Death of Ahmet Burhan Ataç reveals plight of children caught up in Turkey’s massive purge

Ahmet Burhan succumbed to bone cancer early Thursday morning. (Photo: Selahattin Sevi)

The terrible ordeal of an 8-year-old Turkish boy who lost his life to cancer while his father was jailed and his mother tried on fabricated charges illustrates the gravity and extent of blatant violations of fundamental human rights in Turkey.

Ahmet Burhan Ataç, having fought hard to cling to life, finally succumbed to the cancer in the early hours of Thursday at Balcalı Hospital in Adana, where he had been taken the evening before.

He had been grappling with bone cancer for almost two years. He was initially taken to a hospital by his mother on September 24, 2018 because he said his arm was hurting. After a medical examination, the doctors detected a tumor on his shoulder blade that had developed six months earlier. He had developed the illness at a time when his parents were sought by authorities on dubious allegations of terrorism.

Along with his illness he had to endure deprivations flowing from the Turkish government’s prosecution of his parents, a task to which he, to all appearances, proved to be no equal. His tiny, fragile body stopped responding to treatment some time ago.

His father, Harun Reha Ataç, has been in prison for more than two years because he had worked at a student hostel, an act that is tantamount to membership in an armed terrorist organization in the eyes of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan if that hostel had anything to do with the faith-based Gülen movement. The movement, led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, who has been a vocal critic of the Erdoğan government on a range of issues including Erdoğan’s corrupt politics, his increasing authoritarianism and his meddling in the Syrian civil war on the side of jihadists, has been persecuted since what is widely known as the December 17 and 25, 2013 corruption and graft investigations.

President Erdoğan accused Gülenists of orchestrating the probes, the first of which forced four ministers to step down on allegations of bribery, kickbacks and abuse of power. When the next round of investigations on December 25 threatened to embroil his own son, Erdoğan stepped in, ordered the police not to carry out the orders of the prosecutors, hushed up the accusations and dismissed and imprisoned all the police officers and prosecutors involved in the probes, calling the investigations a Gülenist plot.

He subsequently designated the movement an armed terrorist organization and seized all Gülen-affiliated media outlets, the private Bank Asya and businesses owned partially by people with ties to the movement.

Events took a turn for the worse when a group of soldiers calling themselves the “Peace at Home Council” tried to oust the Erdoğan government with an attempted coup on July 15, 2016 that was thwarted on the same night.

Seeing the opportunity presented by the coup attempt, which he portrayed as a “gift from God” and which he accused Gülen of masterminding, an accusation repeatedly denied by the cleric, he declared an all-out war against anything and anyone who had the slightest link to the movement, locking up hundreds of thousands of real or perceived adherents of the movement and seizing their assets. His motto, “Have no mercy on them,” would from then on out define his actions towards Gülenists.

Ahmet Burhan’s father is one of the victims of this witch hunt. He was arrested on February 20, 2018 and later sentenced to nine years, nine months in prison. His mother, Zekiye Ataç, was arrested on the same day but was released two-and-a-half months later pending trial. Thus, Ahmet Burhan was left to live with his grandmother. This proved to be too big a strain for his tiny heart, as evidenced by the disease he developed during the incarceration of his parents.

His illness progressed rapidly, and he was diagnosed with stage four cancer. The tumor had been removed from his shoulder blade, but it spread in no time to his lungs. He missed his father and could not make sense of his absence. Social media campaigns aimed at securing the release of his father were of no avail.

A ray of hope emerged when he was accepted at an immune-oncology center in Cologne, Germany, for treatment. Yet, an obstacle in the form of a travel ban on his mother — a preventive measure widely resorted to by the Turkish government against many dissidents — presented itself before his going to Germany. All his mother’s efforts towards securing a repeal of her travel ban proved to be in vain.

Turkish authorities turned a deaf ear to the appeals of his mother. Support lent by Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a member of parliament from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and one of Turkey’s most prominent human rights defenders, and by Natali Avazyan, a Turkish human rights activist of Armenian descent, made no difference. That his mother was once again put under arrest on October 14, 2019 on charges of causing a commotion through sharing her son’s deteriorating health situation on social media added insult to injury.

