Turkish baby girl, whose mother was detained right after she was born, now growing up in Athens

Ahmet Naim & Bahar Çelebi, Athens

Turkey recognized her in September 2017 with police officers waiting at the door of a delivery room. Her name is Betül Özkan. A housewife. On September 17, 2017, she gave birth to her daughter Zülal by caesarean section at Adana Ortadoğu Hospital.

She was taken into custody by police the following day over her alleged links to the Gülen movement. The scandal was brought to the agenda on social media. Sezgin Tanrıkulu, a deputy of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), personally stepped in and tried to secure Özkan’s release.

Tanrıkulu tweeted: “B.Ö. gave birth by C-section this morning in Adana Ortadoğu Hospital. She has been waiting for her detention. Don’t inflict this cruelty on mothers. @TC_Basbakan.”

Özkan was released two days later due to massive reactions from the public and on social media. She is now in Athens with her husband and three children. Baby Zülal is now 8 months old. After the trauma they experienced the family decided to leave Turkey.  They crossed the Meriç River (Evros River) to reach Greece illegally five months ago and decided to settle there. They have been praying for others, saying, “We survived, may God save our innocent sisters and brothers who are left behind.”

The Stockholm Center For Freedom (SCF) has pursued the story of the Özkan family. SCF conducted a video interview with Betül Özkan and her husband Bekir Özkan as well as their two children in Athens. The experience of the family is like a short summary of the great humanitarian tragedy taking place in Turkey at the moment.

The main reason for Betül Özkan’s detention was her husband Bekir Özkan. Bekir, a science teacher, worked at prep schools affiliated with the Gülen movement in southern Diyarbakır and Hatay provinces. While in Hatay, their lives were turned upside down by a controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016 like thousands of other families.

Betül Özkan started to tell SCF her story by saying that “The police had come to our house, from where we had already moved. The doorman called and informed us. He said the police were looking for us. After that, we had to live in different places because we didn’t know what our crime was, just like everyone else.”

When a detention warrant was issued for Bekir Özkan, they began to hide in a different house because they were so affected by news of torture being committed under police custody. After a while, Betül Özkan moved to Adana province where her family lived. She found out there that she was pregnant.

Betül Özkan said: “I found out that I was pregnant during that time. I used to go to the doctor, but everything changed after May 2017. I learned that I was also being sought by the police. Therefore, I couldn’t get to the doctor. The thought of delivering a baby under those circumstances caused lots of stress for me. I had worries that my baby might be born in prison or under police custody. I was, of course, pleased that I would have a baby, but I had fears. too. My baby could not develop in normally in my womb due to my sorrow and stress.”

Betül Özkan, who stated that she said goodbye to her mother, father and relatives the day before giving birth, said: “I knew I would be caught. I knew the police would come after giving my fingerprints at the hospital because there were many examples of this. For instance, one week before my delivery, one of my friends was admitted to the hospital and as soon as her fingerprints were taken at the hospital the police had came and detained her.”

Bekir Özkan had left his house and went to his wife just before the birth. Before going to the hospital on the morning of the delivery, Betül Özkan said goodbye to her sons Zübeyir (9) and Bahadır (8) and and left letters for both of them. “Because I do not know how many years it will take before I’m released from jail, I left letters for both of my children. I felt so bad when I said goodbye to them,” she stated.

Nine-year-old Zübeyir Özkan related his experiences of those hours and said: “The day before, I had showered, I was getting dressed. I heard my mother talking to her aunt. One of my cousins was staying with us. I told him: ‘Let’s pray for my mother. She will be taken into custody.’ We prayed together. The next day I asked my father, ‘Dad, how is my mother?’ Something has happened but I couldn’t get it.”

Bekir Özkan, who took his pregnant wife to the hospital at 6 a.m. on the morning of September 17, 2017, shared what they experienced that morning: “I took her to the hospital. I approached the hospital but remained a certain distance away. I could not go further because I had no idea what was going to happen. There was a risk of being taken into custody at the hospital. I said goodbye to my wife. That hospital was a kind of house of suffering for us. God knows how many times I wandered around the building. And then, when my elder sisters told me that undercover police were walking down there,  I had to go back to the house where I was hiding. I was pacing back and forth like a prisoner, too. I writhed in pain until the moment that I got the good news that my baby and my wife were both healthy.”

From Betül Özkan’s point of view, that minutes have been lived as follows: “My husband took me to the hospital at 6 o’clock in the morning. He said goodbye to me in a certain place. The worst was that my husband, who was with me in the birth of all my children, was unable to be with me this time.”

Everything has developed at the hospital exactly as Betül Özkan has predicted. Police came to the hospital immediately after she gave her fingerprint. She told the SCF the rest of her story at the hospital as follow:

“I knew that the police would come when my fingerprint was taken. About half an hour or 40 minutes after I gave my fingerprint I entered the delivery room. While I was in labor the police came and insistently asked questions about me. My sister-in-laws said that I was ‘in labor’. I woke up with a very serious pain. Even though I gave birth to my previous two children by c-section, there was a much different pain this time. I got chilled to the marrow. There was narcosis effect too. However, I could hear what they spoke about. I was aware of what was happening, but it was like a film strip.

