in Turkey and all around the world a valuable lesson on how to resist courageously against injustice and oppression.

Gergerlioğlu (sitting in the middle, wearing a blue mask) with other HDP MPs who are showing their support for him (AP)


My Existence was Gifted to the Turkish Nation

In Turkey, when you start first grade you learn a few important things; reading, writing, and the student oath. One morning a teacher comes up to you and gives the exciting news: “In a few days you will be making the whole school repeat after yourself as you read the oath during the morning assembly.” What is the oath one may ask. Don’t worry, we will get to that.

I remember being very excited for this opportunity. After all, it was the moment which I would gain prestige among my peers as a first grader. It had to be perfect, all eyes were going to be on me. I felt like my success with this task was going to determine my future life. Just to remind everyone, I was at the age of 7. I went home and started memorizing:

I am a Turk

I am honest

I am hardworking…

Some background information: Turkey is a multi-ethnic country, not everyone is a Turk. The morning assembly happens every weekday before classes start. Which means that I have been on that assembly saying the same oath approximately 1512 times in my lifetime. I am used to how it goes. You walk up to the stage in front of 700 students and continue:

…My principle is to protect the younger 

to respect the elder, 

to love my homeland and my nation more than myself. 

My ideal is to rise, to progress…

The day I was supposed to read the oath came, I could not contain my excitement. I was walking up to the stage when one of the teachers stopped me. “You can’t go up the stage wearing the phys ed uniform, where is your skirt?” I had PE that day, how could I know that this would happen? They didn’t let me on the stage. I remember crying of rage that day because some other kid got to read the oath. I had lost my chance at proving myself. She said:

…O Great Atatürk ! 

On the path that you have paved, 

I swear to walk incessantly toward the aims that you have set…

Time passed, I probably forgot about all that. I was in 6th grade this time. As always, we read the student oath every morning repeating after the lucky student who got to be on the stage that day. I remember clearly. Someone came near me and whispered the sweet temptation into my ear: “I am not saying some parts of the student oath because I don’t want to. I just move my mouth. Do you agree with what we say every morning?” I thought about his question all day and also decided not to say some parts the next time. There is a certain excitement in defiance even when you don’t fully grasp what you are doing. Is it even considered resistance if you have not yet built the critical thinking skills to understand that the student oath is cultural genocide? I am not sure.

The next morning I am moving my mouth without making a sound. For some parts, I feel brave and don’t move my mouth at all. My heart is beating because I am afraid someone will realize and call me out. 700 children shout beside me:

…My existence shall be a gift to the Turkish existence. 

How happy is the one who says “I am a Turk!”.

The student on the stage ends the oath by saying: “Have a nice day of classes my friends.” 

We reply: “Thank you!”

Students start walking towards classes in army formation because that is exactly how all kids should start their day -with a healthy dose of militarization.

I am proud of my decision as I prepare to go into the school. The PE teacher shouts ‘Ayse walk to the side!’.

Let me explain one thing here. One’s struggle with authority starts at an early age in Turkey. The first enemy is the school administration because they do their best to kill all kinds of individuality. Wearing accessories or colourful shoes with school uniforms is not allowed. Letting your hair down is also a big no. They make sure to check every student each morning before we enter the school building. But there I am, thinking that my uniform is in great condition. I don’t know what is happening nor why I was pulled to the side. This has never happened before.

The PE teacher comes next to me and says: “You weren’t saying the student oath” 

My voice trembles as I mutter “what?”. How did he even see?

“I will write a discipline report if this happens one more time.”

Let me tell you right here. I loved keeping a good relationship with the administration and the teachers in elementary school. They knew my parents, that is a good enough reason to be proper. I was also highly afraid of being punished. I did not say a word against the PE teacher and probably continued saying the oath afterwards. Sadly, this is not a story of my bravery. 

Also to reclaim myself as I am writing this, I can proudly say that I lost the trait of respecting authority once I got to jump the fence at high school to skip classes (I definitely was not hyperventilating at the thought of getting caught). I think I realized that schools put some of the rules to teach you how to question and defy them. It is a learning moment.

So where is this long story about the student oath going towards? 

I just wanted to share my experience with the oath as an ethnically Turkish person. I am leaving it to you to think about the effects of this oath on for example the Kurdish population of Turkey. 

I am thinking how much it must have hurt them to see their presence erased as they were forced to repeat every morning “I am Turkish”. 

Did those children even realize what was happening right in front of our eyes? Or were they just as excited as Turkish students to be on the stage?

Why were our 7 year old existences gifted to the Turkish nation? 

Did the nation state have to remind us every morning that we were their property?

