Jailed journalist says in letter inmates forced to live in cells invaded by rats: report

A Turkish journalist who has been in jail since March 2018 on terrorism charges has written in a letter from prison about the “inhumanly” unsanitary conditions the inmates face, saying they are forced to live in cells invaded by rats, Turkish Minute reported on Thursday.

Journalist  sent the letter to Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) lawmaker Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, also a member of parliament’s Human Rights Inquiry Committee, through a friend who was recently released from jail.

Çümen wrote that the inmates themselves have killed a total of 25 rats in the cell since the prison authorities have done nothing to solve the problem despite numerous petitions describing the situation.

The journalist also complained about overcrowding in the cell.

“Forty-five of us are kept in a 206-square-meter area, with seven people in a 12-square-meter cell and three sleeping on the floor. Sometimes we can’t breathe due to the overcrowding. We have to keep the windows open while we sleep, even during these cold winter nights, so we don’t die from lack of air,” Çümen said in the letter.

The journalist added that the overcrowding also forces inmates to wait in line, at all times of the day, to use one of the two bathrooms in the ward, which often get clogged. “We also have only two showers and are given hot water for only three hours a day, two or three times a week. How can one expect 45 people to take showers in such a short period of time?”

He also wrote that the coronavirus pandemic has made life in prison even worse for the inmates.

“We haven’t seen our families for eight months,” Çümen said, since open visits were suspended soon after COVID-19 hit Turkey in March.

Referring to conditions that put the inmates’ lives in danger, Çümen continued: “It has become impossible for us to receive any kind of healthcare [since the start of the pandemic]. Even inmates with diabetes, hypertension or heart disease haven’t been able to get any treatment in the prison or the hospital for the last eight months. They expect us to take care of ourselves.”

“We are subjected to overcrowding, while other wards in the prison remain empty. The prison authorities torture us because we are inmates suspected of links to FETÖ [a derogatory phrase used by the Turkish government to refer to the Gülen movement as a terrorist organization]. They don’t care about us at all. We have been left here to die,” Çümen said.

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 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.

“I wish you could see the injustice, unequal conditions, inhumane treatment and torture we face every day. You would be shocked. Please hear our voice. We are about to lose our senses. May God damn those who let us suffer like this,” he told the lawmaker.

Çümen, who worked for 21 years for the now-closed Zaman daily, which was seized by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2016 due to its links to the Gülen movement, was sentenced to seven years, six months on terror charges.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) described Turkey as “the world’s biggest jailer of professional journalists” in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, in which Turkey was ranked 154th among 180 countries in terms of press freedom.

According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom’s “Jailed and Wanted Journalists in Turkey” database, 174 journalists are currently behind bars in Turkey, while 167 are wanted and are either in exile or remain at large.

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