Engineer jailed over Gülen links dies of cancer after belated release from prison

Industrial engineer Abdülazim Özdemir, 49, who was diagnosed with liver cancer during his 24-month incarceration on terrorism charges, died on Friday in Ankara, the Bold Medya news website reported.

Özdemir, who was purged from his job at the Ministry of Development in the aftermath of a failed coup in Turkey in 2016 and subsequently jailed on terrorism charges, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in prison.

He was released in February 2020 as a result of a social media campaign led by human rights defender and former Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) deputy Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu.

Özdemir and his wife Emir, a math teacher of 20 years, are among the civil servants who were removed from their jobs as part of a massive purge launched by the Turkish government following the coup attempt due to their alleged links to the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement 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 a coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that he accused Gülen of masterminding. Gülen and the movement strongly deny involvement in the abortive putsch or any terrorist activity.

In a letter to Gergerlioğlu in January 2020, Emir Özdemir wrote that although her husband had visited a doctor many times due to his health issues, his diagnosis as well as liver surgery due to jaundice were done very late, after the cancer had already spread to other organs.

She accused the prison administration of negligence and a violation of her husband’s rights.

Following the coup attempt, Abdülazim Özdemir was jailed in Sincan Prison in Ankara for 14 months, then released on appeal after the court handed down a sentence of six years, three months on charges of membership in a terrorist organization. His file had been awaiting review at the Supreme Court of Appeals for one-and-a-half years, but he was jailed again in March 2019 and sent to Bandırma Prison.

Emir Özdemir, who is behind bars in Keskin Prison in Kırıkkale, was also handed down a jail sentence of six years, three months on charges of membership in a terrorist organization.

The couple’s three daughters aged 6, 10 and 16 are currently being taken care of by their grandparents, who are in their 80s.

Human rights activists and opposition politicians have frequently criticized authorities for not releasing critically ill prisoners so they can seek proper treatment.

A recent report by the Ankara-based Human Rights Association (İHD) said there are at least 1,605 ailing inmates in the country’s prisons, 604 of whom are in critical condition. The İHD said it estimates the number of sick inmates to be higher and calls on the government to release them and delay their sentences as the coronavirus pandemic poses a further threat to their medical well-being.

According to a statement from Turkish 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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