Detained for a crime he did not commit. Kept in a police cell for 13 days without giving a statement. Every day, severely beaten and verbally abused. Every day, taken to a doctor for examination, telling them about the torture and subsequent panic attacks – only to be returned to his cell. After 13 days of this nightmare, he suffers a fatal heart attack. The government tries to cover up the circumstances. His family is traumatised by stigmatisation and a drawn-out investigation.
This is Erdogan’s Turkey, and the case of Gökhan Açıkkollu. A new report by the Stockholm Centre for Freedom examines this case in detail, with accounts from Açıkkollu’s family, doctor’s reports, witness statements and CCTV footage. Despite the immense evidence that he was indeed tortured, and that this was the cause of his death, no one has yet been held accountable.
Açıkkollu, 42-years-old, had previously worked as a history teacher at Gulenist affiliated private schools. In 2012, he commenced at the Ümraniye Atatürk Industrial Vocational High School in Istanbul, operated by the Ministry of Education. He suffered from anxiety and diabetes, but was otherwise healthy. On the 15th of July 2016, he was celebrating his son’s birthday at home with his family. The coup attempt dampened the mood, but the following days continued as planned. Açıkkollu attended his brother’s wedding, and took his family on holiday to his wife’s home town Konya.
Then on the 21st of July, on hearing that 1,000 private schools affiliated with the Gulen movement had been shut down and many teachers’ licenses revoked, Açıkkollu returned to Istanbul. On the 22nd, he received the news that he too had been suspended. An hour later, his wife, also a teacher, still in Konya, received the same fate.
Following this, at around 11pm on the 23rd, a team of 15 police officers raided Açıkkollu’s house. It would later be revealed that his name was forcibly given as a coup plotter by another tortured detainee, a confession retracted in 2017. Yet Açıkkollu was beaten, denied a lawyer, and taken away in a police car. His family received a call regarding the detention the following morning, but were not informed of the allegations or Açıkkollu’s location.
13 Days of Torture
Açıkkollu had been taken to the Vatan Police Station in Istanbul. Here are the events that followed:
Day One, 24th July.
Although Açıkkollu was assaulted during his arrest, and continued to be beaten during transport and on arrival, a routine medical examination by the Bayrampasa State Hospital states “there was no torture or assault”. However, when Açıkkollu later fainted and was taken to the Haseki Teaching and Research Hospital, lesions from beatings and a panic attack were recorded.
Day Two, 25th July.
Açıkkollu is taken to the Central Forensic Sciences Branch Directorate (CFSBD) for a medical check-up. Despite containing statements of torture and ill-treatment made by Açıkkollu, and severe bruising found on his shoulders, the report concludes that “no battery or assault was found”.
Day Three, 26th July.
A doctor from the CFSBD places another report outlining various bruises on Açıkkollu’s shoulders and back, chest pain and his ongoing panic attacks. Heart problems are suspected. Açıkkollu tells his cellmates that this doctor took photographs of the signs of torture.
Day Four, 27th July.
Once again taken to the CFSBD, Açıkkollu relates how the torture has continued, with his face slapped hundreds of times, his chest kicked, and the back of his head banged against the wall whilst being heavily sworn at. The doctor records injuries consistent with this, and notes how the panic attacks are continuing. Further medical examination and psychiatric consultation is recommended.
This same day, after repeatedly calling the police to find her husband’s whereabouts, Açıkkollu’s wife is finally told that he is at Vatan Police Station. She takes in medication for his diabetes and anxiety, and some clothes. She would later find the clothes never reached Açıkkollu, and the medication remained untouched. She is denied hiring a private lawyer, being told the prosecutor would assign one from the Istanbul Bar.
Day Five, 28th July.
Around 9:00am, Açıkkollu suffers a severe panic attack. He is taken to Haseki Teaching and Research Hospital. After four hours, he is returned to his cell upon a doctor’s statement that “there is no concern with regard to him staying in detention”. This decision has been heavily criticized by the Turkish Doctor’s Union and Human Rights Foundation of Turkey. A fourth report is filed by the CFSBD outlining torture and ill-treatment.
Day Six, 29th July.
Again, Açıkkollu accounts severe beatings and verbal abuse to the CFSBD, and bruising was recorded.
Day Seven, 30th July.
Açıkkollu is finally supplied a lawyer from the Istanbul Bar. Upon hearing that he needed new glasses as his had been broken, his wife requests that the lawyer file a complaint for violence, but is refused.
Açıkkollu is taken to the Bayrampaşa State Hospital. The file records pain around his eyes, bruising on his cheeks, and a red scalp. A “state of panic and fear was observed… he had excessive fear”. The hospital recommended general surgery, neurosurgery and psychiatry services.
Day Eight, 31st July.
After having a panic attack at around 3pm, Açıkkollu is taken to the emergency clinic at Istanbul University’s Faculty of Medicine. An examination finds acute stress and anxiety due to verbal and physical abuse.
Day Nine, 1st August.
Açıkkollu is taken to the Haseki Teaching and Research Hospital. The doctor notes “no signs of torture or assault”.
Day Ten, 2nd August.
A routine medical check-up at Haseki Teaching and Research Hospital concludes “the patient’s general condition is good”.
Day Eleven, 3rd August.
This time, the Haseki Teaching and Research Hospital reports that Açıkkollu had been exposed to psychological and physical trauma, noting lesions on his upper back. When Açıkkollu told them that pain was persisting from being kicked in the chest, it was decided he should be examined by an orthopedic surgeon; oddly, the hospital reports that he refused such examination.
