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"We fell from the ground"

For years he has been one of Turkey's most outspoken human rights activists, telling stories in parliament and on social media of abuse, torture and midnight arrests by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But shortly after midnight on April 2, Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a member of the opposition Democratic People's Party (HDP), determined that it was his turn. The police were waiting outside his door, warrant in hand.

"It started politely, but soon we had to scream when the police dragged our father away," Faruk's son Salih Gergerlioglu told me in April. "All of a sudden he was gone and we realized they weren't even letting him put on his shoes." The 55-year-old MP, who was stripped of parliamentary immunity in March, was charged with “spreading terrorist propaganda” over a series of tweets in 2016 criticizing the government's suspension of peace talks with Kurdish insurgents.

"His real crime was spreading reports of rights violations in parliament," said his son. "He was one of the last to venture to tell the stories of abuse victims in prisons, police custody and elsewhere."

Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a Turkish MP for the left-wing People's Democratic Party, is surrounded by MPs who applaud and wave posters after he was dismissed after a vote in the Turkish parliament in Ankara on March 17. ADEM ALTAN / AFP via Getty Images

When arrested, Gergerlioglu joined a group of political prisoners in Turkey who have deeply traumatized Turkish society and crackdown on opposition voices since the fateful night of July 15, 2016 when a failed military uprising against Erdogan killed hundreds triggered, increased that continues half a decade later at warp speed.

A massive expansion of the country's prison network favors this approach and the associated human rights violations.

Satellite imagery shows that 131 prisons were built between July 2016 and March 2021, with documents and press reports from the Turkish Ministry of Justice suggesting that nearly 100 additional facilities are under scrutiny by the Erdogan government.

The pace of construction is more than twice as fast as in the four years before the failed coup – a time when mass arrests and political imprisonment in Turkey were already arousing international concern. During this period, 64 prisons under construction were observed via satellite images.

Turkish prison development since 2016

Photos of prison locations show several individual prisons with high-security buildings marked by outer walls and rows of identical courtyards. Surrounding buildings are used for administration, staff accommodation and as minimum security prisons.

Switch between the images to see the development between 2016-2017 and 2020-2021.

Prisons have grown in size as well as in number. The usable area of ​​prisons built after 2016 increased by an average of 50 percent compared to the previous period, new and old facilities via satellite imagery showing prison facilities that also extend over larger areas of land.

The Turkish government makes no secret of its prison building. However, a closer look reveals the unprecedented scale of his efforts, which include sprawling facilities in remote corners of the country, a plan to build one of the largest prison complexes in the world, and a massive increase in the government's capacity to punish dissent.

New prisons would enable the Turkish government to further increase the number of prisoners, which rose from 180,000 to almost 300,000 in 2019 after the failed coup. Last year, Turkey's incarceration rate was the highest of all 47 Council of Europe member states for the first time.

A representative from the Turkish Ministry of Justice did not respond to multiple interview requests for this article. However, Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul has publicly described Turkey's new prisons as urgently needed in order to address the chronic overcrowding problem and close a host of outdated facilities.

"Nevertheless, the mentality of this government is to fill every prison it builds immediately," said Gergerlioglu in an interview before his own imprisonment. "And new prisons will do nothing to stop human rights abuses in prisons while the Justice Department willingly turns a blind eye."

After the attempted coup in 2016, Turkey declared a state of emergency and gave Erdogan far-reaching powers to dismiss hundreds of thousands of officials, ban public gatherings and arrest opponents.

Less visibly, the Emergency Act contributed to lifting budget and zone restrictions on the construction of prisons, which enabled Ankara to quickly award prison contracts to government-related companies, as experienced Turkish investigative journalist Cigdem Toker reported in a series of articles in 2017.

“The government says older prisons are simply being replaced. But tiny, antiquated facilities are being traded for mass prison complexes, ”Toker said. "It seems like a plan to imprison more people than has ever been considered before."

With towering concrete walls, watchtowers and rows of narrow courtyards, 75 of the facilities considered by foreign policy after the coup were built as high-security facilities. The remaining 56 were built as minimum security prisons.

Gergerlioglu was detained in April in the Sincan Prison mega-complex outside the Turkish capital Ankara. The facility has grown since 2016. The official capacity grew by around 60 percent from 6,500 to around 10,900 prisoners. With the addition of four large high security facilities to the site, Sincan's total area is 420 acres, half the size of New York's Central Park.

In the rural interior of Turkey, new complexes such as small, self-contained cities have emerged far outside the nearest cities. On the outskirts of the Central Anatolian city of Aksaray with 423,000 inhabitants, a huge 519 million lira prison (equivalent to 145 million US dollars in 2017 when the contract was signed) with space for 6,000 inmates will soon replace a city prison made of crumbling limestone walls. The new complex is "the largest single investment in Aksaray's history," a local official said in 2017.

The scales of a prison in Aksaray

A colossal prison on the outskirts of Aksaray costs $ 145 million and will house 6,000 inmates.

