Birol Kurubaş, a 46-year-old geography teacher who had taught in private schools operated by businesspeople affiliated with government critic the Gülen movement in Turkey, was kept in a detention cell with an ISIS suspect in Istanbul for two days before he was subjected to abuse and torture in the capital city of Ankara.
“I was in a cell with a Daesh [ISIL] militant who was caught when he was about to detonate a bomb attached to his body in Istanbul. I believe I was put in his cell on purpose because they didn’t put me in the cell they said they would during my processing. In fact, a police officer later came in and asked, ‘Why are you here?’ but he never came back,” Kurubaş said in his testimony during a hearing at the Ankara 17th High Criminal Court on March 4, 2018.
He endured threats, verbal assaults and slurs from the ISIS member in the cell for two days. “You can call it paranoia, but I think someone had this Daesh guy try to bring me down psychologically, which he partially succeeded in doing,” Kurubaş said.
Kurubaş was detained when the police raided his father-in-law’s house at midnight on November 4, 2017 on charges that he was involved in the planning of a coup attempt on July 15, 2016. He was interrogated in an abusive environment at the notorious police department building located in the Vatan neighborhood of Istanbul.
They put him with the ISIS suspect even though the police knew ISIS considered Gülenists, led by US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, to be infidels because of the movement’s emphasis on interfaith dialogue and outreach activities with other religions and denominations. Gülen has been an outspoken critic of ISIS and has issued numerous statements condemning the armed jihadist group. His assignment to the same cell as the ISIS member was clearly meant to scare Kurubaş, who had never before been in trouble with the law.
He was apparently caught up in the witch hunt viciously and relentlessly pursed by the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who declared a war against Gülenists in the aftermath of 2013 corruption investigations that incriminated Erdoğan and his family members. The 2016 failed coup, which was believed by many to be a false flag orchestrated by President Erdoğan, was also pinned on the Gülen movement, an accusation that Gülen himself repeatedly denied and for which the government has failed to present any evidence.
The geography teacher’s torture and abuse continued in the counterterrorism department of the Ankara Police Department, where he was interrogated for long hours every day, sometimes in the middle of the night. Teams from Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) also came in to question him. The investigators wanted to wear him down, break his resistance and force him to make a false statement. He was threatened with the imprisonment of his wife and losing custody of his children to a state-run orphanage.
The scripted story line the police tried to impose on him was that he attended a coup planning meeting with some officers in a villa outside of Ankara. When he said he was with his family in his home province of Sinop at the time the meeting in the villa was supposedly held, the abuse and torture increased further. He was even told that a bottle with his fingerprint was found in the villa, about which he questioned the authenticity and asked how that could be.
“I was being shown prepared files, names and photos while they [the interrogators] were shouting at me, banging on the table, bringing my family into the discussion. After a while you lose sound judgment. You start thinking that if you don’t say anything about what they are demanding and especially the names they’re targeting, you’re never going to get out of there,” he said.
In the end, he was taken to a separate room which he thought was the end of the line. The police told him that if he played along with the story they had concocted, he would walk out a free man in some 30 or 40 days. The police chief even claimed he told the judge about the deal and that the judge agreed to it. The torture, abuse and threats to harm his family eventually forced him to give in to the demands of his interrogators. He said he would make up a story along the lines of what he was told, with the names, plans and everything he had earlier been shown by the police.
In his defense statement, he revealed that no lawyer was present during the interrogations although this was a clear breach of due process under the Turkish Code on Criminal Procedure (CMUK). A bar-appointed lawyer met him by the door of the courthouse, only to say hello, just before his arraignment was wrapped up, with a judge sending him to prison pending trial. He repeated what was made up in the police station during the short hearing in court.
Appearing in court for a trial hearing for the first time on March 4, 2018 he told the panel of judges about his ordeal and how his initial statements were taken at the police department and in court during his arraignment. He recanted them all and said he would testify as to what really happened.
In the indictment the prosecutor accused Kurubaş of being one of the planners of the coup based on a fingerprint on a bottle allegedly seized from the villa as evidence. The alleged meeting was held some time between July 5 and 10, 2016.
Kurubaş submitted multiple pieces of evidence that confirmed he was not even in Ankara between July 1 and 12 as he had spent the holiday break during Muslim festivities at the end of the holy month Ramadan in his home province along with his wife and children. His phone records, car trips, family photos and even emergency hospitalization records while he was there were presented to support his statement that he was actually in Sinop, not in Ankara.
The government prosecutor alleged that the meeting was held in the villa based on statements given by two secret witnesses, code named Kuzgun (Raven) and Şapka (Hat). However, neither of them was able to identify Kurubaş during the cross-examination in the courtroom. Kurubaş asked why the police did not find any other trace of his presence at the villa except the fingerprint on a bottle. The villa was vacated immediately after the coup attempt and all the furnishings were cleared out. He also asked why the police had waited for months to detain him when his fingerprint was allegedly identified on August 9, 2016.
One of the allegations leveled against him was made by intelligence officer Selman Fettahoğlu, who claimed Kurubaş was a secret handler who worked with MIT on behalf of the Gülen movement. Kurubaş testified in court that he never knew the man and highlighted the problematic aspects of the statements made by the MIT agent. He cited Fettahoğlu’s initial statement, which indicated that the MIT agent was detained and dismissed from the intelligence agency immediately after the July 15 events on charges that he was a Gülenist. However, in the second statement Fettahoğlu gave, on February 5, 2018, some 19 months later, Fettahoğlu admitted that he was still working for the agency when asked about his profession.
Kurubaş stated that major inconsistencies existed in both statements by the MIT agent such as times and locations. The MIT agent claimed he saw Kurubaş 20 or 25 years earlier when he was enrolled as a student in a university in Istanbul when in fact Kurubaş had already graduated from the university when Fettahoğlu came to Istanbul. The two lived in separate districts of the city. It was also revealed that the MIT agent was 13 or 14 years old at the time he claimed to have met Kurubaş according to the details he provided, such as times and locations, which did not make any sense.
Although the case was marred by statements coerced from victims under torture, fabricated accounts provided by the MIT agent and dubious and conflicting evidence, the judges who were hearing Kurubaş’s trial convicted him and sentenced him to aggravated life in December 2019.
Kurubaş is one of tens of thousands of people, both civilian and military, who were prosecuted on charges of coup plotting and membership in a terrorist organization as President Erdoğan was transforming Turkey’s parliamentary democracy into an authoritarian regime with massive purges and imprisonment of his critics and opponents, including hundreds of journalists.
President Erdoğan designated the Gülen movement — a faith-based, non-violent group — as a terrorist organization immediately after the December 2013 corruption investigations that incriminated him and his family members. He claimed the graft probes were an attempted judicial coup by the Gülenists to oust him from power despite overwhelming evidence in the case file gathered by prosecutors and law enforcement agencies. He declared an all-out war on the Gülenists, making membership in the movement a crime by association, a process that gained momentum after the abortive coup in July 2016, which President Erdoğan accuses Gülen, the spiritual leader of the movement, of masterminding despite his categorical denial of any involvement.
As part of the post-coup Gülenist purge, the Turkish government dismissed more than 150,000 civil servants from state jobs and investigated almost 600,000 people, detaining or arresting half of them as political prisoners on fabricated terrorism charges.