Lawyer arrested on Gülen links denied parole despite eligibility

Arif Özer, a lawyer who was sentenced to seven years, six months in prison on alleged links to the Gülen movement has been denied parole despite having served the required two-thirds of his sentence.

According to Bold Medya, although Özer’s case is still pending before the Supreme Court of Appeals, which is the prerequisite for parole, he signed a waiver saying he accepted the lower court’s verdict and did not want to wait for a decision on the appeal. Despite the waiver, the prison administration told Özer he could not be released until his sentence had been upheld.

According to the Turkish Penal Code, people convicted of membership in a terrorist organization are eligible for parole after serving two-thirds of their sentence

Özer was arrested in August 2016 for alleged affiliation with the Gülen movement. His alleged use of the ByLock messaging app was considered evidence of “membership in a terrorist organization.”

ByLock is an encrypted messaging app used on smartphones and was available on Apple’s App Store and Google Play. Turkish authorities claim that ByLock was a communication tool exclusively used by members of the Gülen movement to ensure the privacy of their conversations.

The UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) has repeatedly stated that arrest and conviction based on ByLock use in Turkey violated Articles 19, 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In an opinion WGAD noted that “no explanation has been provided [by the Turkish government] as to how the alleged use of this application … could be equated with a criminal act.”

Özer was sent to Balıkesir Burhaniye Prison in northwestern Turkey. He has been eligible for parole since March 12, but his petitions to the prison administration have been turned down.

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

Özer’s wife, Esra Özer,  said they had been waiting for the Supreme Court of Appeals decision for 19 months. “They told us the waiver would be taken into consideration once the court evaluates his case,” she added. “But that doesn’t make sense since the waiver was signed to avoid another court procedure.”

Esra Özer said they were under immense stress from the process. “Our children keep asking when their father will return home,” she said.

According to Esra Özer, her husband’s plight was exasperated by terrible prison conditions. She said the prison wards smelled of urine and that there were 60 people in one ward. “They were forced to sleep in front of the toilets because of overcrowding,” she said.

She added that the heating and air conditioning did not work in the prison, making both winter and summer conditions unbearable.

In a statement last year Amnesty International called for Turkish authorities to release prisoners who are eligible for parole, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, many political prisoners and especially journalists are waiting for parole despite having served two-thirds of their sentences.

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