Google satellite imagery

More prisons are on the way. Officials are planning a facility for 15,000 detainees in the northwestern province of Bursa. The complex would be among the largest in the world, equivalent in capacity to Rikers Island, the largest contiguous prison complex in the United States, surpassed only by the largest internmental complexes for Muslim minorities in China's Xinjiang Province.

So far, the construction work after the coup is expected to increase the total capacity of Turkish prisons from around 180,000 in 2016 by more than 70 percent to at least 320,000.

The construction has meant an enormous effort for a troubled economy and a troubled government.

Government sources put the cost at 11.2 to 13 billion Turkish liras (1.3 to 1.5 billion US dollars).

Erdogan himself, who normally advocates controversial government mega-projects as the key to Turkey's development, has failed to speak directly about new prisons. in recognition of the 10 hectare complex's long history of "repression, torture and inhuman treatment" in the middle of the Turkish state's 37-year war against Kurdish insurgents. He made no mention of the colossal 230-acre replacement complex his government built on the outskirts of the city over the past decade, a prison with vastly improved facilities but with its own growing list of allegations of abuse.

The poor appearance may be clear to a man who was imprisoned in 1997 for publicly reading an Islamist poem and who, despite his enormous power, still often portrays himself as an outsider and victim of injustice.

A soldier in a watchtower guards the courthouse in Sincan, near Ankara, on April 7, during the trial of 497 defendants for the 2016 coup attempt. On April 7, a Turkish court sentenced four former soldiers for their role in a failed attempt at the To overthrow presidents, to life imprisonment. ADEM ALTAN / AFP via Getty Images

Erdogan and Gergerlioglu once went the same way. They came from pious working-class families and grew up disaffected by the country's secularist order.

Gergerlioglu became a doctor, but in the early 1990s he was engaged in activism against Turkey's headscarf ban in state institutions. He gained a national reputation for devout human rights work and supported Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) during its first hopeful decade in power.

But the authoritarian turn of the AKP made Gergerlioglu a ruthless critic. In 2018 he became the deputy of the Kurdish rights-oriented HDP, even when Erdogan imprisoned its leader. Gergerlioglu's tenacious commitment to human rights has made him a last hope for people like Zuleyha Koc, a mother of two middle-aged children who recently watched on her cell phone as lawmakers spoke out against her husband's two-year imprisonment.

"Some days it feels like we've fallen from the ground," said Koc, who watched Gergerlioglu's speech on an opposition-run YouTube channel. "That makes me feel like we might not have." Her husband, Lutfi Koc, used to work as a dormitory manager at a private school in a town on the Aegean coast. In 2019, the 46-year-old was sentenced to more than eight years in prison for membership in a terrorist organization.

A confidential witness accused him of lecturing to students on behalf of Fethullah Gülen, a self-exiled preacher whose elusive belief network is accused by the Turkish government of leading the coup attempt.

The Gülen movement once paved Erdogan's path to power by using a network of supporters in the judiciary and police to smash the old secularist order, jail journalists and intimidate critics. But in 2013 a power struggle broke out between Erdogan and Gülen. Erdogan prevailed, and since 2016 the state's wrath has fallen on hundreds of thousands of suspected members of what his government now calls FETO.

The state-controlled media leave little room for ambiguity and widely refer to the emerging prisons across Turkey as "FETO prisons," while the acronym has become an indiscriminate nickname for any critic of Erdogan. In fact, the term defines the lives of countless people like Lutfi Koc who are either low-level Gülenists or ordinary citizens trapped by a vengeful judicial system.

"The last time I spoke to Lutfi, he said he was beaten by guards while he was being transferred from prison to prison," said Zuleyha Koc. “He said a doctor was called when his eye started bleeding. But when the bleeding stopped, they said they had started beating him again. "

International and local human rights groups have increasingly cataloged stories of torture and abuse in prisons since the failed coup. They describe beatings by guards, violent threats, sexual assault, rape, and degrading and repeated body searches of female inmates.

"In 2019 we received some reports of torture and ill-treatment," Berivan Korkut of the Civil Society in the Penal System Association, a Turkish prison reform group, told me in May. "And in 2020 that number even increased."

Korkut listed a number of chronic abuses, including overcrowding, refusing medical treatment, and severely restricting inmates' communication with lawyers and family members.

She added that new facilities can ease overcrowding but are unlikely to affect other abusive practices. Indeed, in at least three cases reported since 2017, the opening of new prisons was almost immediately accompanied by cries of torture among the inmates' families.

The Turkish Ministry of Justice has announced an investigation into these incidents. But that doesn't satisfy Gergerlioglu, who said the hundreds of abuse reports he forwarded to Parliament's Human Rights Commission remain largely unanswered.

