An expert in forensic medicine who shared a cell with Gökhan Açıkkollu, a teacher who was tortured to death while under detention in the aftermath of a failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016, has said the teacher was hurt more by the insults than the physical violence he was subjected to.
Dr. Gürol Berber spoke to Ece Sevim Öztürk, the editor-in-chief of the Çağdaşses news website. The interview, which was broadcast live on Periscope, was also posted by Öztürk to her Twitter account on Monday.
Teacher 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 and eventually died.
Berber said Açıkkollu was handcuffed from behind when he was taken for interrogation and that Açıkkollu told him that while en route, he heard insults, with people calling him “traitor” and “terrorist.”
Berber said Açıkkollu told him hearing those insults was more painful for him than the beatings he was subjected to both when being detained in his home and during interrogations because he was a person who loved his country very much and did nothing against it.
“When he came back to the cell after nine hours of questioning during which he was again subjected to beatings and insults, he was very anxious and scared. He was concerned that they would take him for questioning again. We [Berber and other cellmates ] were trying to console him… He was not able to sleep, and most of the time he was curled up in the fetal position. We tried to change his position, but he was back to that again,” said Berber.
Last week, Açıkkollu’s ordeal came to public attention again after a document became public showing that he was “reinstated” to his job at a public school in İstanbul one-and-a-half years after his death since he had been found innocent.
Berber said Açıkkollu was taken for questioning again, and when he was brought back to the cell, he embraced a cellmate, lawyer Emrah Biçer, and cried for 15 minutes on his shoulder and then said how he was beaten during interrogation when he was forced to make confessions and they tried to get him to give the names of people involved in plotting the coup.
“They [the torturers] kneed him in the back. He held his chest until the day he died due to severe pain. They told him, ‘Give us names and save yourself.’ If he had made up a name, he would have saved himself,” said the doctor.
Açıkkollu was a diabetes patient and used to suffer panic attacks. He was on insulin therapy but when his belongings, including his medication, were returned to his wife following his death, she discovered that Açıkkollu had received almost no medication or insulin while he was in detention.
Berber said the teacher experienced hypoglycemia crises and panic attacks several times while in detention and that his cellmates gave him sugar to help with the hypoglycemia.
When asked about the night Açıkkollu died, Berber said: “On that night, Gökhan was constantly holding his chest and shaking. I heard the authorities say, ‘He died of a heart attack, not because of torture.’ Can there be such a nonsense thing? If a person who was exposed to torture suffers a heart attack, does not torture play a role in this? Let’s say someone kicks the belly of a pregnant woman and the woman loses her baby. Can we say the woman was going to miscarry the baby anyway?“ asked Berber.
Açıkkollu’s family learned of his death when they were called to the İstanbul Institute of Forensic Medicine, where Açıkkollu’s ill treatment continued even in death. They were told the funeral could be held on condition that he be buried in a graveyard set aside by the Greater İstanbul Municipality for alleged “traitors,” despite the fact he had not been tried, nor even interrogated. Imams assigned by the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) had refused to say the funeral prayer for Açıkkollu.
His family had to embalm the body themselves and took him to his hometown in Konya province in their own car. Here, too, the imam of the local mosque would not officiate at the funeral because of instructions issued by the Religious Affairs Directorate that “the funeral prayer will not be performed for traitors.” As a result, his last rites were said by his close relatives.
The torture, ill-treatment, abusive, inhuman and degrading treatment of people who are deprived of their liberties in Turkey’s detention centers and prisons have become the norm rather than the exception under increased nationalistic euphoria and religious zealotry in the country in wake of the coup attempt in July 2016, blamed by the government on the Gülen movement.
Turkey has suspended or dismissed more than 150,000 judges, teachers, police and other civil servants since the putsch. Turkey’s interior minister announced on Dec. 12, 2017 that 55,665 people have been arrested. The Justice Ministry announced a day later that 169,013 people have been the subject of legal proceedings on coup charges since the failed coup.