Arzu Nur Özkan, a seven-month-pregnant former teacher, said she is afraid for her baby’s life because of the health problems she is experiencing due to abysmal prison conditions, in a letter to human rights defender and opposition lawmaker Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu.
Özkan was two months pregnant when she was arrested. She already had a high-risk pregnancy and had to take medication before going to prison. Every time she returned from visiting the hospital, she had to stay in a quarantine cell, notorious for their poor conditions, due to COVID19-related measures. After a month in Edirne Prison she was transferred Bünyan Prison in Kayseri province, a distance of more than 1,000 kilometers, by car. She travelled in handcuffs for 16 hours.
“I threw up frequently during the journey, and my handcuffs were not removed even when vomiting,” she said. “My already poor health deteriorated even further.”
Gergerlioğlu read Özkan’s letter at a press conference in parliament on Monday:
Hamile tutuklu Arzu Nur Özkan dört aydır Kayseri Bünyan Cezaevinde. Kendisi bana bir mektup göndermiş, bu sabah bana ulaştı. Bu mektubu sizinle paylaşıyorum. https://t.co/VMbLs6nRnX
— Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu (@gergerliogluof) August 11, 2021
Özkan is a teacher. She was convicted of membership in a terrorist organization for her alleged links to the Gülen movement. Working at a pre-school affiliated with the movement’s followers, witness testimony and an account in her name at the now-closed Bank Asya were used as evidence against her. She was sentenced to six years, 10 months in prison. Her case is pending appeal.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement, inspired by Turkish 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. He 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.
The compulsory transfer and required health checks in the new prison meant more days in quarantine cells. “I didn’t want to stay alone since I frequently felt dizzy and nauseous,” Özkan recalled. “There was no shower or table where I stayed, so I had to do everything on my bed.”
The prison administration refused to change her cell and she remained alone. At the end of the quarantine period, Özkan was transferred to an overcrowded ward. It was built for eight people but instead it was hosting 16. As a result, two people had to sleep on the floor. She continued to experience health problems but didn’t want to go to the hospital to avoid staying in the quarantine cell again.
In her letter Özkan appealed to Turkish authorities for conditional release, saying she didn’t want to give birth while in prison.
The Law on the Execution of Sentences and Security Measures stipulates that even if a pregnant woman is convicted, her sentence must be postponed. The law stipulates that “execution of the prison sentence is delayed for women who are pregnant or have given birth within the last year and a half.”
Yet, according to a report by Solidarity with OTHERS, a nongovernmental organization that mainly consists of political exiles from Turkey, a total of 219 pregnant women and women with children under 6 years of age were arbitrarily detained or arrested over their suspected links to the Gülen movement.