Dismissed academic imprisoned over Gülen links dies of COVID 3 months before release

Halil Şimşek, a dismissed academic arrested over alleged links to the Gülen movement, died in prison on Wednesday of COVID-19, less than three months before he was due to be released on parole, the TR7/24 news website reported.

Şimşek had contracted COVID-19 in Çanakkale Prison and was in intensive care for seven days before he died. He had been an associate professor at Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University.

Şimşek was summarily dismissed from his job and arrested after a coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016. He was sentenced to eight years, nine months in prison for membership in a terrorist organization and would have been eligible for parole in August had he not passed away.

Sedat Laçiner, the former rector of the same university, had also been hospitalized after contracting COVID-19 in Çanakkale Prison. Similar to Şimşek, Laçiner was jailed as part of a political crackdown on dissent in the wake of the abortive putsch.

Cases of COVID-19 in Turkish prisons have increased in the past months. Only last week nearly 30 men in the same ward were infected in Sakarya Ferizli Prison, and two were in critical condition.

The rapidly spreading disease has presented greater concerns in Turkey’s prisons, which were already notorious for human rights abuses, overcrowding and unsanitary conditions before the pandemic. The death of those political prisoners revealed once more how the Turkish government puts their health in immediate danger.

Last week jailed veteran journalist Ali Ahmet Böken tested positive for the virus. Mehmet Şükrü Eken (53), a former brigadier general who was jailed on coup charges, died on April 19 due to COVID-19.

The Turkish parliament passed an early parole law on April 14 aimed at reducing the inmate population of the country’s overcrowded prisons due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, the legislation excluded political prisoners, including opposition politicians, journalists, lawyers, academics and human rights defenders convicted under the country’s controversial counterterrorism laws. The law prompted calls from the UN, the EU and rights groups for the non-discriminatory reduction of prison populations.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, since the corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013, which implicated then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle.

Dismissing the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members. Erdoğan intensified the crackdown on the movement following the coup attempt that he accused Gülen of masterminding. Gülen and the movement strongly deny involvement in the abortive putsch or any terrorist activity.

Following the abortive putsch, the Turkish government declared a state of emergency and carried out a massive purge of state institutions under the pretext of an anti-coup fight. More than 130,000 public servants, including 4,156 judges and prosecutors, as well as 20,610 members of the armed forces were summarily removed from their jobs for alleged membership in or relationships with “terrorist organizations” by emergency decree-laws subject to neither judicial nor parliamentary scrutiny.

According to a statement from Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu on February 20, a total of 622,646 people have been the subject of investigation and 301,932 have been detained, while 96,000 others have been jailed due to alleged links to the Gülen movement since the failed coup. The minister said there are currently 25,467 people in Turkey’s prisons who were jailed on alleged links to the Gülen movement.

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