“My eyes were closing and opening; closing and opening… Then they took me to another room. Four police officers, in their formal uniforms, were waiting me in the room. Even before I was taken from the stretcher to the bed, a police started tell me insistently: ‘Sign this…’ My sisters-in-law objected to police. They said ‘Leave her alone, she is on the stretcher, let her lay on her bed.’

“I do not remember those minutes completely. But, I remember that the same police officer  kept on insisting about signing the paper afterwards. I could not read the paper. I did not even know what I was signing. I just turned back to my sisters-in-law and asked, ‘What is this paper about?’ They replied me that ‘The paper is about that they came to take you into custody.’ I also asked the police officers, ‘What is this paper?’ They said me that they have no idea, either. Even I asked the police officers that ‘Why are you taking me into custody, what have I done, and what crime have I committed?’ They just wanted me to sign the paper.”

One of the things that got her upset most was that she could not take her newly-born baby in her arms. Betül Özkan expressed her sorrow as follow: “When I was taken out of surgery room, the baby was in the room. First, a police officer took the baby. I could not take my baby on my lap. They made me wait in the operating room for a while. When I came to the room, the baby was there, but I saw directly the police officers. I could not get my baby in my arms. The police officers insisted me to sign the paper. I could not take my baby on my lap for about half an hour or 40 minutes. The most important moment for a baby is the moment when he/she meets his/her mother. I could not get my baby at that moment. It is still very painful for me.”

A similar grief was also being experienced by father Bekir Özkan who was waiting with concern in a house where he was hiding. He had been delighted to receive the news about healthy birth, but this time he started to feel sorry for not being together with his wife and his baby.

Saying that, “These emotions cannot be described,” Bekir Özkan told that “I can say that it was the most difficult time of my life and even I can say that it was the time period that aged me so much. Those 6-7 months were very difficult for me. The thing I was offended most with was that I took my two children in my arms at their births, but I could not get my daughter (getting emotional). It was a very difficult process that is impossible for me to tell. Because every father wants to be with his wife and keep her hand and take his baby in his arms. But my baby was, unfortunately, in the arms of the police. Her birth was unfortunate, but I hope she would have luck of the Irish.”

The first moments of Betül Özkan at the hospital passed that way with the psychological pressure of the police. She described that atmosphere as follow:

“They were constantly going in and out of the room. They made their presence felt. They were showing their power rather than they were approaching a patient. I asked the police repeatedly, ‘What am I being sought for, why are you taking me into custody?’ What they said were absurd such as ‘Maybe you killed someone, maybe a stab wound with knife, maybe a mugging.’

“When I replied them by saying that ‘I am a woman who is trying to stand on her own feet. I am also a mother. I did not do any of them.’ They scolded me in a harsh style by saying that ‘Maybe FETÖ.’

“They kept on asking about my husband insistently. Also, they asked me successively that “What did you do? Why were you in Diyarbakır? Why did you work in their (Gülen movement) institutions?’ I had a sort of interrogation in the room…

“My doctor came to me about an hour later. She was a very good doctor. I was so grateful to her. She was a real humanitarian woman. She said me that ‘I gave the police the necessary response. I wrote a 48-hour sick leave for you. Your situation is critical. Even if you never open your mouth, they cannot get you out of here. They cannot enter the room, they have to wait at the door.’

“But the police officers did not care about what she said. No matter how courteous I was, they insisted on entering the room and asking questions. For example, if a flower bouquet was brought… By taking the flowers from the florist they were asking, ‘Who sent this flower to you? Where is your father? Where is your father-in-law?’ I said my father-in-law was paralyzed and unable to come. They were still asking ‘Why cannot they come?’ If I said he is paralyzed, they asked me ‘What does it mean?’ I said again ‘He was paralyzed and lying in the bed.’ Later they asked me again ‘Why cannot he come?’ I have never heard such a ridiculous question in my life.”

Betül Özkan also described how she was detained by police at the hospital room and taken to the police headquarter as follows:

“When I was detained they asked me to get on a van-type vehicle. I could not step in the van because of my pain. Two police officers grabbed my arms and pulled, my sisters-in-law pushed me from behind. I could get on the police vehicle by crawling in on my knees. I had never cried until that moment, but I let myself go. I had a very extreme pain.

“While I was being taken to the police headquarters I felt as if they preferred to go over especially the potholes, bumps and stones. The detention room was very cold. I did not feel such degree of cold in my life. My baby started feeling cold. I wrapped my baby with the cheesecloths. We insisted on knocking the door in order to say that ‘Please, turn off the air conditioner. We are sick. I had a surgical operation lately.’ But they have never opened the door.”