He traces a growing list of tragedies that dominate Turkey's prison system: a teacher who died in prison after losing access to drugs to treat a chronic disease, a political prisoner lawyer who died on hunger strike when she protested her own imprisonment, more than 800 children under the age of 6 living with their mothers in prison – a number that has risen sharply since the failed coup.

For Lutfi Koc, the main challenge of incarceration was the lack of access to medical care. In 2019, doctors found two cysts in his brain. It was more than a year before Koc received the treatment he needed to confirm that the cysts were not cancer.

"You left my husband to die," said his wife. She added that he was still sick, losing weight, and occasionally having hallucinations that caused him to request additional hospital visits.

Medical care – and almost every aspect of prison life – has been made immensely complicated by COVID-19. The Turkish government says 50 inmates have died in their prisons since the virus broke out, and it claims they are taking strict precautions against the virus in these facilities.

Zuleyha Koc denies this claim, saying her husband contracted COVID-19 in late 2020. In her account, he endured chronically overcrowded prison cells with other inmates who were clearly ill, an experience that was only interrupted by long periods of solitary confinement.

Turkish prison development since 2016

Switch between the images to see the development between 2016-2017 and 2020-2021.

The crisis in the Turkish prison system is no less alarming when told through official statistics. These numbers suggest that the system is on the verge of collapse and is seriously unprepared to deal with the excesses of its own government.

To do justice to the incredible increase in new prisoners since the coup attempt, the Turkish Ministry of Justice has released around 190,000 apolitical prisoners in two separate amnesties since 2016 – a number that is higher than the total prison population before the coup heights. The number of prison inmates reached almost 300,000 in the first half of 2020, exceeding the national prison capacity of only 233,000 despite an initial amnesty. Today, despite a second amnesty, the official number is close to 288,000 to reduce overcrowding in prisons amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And although an unknown number of these detainees have been granted temporary house arrest under the amnesty, the measure expires in November, while the total number of detainees far exceeds Turkey's current prison capacity of around 250,000.

Even under the COVID-19 amnesty, prisoners of conscience were not allowed to be released. Violent criminals have now been released, and opposition media have reported a series of feminicides and domestic violence by inmates who were released in 2020.

Also released in 2020 was the far-right mafia leader Alaattin Cakici, who was known for organizing the murder of dozen leftists in the 1970s, commissioning the murder of his ex-wife in a ski resort, and openly opposing journalists from his prison Issuing death threats cell in 2018.

Zuleyha Koc cannot obtain house arrest for her husband despite his health and the special needs of the severely disabled 6-year-old son. "It takes all my strength not to collapse in front of my children," she said. "Every minister and official is silent, every court rejects my appeals."

Many in Turkey would have little sympathy for so-called enemies of the state like Lutfi Koc. But they should, argues Korkut, the advocate of prison reform. "The government has greatly increased incarceration rates for both non-political and political crimes," she said. "Mass incarceration has become the norm in Turkey for the past 15 years, with almost no public debate."

After his release from Sincan Prison, Gergerlioglu hugged a relative in Ankara on July 6th. ADEM ALTAN / AFP via Getty Images

On July 1, the Turkish Constitutional Court unexpectedly ruled that Gergerlioglu should be released and his sentence annulled.

But few could trust Turkey's highest judicial authority, as Erdogan's government has in the past pushed aside its release sentences, as well as those of the European Court of Human Rights.

Opposition parties tried to launch a joint campaign for Gergerlioglu's freedom when he remained in prison days after the decision, while Gergerlioglu's son was forcibly arrested by police during a protest outside the gates of Sincan Prison.

In the midst of the growing outcry, Gergerlioglu was finally released on the night of July 6th. “The judiciary has not returned to Turkey,” he told me. "But my freedom shows that activism can still make a difference now and then, even in the tightly controlled judiciary."

Nevertheless, around 4,000 of Gergerlioglus HDP colleagues remain behind bars, including nine MPs.

And although Erdogan promised judicial reforms and improved detention conditions earlier this year, human rights groups say the recent measures only increase the potential for retaliation against detainees who report abuse.

Meanwhile, the prisons are advancing. In the first three months of 2021, the Turkish Ministry of Justice signed contracts for six new facilities. This news unsettles Toker, the investigative journalist. "This construction is simply inextricably linked to the allegations of torture and inhumane conditions that are growing day by day," she said.

Gergerlioglu told me he was not ill-treated in prison but said he was repeatedly beaten by police officers during his transfer to Sincan Prison in April. His legislative status was restored by Parliament on July 16.

But it's hard to be optimistic about the future.

A motion filed in March for the permanent closure of the HDP – Turkey's second largest opposition party – is underway and would ban over 450 members of the party from politics. A mass trial of over 100 HDP leaders began in April. His former co-chair, Demirtas, remains in jail despite demands for his release by the Turkish Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights in 2020.

The facility he is held at has doubled since his first detention in 2016.

"We have not yet seen the end of the political prison sentence," said Gergerlioglu. "But we have no choice but to continue the fight for justice."

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