UN committee faults Turkey in case of teacher who died in custody after arrest over Gülen links

The United Nations Human Rights Committee on Wednesday released its decision concerning an application submitted on behalf of a teacher who was allegedly tortured in police custody and subsequently died during a post-coup purge in August 2016, saying the state violated his rights and the rights of his family under several articles of the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Turkish Minute reported.

Following a failed coup in Turkey on July 15, 2016, teacher Gökhan Açıkkollu was detained on July 24, 2016 on trumped-up charges of coup plotting and terrorism and remained in police custody for 13 days, during which time he was subjected to both physical and psychological torture until he died.

His wife, Mümine Açıkkollu, who submitted the communication on his behalf on Jan. 29, 2020, claimed that the torture and death of her husband in police custody constitute violations by Turkey’s government of Articles 6, 7, 9, and 14 of the covenant.

The committee said in its decision that it found that the state party failed to protect Açıkkollu’s life while in detention, considering his known pre-existing health problems such as social anxiety due to stress suffered during military service, diabetes and panic attacks, in breach of Articles 6 and 7 of the Covenant.

It also concluded that the failure of the State party’s authorities to investigate promptly and thoroughly the circumstances of Açıkkollu’s death effectively denied a remedy to the author and her children, and amounted to mental suffering in violation of their rights under Article 7.

The committee further said that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government failed to substantiate that Açıkkollu’s detention met the criteria of “reasonableness and necessity,” therefore finding that his detention amounted to a violation of his rights under Article 9 (1) and (2) of the covenant.

The committee also said, in response to the government submission, that the communication should be considered inadmissible due to the non-exhaustion of domestic remedies, as the author’s application to the Constitutional Court was still pending, but that it found the government hadn’t shown the application would have been effective, in practice, to challenge the lawfulness of her husband’s detention and subsequent death in custody.

It also noted that the judgments of the Constitutional Court ruling that the use of the ByLock application can be relied on as sole or decisive evidence of the criminal offense of membership in FETÖ, a derogatory term coined by the Turkish government to refer to the faith-based Gülen movement as a terrorist organization, were published after the arrest and detention of Açıkkollu and therefore, the government failed to justify his detention.

ByLock, once widely available online, has been considered a secret tool of communication among supporters of the Gülen movement since a coup attempt that took place in July 2016, despite the lack of any evidence that ByLock messages were related to the abortive putsch.

The committee said the government was obligated to “(a) conduct a prompt, impartial and thorough investigation into the circumstances of the author’s husband’s arbitrary arrest, torture and death; (b) prosecute those responsible; and (c) provide adequate compensation to the author and her children,” in addition to taking all necessary steps to prevent the occurrence of similar violations in the future.

In its decision, the committee referred to a video showing the negligence of police officers in the death of Açıkkollu, which was released on the Bold Medya news website in August 2019.

In the video, Açıkkollu is seen in a one-person cell with four other inmates in the basement of an İstanbul police department building. At around four in the morning on Aug. 5, he starts showing signs of discomfort. He approaches the bars and calls out to police officers for a few minutes, but no one responds. After he returns to bed, spasms begin a few minutes later, which wake up the other detainees in the cell. It takes four more minutes until detention ward guards take him out of the cell, at which point he no longer shows any signs of life.

Testimony taken from a doctor who was also held in custody in the same building says Açıkkollu had no pulse when he was asked to perform a cardiac massage.

An additional autopsy report, drafted by forensic medical expert Professor Şebnem Korur Fincancı, showed that Açıkkollu had suffered a heart attack due to a number of causes including his exposure to torture and deprivation of his diabetes medication.

President Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement, inspired by Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, since the corruption investigations of Dec. 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. Erdoğan intensified the crackdown on the movement following the coup attempt.

Açıkkollu was one of over 130,000 civil servants who were dismissed from their jobs by government decrees issued under the state of emergency that was declared in the aftermath of the failed coup. The government finally announced his innocence one-and-a-half years after his death and he was “reinstated” to his job in early 2018.

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