I would like to finish by saying that I am sorry that I repeated this oath 1512 times in my lifetime, I did not know any better. I have a complicated relationship with my nationality, I am not sure if I want to dedicate my entire existence to it.

As always, if my friends who grew up in Turkey have a different experience about this topic, you are welcome to comment under this post. I accept that there might be differences between cities or even schools. But also consider if you were too young to understand what was going on around you instead of quickly refuting my claim. The oath might not have had a huge effect on you therefore the memories might not be as sharp in your mind as it is in mine.

A note on the history of the Student Oath: It was implemented in 1933 and was abolished in 2013, since then it has been reinstated in 2018. The person who wrote the student oath in 1933, Dr. Resit Galip also implemented the Turkish adhan (Muslim call to prayer). And yes, I do not have any respect for either of these reforms.


Transformation of Ayasofya: what does it mean?

Turkey is a secular country with a Muslim majority as we all know. There has always been tension between different political blocs since the Republic was found (it may be about religion, nationalism, minority rights etc.) I can explain more about the history of civil conflicts, military rule, oppression of the hijab in government agencies and universities, history of minority oppression etc. another time if needed. These are all parts of Turkey which are necessary to be understood before making any bold comments about the region. The history of oppression in Turkey is complicated with all parties responsible: both seculars and political islamists. If you ask me what I want out of Turkey, I simply want to live together in peace with everyone respecting each others’ differences, that’s it.

So, what is the situation today? Erdogan has been weaponizing Islam to gain votes for many years now. As his corruption scandal got out in 2013, he has been more vicious than ever, stepping on individual freedoms left and right. A simple example of weaponization of Islam that would make sense to my mainly Muslim following would be how he made people watch the uncensored NZ shooting video in one of his political rallies for votes. I can give a hundred more examples with more details, but I don’t want to stray further away from my point. 

Human rights in my country are at an all-time low, we are the #1 jailer of journalists, have pregnant women in our prisons for made up charges, xenophobia is at an all-time high, the youth is unemployed, the economy is going bad… I am against Erdogan using Ayasofya as a political move in this current climate. Our holy places are not political pawns to be used when someone is clearly messing up. I am not against reclaiming spaces at all; I find it beautiful to undo cultural imperialism. But this action was a politically charged one, it was done to show both the Turkish people and the world that Turkey will not be respecting its minorities’ rights or religious harmony. It was done to get authoritarian people’s votes. It is too simple of a perspective just to accept it as reclaiming back of a Muslim place of worship.  

I would like to ask ‘What does a Muslim person gain out of this action?’. If I want to pray in the Sultanahmet area I won’t be going into Ayasofya where there are mosaics of Jesus all over the walls. I will walk for two minutes instead (I am not exaggerating) and pray inside the Blue Mosque. There are 5 or more other beautiful mosques in the same area at walking distance one may choose to pray in. 

Is it necessary to pray inside Ayasofya which is known for its history of housing different religions? 

Why not leave it as a monument of coexistence in the most beautiful place of Istanbul and let people celebrate all its cultures? As a Muslim, I can go and celebrate its Muslim history without being threatened by its presence as a museum. I believe that Ayasofya’s history as a mosque was not erased at all when it became a museum, therefore there is no reason to reclaim it like this, it is already a part of our Muslim Turkish values as it is. I do not want there to be hatred between Muslims, seculars, or minority groups in my country, it is as simple as that. There is no need to send a message that says ‘you do not belong’ to the minority groups living in Turkey through the transformation of Ayasofya. As someone who has lived in Turkey for most of her life, we are tired of hating each other because of these cheap political moves.

And one last point mainly for my Muslim followers, a much more important issue than Ayasofya’s transformation is that people in Turkey don’t really pray anymore. So many empty mosques without anyone to pray in them, it is heartbreaking. I would suggest that this is caused by the erosion of Islamic values in the past 10 years due to Islam becoming a political weapon in the hands of Erdogan. So, what does the turning of Ayasofya into a mosque actually represent in the current political climate of Turkey? Is it simply reclaiming a Muslim space or is it using the sentiments of Muslims in Turkey just for some cheap votes? While Erdogan weaponizes Islam, the youth is straying further away from it and the polarization and hatred within communities is increasing. I want Islam to be a value that brings my people together, not one to cause rifts between them just because politicians twist it like this. Therefore, the transformation of Ayasofya in my opinion, symbolizes the Turkish society becoming distant to Islamic values rather than symbolizing a religious awakening like Muslims all around the world think. Which is why I would say that the transformation of Ayasofya into a mosque is the wrong thing to do.