Day Twelve, 4th August.
On his final trip to the Haseki Teaching and Research Hospital, doctors report that Açıkkollu’s status is good, granting continued panic attacks and pain in his chest.
Day Thirteen, 5th August.
CCTV footage reveals what happened on this fatal day. At 4:22am, amongst four others sleeping, Açıkkollu wakes. A few minutes later he stands up and waits at the cell bars. With no sound available, it is uncertain whether he called for the police. At 4:35, he starts to have convulsions, waking the others. While one co-prisoner holds Açıkkollu’s hand, another goes to the bars. At 4:40, three officers carry Açıkkollu out of the cell.
In the corridor, they first sit him on a chair, then lay him on a table. At 4:44am, a doctor who was also in detention – escorted from his cell to help – applied cardiac massage to Açıkkollu. Another medical detainee is called to assist. At 4:48, the emergency services arrive and the cardiac massage continues until 5:25, when Açıkkollu is placed on a stretcher and carried away. He was taken to the Haseki Research Hospital, where records show that cardiac massage was applied for a further 40 minutes. He was pronounced dead at 6:15am.
Açıkkollu’s autopsy revealed fracturs in four ribs, alongside bleeding; the Ministry of Justice claims this is from the cardiac massage, but it may have been from being kicked in the chest. It also showed neck bruising extending to the deep tissue.
Many of those who were detained with Açıkkollu came forward to testify that he was “heavily tortured”, including a journalist and several lawyers. They recounted to the Stockholm Centre for Freedom how there was signs of beatings all over Açıkkollu’s body when he first arrived. Several times during his detention officers took him away and he came back beaten. The physical and psychological torture were used to draw out names of conspirers, of which he knew none.
Although full of life when he arrived, Açıkkollu “started to withdraw into himself more each day due to his panic attacks”. The night before he died, Açıkkollu was hit very hard in the chest; he felt pain even touching it. Furthermore, despite the prosecutor’s file stating that Açıkkollu died in hospital, both detainee doctors testify that he was already dead when they began cardiac massage. Voice recordings from the emergency services also show a member saying he had died in custody.
Forensic expert and head of Human Rights Foundation in Turkey, Professor Fincancı, examined the evidence surrounding Açıkkollu’s death and concluded that the cause was torture. She notes the daily complaints by Açıkkollu, the corresponding bruises and lesions, and development of acute stress disorder. Stress and trauma are high risk factors for cardiovascular disease. She emphasises that whether the rib fractures were due to the cardiac massage or kick to the chest, the important factors are that he did not receive an x-ray after the kick and that his death was due to torture. She adds that the poor conduction of medical examinations violated the Istanbul Protocol and the Minnesota Protocol.
An investigation was launched upon allegations of death by torture. However, the public prosecutor did not include the photos of the injuries, witness testimonies, or Professor Fincani’s report. Moreover, despite the recordings obtained from the prison covering 4am-5:30am on the day of his death, previous CCTV footage was not viewed. The prosecutor thus concluded on the 20th of December that “there was no malicious intent or negligence; the death was not deliberate; and there was no external reason behind Açıkkollu’s death”.
Erol Bayram, lawyer for the Açıkkollu family, objected and launched an appeal. Despite judicial procedures requiring that a decision should be made within 14 days, the decision came seven months later – a fresh investigation would be launched. This is still ongoing.
Attempting a funeral
Açıkkollu’s family wanted to bury him in Istanbul, but were told that his body could be only buried in the ‘Traitors Cemetery’ at Pendik’s Ballica village. The mayor has said of this cemetery “the passers-by will curse the ones buried there… they won’t be able to rest in their graves”. The family were also told that Islamic funeral rites would not be possible. They objected as Açıkkollu had not been found guilty or even have his statement taken, to no avail. They decided to bury him in Konya, but were unable to have his body embalmed, eventually undertaking the process themselves.
After all this, once in Konya the family was unable to find an Iman as the Religious Affairs Directorate had banned Iman’s from participating in funeral rites for alleged coup plotters. Proceeding with a neighborhood volunteer, they buried him in Büyükoz Cemetery. Two days later, the elected official of Büyükoz was reprimanded for allowing it to proceed, and was later dismissed.
In addition to the lack of sympathy given whilst grieving, Açıkkollu’s wife was detained and interrogated in early 2017. Although released upon the prosecutor’s conclusion that she had no Gulen links, the family lives in constant fear, described by the Stockholm Centre for Freedom as an intimidation campaign. Açıkkollu’s young daughter was traumatized by the events, and is seeing a psychologist. His older son, originally studying to become engineer, has now commenced a law degree.
Not an Isolated Event
Unfortunately, Açıkkollu’s case is not an isolated event in Erdogan’s Turkey. Torture, particularly against political prisoners, has been a longstanding issue, proliferating since the 2016 coup attempt. There have been 93 suspicious deaths under police custody and in prison during this year alone. This is despite numerous national laws and international obligations against torture and ill-treatment.
A failure by doctors to properly examine political detainees and record signs of torture is also common. Those loyal to the ruling Justice and Development Party are encouraged by officials to allow abuse against alleged Gulen supporters, and others are threatened into silence. Moreover, the lack of an independent judiciary due to the dismissal of thousands of prosecutors and judges has created a state of impunity.
In light of this report by the Stockholm Centre for Freedom, it is of utmost importance that authorities fully investigate the circumstances of Açıkkollu’s death and hold the officials responsible to account. The Turkish government must take additional measures to end the ongoing culture of torture and ill-treatment.