Hasan Aksoy, a literature teacher who was purged from his job, lost his wife and 3-year-old son in the Aegean Sea after the boat carrying them to the Greek Island of Lesbos capsized. They were trying to flee Turkey to escape torture, imprisonment and social death.
On July 28, 2018, what started as a journey to hope ended in tragedy. Seven out of 16 people, including three infants, in a boat on its way from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos drowned when the boat capsized. Hasan Aksoy, a literature teacher who had been purged from his job by the Turkish government, was unable to save his wife or son. As if this were not enough, he was immediately detained and arrested by the Turkish authorities even before he was able to see the bodies of his loved ones. He has remained silent since then and didn’t even tell his family about what he went through but decided to recount his experience for the court after remembering his wife’s words: “Give your defense. Stand before the court and tell them about the genocide that we went through.”
In the first part of his defense in court, on May 21, 2019, Aksoy said torturers at the Bartın Police Department were the reason why he and his family had tried to leave Turkey in a boat. “If there was no torture in Bartın, I wouldn’t have tried to escape anywhere. Testimony was taken under torture to incriminate me. … Witnesses have retracted their testimony given under duress. They even revealed the names of the torturers in front of the court. They said, ‘We were subjected to violence, duress and coercion by officers named Ayhan, İlkay, Fatih and the head of the Anti-smuggling and Organized Crime Department [KOM].’ But regardless, the court did not hear their words. This information is all based on court documents,” he told the court.
Not allowed to attend his wife and son’s funerals
After Aksoy lost his wife and son in the Aegean, the authorities said he would not be able to attend their funerals unless he “confessed.” The authorities buried Sena and Yusuf Baha without waiting for Aksoy or other family members to attend the funeral.
Moreover, Bursa Mayor Alinur Aktaş of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) initially refused to provide a hearse for the transportation of the bodies, saying, “No hearse for members of FETÖ [‘Fethullahist Terrorist Organization,’ a derogatory term used by the Turkish government for the Gülen movement].” The issue was resolved only after human rights defender and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) deputy Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu made the matter public on social media.
‘You are prosecuting a dead man’
In a forceful defense statement, Aksoy said no punishment that the court handed down could be worse than the pain he experienced when he took the bodies of dead children to the shore and looked into their eyes. “Although I have lost both my wife and son, you have imprisoned me based on allegations that one would normally laugh at. You have engraved this genocide on my heart by not even allowing me to bury them. I don’t expect justice from the so-called judicial system that killed three innocent souls. You can give me whatever sentence you like,” he said.
Stigmatized as a terrorist overnight
Aksoy testified in court that in a blatant violation of the principle of presumption of innocence he was stigmatized as a terrorist overnight, like thousands of others who were purged from public service. His lengthy defense contains important points regarding the nature of court cases brought against alleged members of the Gülen movement. “In a country ruled by law one cannot become a terrorist for sending his child to a certain school or for working at a school in 2011-2012, years before it was closed down by a decree. … Such actions cannot be considered a crime in any legal or belief system. Likewise, paying your bills or transferring money from the bank that was closest to your home cannot be considered a cause for removal from public service.”
‘None of this would have happened If I had high-up connections in the AKP‘
In his defense, Aksoy also highlighted the inequalities inherent in the Turkish legal system. “When the US president tweeted about Pastor Brunson, those who said he would never be freed instructed the courts to set him free. [Chancellor Angela] Merkel of Germany called for the release of journalist Deniz Yücel, and the so-called justice system obeyed. As you all know, those who know people or have relatives in high-up places in the AKP were all released. Neither my father nor my father-in-law is rich. … I have no one else to stand by me other than God. In fact, I have been a victim of this genocide only because I am alone and am not being heard. As we have witnessed in numerous other examples, if someone from the AKP had instructed the courts to release me, no law could have kept me in prison. The courts would have somehow found an excuse and released me. Actually, if I had such connections, I wouldn’t have lost my job or have been subjected to a social death. I wouldn’t have had to take the journey of death. … But as I said, I have no one other than God,” he said in his statement before the judges.
‘What kind of terrorist organization is this?’
Aksoy also challenged the logic of calling a social group whose members have not been involved in any violent activity terrorist. “What kind of a terrorist organization is this? What kind of a terrorist am I? The lives of hundreds of thousands of people have been upended. The fruits of their labor, their jobs and their properties have been confiscated. Security forces have conducted hundreds of so-called operations against them, but somehow none of the officials fighting against this most dangerous terrorist organization in the world have, thankfully, suffered any casualties or gotten hurt in any way. … What kind of a terrorist organization is this? The most developed countries in the world with the best legal systems and the most powerful intelligence agencies welcome its members and give them refuge.”
Aksoy finished his powerful defense by saying he did not want or need mercy. “Mercy cannot be a cure for persecution. This defense is in reality a petition to the great court in the afterlife. And a complaint to the Divine Court. Allah is surely the ‘Absolutely Just One’.”
In the end, Aksoy was sentenced to 10 years, one month and 15 days’ imprisonment. His sentence was upheld by an appeals court.
Gülen movement and the coup attempt
The Turkish government accuses the Gülen movement of masterminding the attempted military coup of July 15, 2016 and labels it as a “terrorist organization.” The movement strongly denies involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity. Following the allegations, US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the movement, called on the Turkish government to allow for an international investigation. He promised full cooperation with the investigators and agreed to return to Turkey from the United States for prosecution in the event “one-tenth of the allegations are substantiated.” To date, no democratic country has declared the movement a terrorist organization.
Since the coup attempt, more than 150,000 civil servants have been removed from their jobs, over 500,000 people have been investigated on terrorism charges and more than 90,000 have been arrested. Those who were purged or prosecuted are not allowed to work in the public sector. Moreover, due to notices put into the social security database, they are not even able to work with benefits in the private sector. In some cases, even commercial banks refuse to serve their purged customers. These and similar policies have sparked criticism that “the purged” have been subjected to a social death.