Although his mother was released shortly afterwards, Ahmet Burhan had to fly to Germany with his 70-year-old grandmother on January 20, 2020. At last his treatment had begun. But Ahmet Burhan was inconsolable. He could not sleep at night. His pain was unbearable. His grandmother said she had done her best but that she could not take the place of his mother. Ahmet Burhan wanted to be with his mother and father. After this preliminary treatment they returned to Turkey, with a second round slated for February 27.

In the meantime, his mother also was sentenced to six years, three months in prison pending appeal. But that was the least of her concerns given the worsening health of her son. The cancer and her helplessness against it were causing her psychological problems. At one point she contemplated suicide. Yet, she had to remain strong and keep on fighting for her ailing son.

Mainstream Turkish media either owned by the Erdoğan family or under the influence of his government remained deaf to the pleas of the mother. Fortunately, her appeal was heard by tens of thousands of caring citizens who protested on social media. The new call led by Avazyan this time produced a positive result, and his mother’s travel ban was repealed by the court on February 21, shortly before their flight.

Time was of the essence. She rushed to the office of the governor to get her passport. But she was refused a passport because her name still appeared as restricted on the registry despite the court ruling. She lost three more days more before the restriction was removed and her passport issued. After getting her passport and visa she headed for the airport with her son. She was full of hope, albeit a bit downcast because they were already late for the second round of treatment.

Yet, she did not know that a sadistic hand had once again emerged. At airport immigration on February 25 she learned that a new travel ban had been entered into the registry. Her passport was seized by the police. They could not board the plane. Worse yet, the police rushed Ahmet Burhan around on a stretcher and fractured his fragile shoulder. Helpless and desperate, they had to go back home.

Ahmet Burhan, who could not board the plane due to a new travel ban on his mother, is seen waiting on a stretcher.

It took almost 10 more days to overcome this new obstacle. They made it at last to Germany on March 5. Yet, unfortunately it was too late to start the second round of treatment. His doctor was shocked at the sight of the child. New tumors had developed in his body. His movements were restricted. His hip was dislocated. Many of his bones were broken. His blood count was low. In short, his body was no longer able to tolerate further treatment.

Helpless and frustrated, she had to return to Turkey with no hope to cling to. Her husband was still incarcerated. Hers was imminent and her son was facing death. Ahmet Burhan still missed his  father. On a phone call to his father, Ahmet Burhan implored him to come and be with him. His father replied from his jail cell, “My sweet boy, they won’t let me.”

A new social media campaign secured a family visit leave for his father on March 27. Ahmet Burhan was able to see his father for only five hours because his leave was limited to that amount of time. This was their last time to see each other because being essentially a political prisoner, his father could not benefit from a release bill parliament approved on April 14 amid fear of the coronavirus pandemic’s spread to the country’s overcrowded correctional facilities. The bill excluded tens of thousands of political prisoners including journalists, lawyers, academics and human rights defenders who were jailed on dubious terrorism charges like himself.

Ahmet Burhan and his imprisoned father’s last reunion in a hospital room.

Ahmet Burhan died murmuring the name of his father even on his deathbed. According to his mother he had been crying for three or four days before he lapsed into a coma, calling for his father.

Gergerlioğlu and Avazyan’s desperate social media efforts to reunite father and son one last time right before his death were to no avail. Adana Chief Public Prosecutor Ömer Faruk Yurdagül would not allow the father to visit his son again, which elicited strong social media criticism against the office of the public prosecutor.

In his defense Yurdagül issued a public statement on his Twitter account on May 7, the day of Ahmet Burhan’s death. According to Yurdagül his office “observed the humanitarian aspects of the situation when dealing with it at every stage.” In his statement the public prosecutor further admitted that Ahmet Burhan’s mother had been investigated and arrested on charges of providing relief to the victimized families of imprisoned Gülenists-

Ahmet Burhan was buried on Thursday.

Adana Public Prosecutor Ömer Faruk Yurdagül claimed in a social media statement that his office had observed the humanitarian aspects of the situation when dealing with it.

His mother’s last look at her son in a coffin.
Ahmet Burhan’s funeral.



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