Betül Özkan was referred to the courthouse after staying under detention in these dire conditions for 2 days. Fortunately, she was released after the prosecutor’s interrogation. She explained her interrogation process as follow:

“The prosecutor insisted on asking where my husband was. He said me that my husband was being sought due to this and that. I understood that I was not the one who was actually wanted. In fact, there was no detention warrant for me. I was taken into custody just because my husband was being sought. Just because of that I suffered a lot. The interrogation took just 10 minutes. Police said the same thing, ‘You obviously do not have any crime. They are looking for your husband, the prosecutor is looking for him, too. That’s why your husband should come and surrender’.”

Betül Özkan cannot forget what the CHP deputy Tanrıkulu did in this whole process. She places a particular importance on him. As soon as the tragical news was heard that police officers were waiting in the hospital, the news draw lots of reactions from social media and international circles. The topic quickly came to the fore on the social media. Tanrıkulu also gave huge support for Betül Özkan.

Betül Özkan, who said that Tanrıkulu’s support moved her to tears, expressed his appreciations for his efforts as follow:

“Mr Tanrıkulu called me and told me that ‘Do not worry, I follow the process very well. I have a friend who follows the file in Diyarbakır. Please relax and just take care of your baby.’ In this way he constantly motivated me. He called me at least 4 times a day. I cannot really pay for it.

“When I came home I called him and said that ‘Mr. Tanrıkulu, thank you very much for your help’. He replied me that ‘Don’t worry. I got your news while you were inside, you’re not guilty, you are innocent. It’s such a lawless state. Relax, take your time. Their power works for only innocent people.’ May God bless him forever. May God bless the people, who retweeted, commented and not left me alone. Perhaps because of these supports I could get off lightly this time. I survived. I wish the God help my brothers and sisters left behind in Turkey. It was very difficult.

“We are innocent. It doesn’t matter what identity you have or where you belong to. It does not have to be like this or that. We need to be just human. The one with a heart and a brain could know that what is happening now in Turkey is totally wrong. I prayed for Sezgin Tanrıkulu. As I was a puerperant woman, I prayed for him. My mother prayed for him. My children prayed for him. My relatives prayed for him. He get the prayers of a persecuted woman. Numerous victims prayed for him. My only prayer is that God help my friends left behind. My Lord will not make them feel any kind of pain or grief. Thank goodness we have survived, but my Lord help them left behind.”

The Özkan family decided to go abroad three and a half months after this incident. Bekir Özkan explains this decision as the follows:

“Our decision to come to Greece developed very suddenly. I did not want to leave my country that I loved so much. Especially it gives different meaning if you have your parents and relatives still live there. It was very difficult to leave the country, but the persecution was also accelerated on the one hand. Every day, we read news about tortures under custody and prisons on the media… As one of the great scholars said once upon a time ‘I can live without bread, without water. But I can never live without freedom,’ we also said that we cannot live without freedom, we have to go now.

“Then, my daughter was three and a half months old. The circumstances were very difficult. It was -4 C degrees cold. We were worried if we could make or not, but thanks to God for helping us to overcome all the hardships. We came to Greece and we have a relatively happy life here now.”

Women and mothers who have been jailed in the unprecedented crackdown have been subjected to torture and ill treatment in detention centers and prisons as part of the government’s systematic campaign of intimidation and persecution of critics and opponents, a report titled “Jailing Women In Turkey: Systematic Campaign of Persecution and Fear released in April 2017 by SCF revealed.

In several cases, mothers were detained in the hospital immediately after the delivery of a baby and before they had a chance to recover. Many mothers were jailed as they were visiting their imprisoned husbands, leaving the children stranded in the ensuing chaos.

In a 28-page report issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in March 2018 emphasised on the detention, arrest and torture of pregnant women and children in Turkey in 2017.

The report said that “OHCHR estimates that approximately 600 women with young children were being held in detention in Turkey as of December 2017, including about 100 women who were pregnant or had just given birth.

“OHCHR documented at least 50 cases of women who had given birth just prior to or just after being detained or arrested. OHCHR received a report concerning a woman who was sexually assaulted by a police officer during arrest. Moreover, NGOs brought to the attention of OHCHR at least six cases of women who were detained while they were visiting their spouses in prison. They were either detained together with their children or violently separated from them.”

Turkey survived a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that killed 249 people. Immediately after the putsch, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government along with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pinned the blame on the Gülen movement.

Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the movement, strongly denied having any role in the failed coup and called for an international investigation into it, but President Erdoğan — calling the coup attempt “a gift from God” — and the government initiated a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.

Turkey has suspended or dismissed more than 150,000 judges, teachers, police and civil servants since July 15. On December 13, 2017 the Justice Ministry announced that 169,013 people have been the subject of legal proceedings on coup charges since the failed coup.

Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu announced on April 18, 2018 that the Turkish government had jailed 77,081 people between July 15, 2016 and April 11, 2018 over alleged links to the Gülen movement.

Please see the video in Turkish: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=REUZiJ3PMm8

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