Jailed journalist under investigation for sending letter detailing unsanitary prison conditions

Journalist Harun Çümen

Harun Çümen, a Turkish journalist who had sent a letter from prison about the unsanitary conditions facing inmates in prison, saying they are forced to live in wards invaded by rats, is under investigation by the prison administration, Bold Medya reported.

Çümen is being investigated for a letter he sent to his colleague Zafer Özcan, a former economy editor, who is serving time for “membership in a terrorist organization” in Manisa province. Yet, he thinks the investigation is “revenge” for a previous letter that appeared in various media outlets.

Çümen had sent a letter to Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) lawmaker and member of the Turkish parliament’s Human Rights Inquiry Committee Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu on November 30 through a friend who was recently released from jail.

According to Çümen, the letter he sent to his former colleague Özcan was only a “consolation” letter from one friend to another who was having a difficult time in prison. The 10-page letter included quotes from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and some religious quotes.

Çümen says three pages of the letter were confiscated by the prison administration and an investigation was launched into him by the prison disciplinary committee for “communication with other people in a criminal organization.” Both Çümen and Özcan are accused of ties to the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen.

“I have communicated with Zafer Özcan before, and this is the first time that it has become a problem,” he said. “They are trying to pressure me because of the previous letter where I mentioned the unsanitary conditions in prison.”

Çümen 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, and was sentenced to seven years, six months for membership in a “terrorist organization”. He has been in prison since March 2018.

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. He locked up thousands including many prosecutors, judges and police officers involved in the investigation as well as journalists who reported on them.

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 his letter to Gergerlioğlu, Çümen wrote that the inmates themselves have killed a total of 25 rats in the ward 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 ward.

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

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.

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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