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Number of children separated from parents increasing during post-coup crackdown in Turkey

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An ever-growing number of children are being handed over to the care of relatives when their parents are arrested during a massive post-coup purge ongoing in Turkey.

The latest case took place in Istanbul, where mother Sultan Ataş and father İbrahim Ataş were detained on September 24.

Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and a member of parliament’s Human Rights Inquiry Committee, announced the parents’ arrest.

“Sultan Ataş, who has two children aged 1 and 3, was arrested together with her husband İbrahim Ataş. The younger child is still breastfeeding. The unlawful [Turkish] judiciary is also attacking the children!” Gergerlioğlu tweeted on Monday. 

The arrested parents are now held in separate prisons as the mother was sent to İstanbul Bakırköy Women’s Prison, while the father was put in Silivri Prison. The two had to say good-bye to their children in the courthouse corridor. The youngsters are reportedly staying with their elderly grandmother.

The Ataş couple is accused of links to the Gülen movement, a faith-based dissident group critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The movement is inspired by Fethullah Gülen, a self-exiled Turkish cleric living in the US. The Erdoğan regime accuses Gülen of masterminding an abortive putsch on July 15,2016 and labels the movement a terrorist organization. Gülen and his followers, however, deny any involvement in the coup or any terrorist activity.

The hashtag #SultanAtaşTahliyeOlmalı (SultanAtaşShouldBeReleased), has been initiated on Twitter to attract public support.

With the accusation of alleged links to the movement, more than 150,000 civil servants have been dismissed from state jobs, including academics, teachers, diplomats, doctors, military personnel and police officers. Since the coup bid, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has also detained or arrested nearly 80,000 people while prosecuting more than 511,000, according to data released by the Interior Ministry.

The Gedik family is another recent case where the family members were separated. The parents of four, Arif Gedik and Sibel Gedik were arrested on September 16 while fleeing Turkey via the Aegean Sea. Their children are now being taken care of by various relatives.  

Similarly, Özlem Sarıçelik, a mother of two, was arrested on September 2 in the western district of Gebze. Her husband, Zekeriya, had already been behind bars for 37 months on terrorism-related charges. Elif, the pair’s 8-year-old daughter, is suffering from Down syndrome. The two children are now living with their ailing grandmother.

The arrest of parents, which shatters families, is a “method of punishment” systematically imposed by Erdoğan’s AKP government, according to Gergerlioğlu. The HDP deputy further claims that parents were being sent to separate prisons far from each other.

Ahmet Eşref Deveci, 5, is a child whose parents, Abdullah and Dilek, were detained in the eastern province of Gaziantep on July 8, 2020. They were arrested shortly thereafter and sent to prisons in different cities, the father to Gaziantep and the mother to Kahramanmaraş. Ahmet Eşref was handed over to the care of his grandfather, who has been suffering from bladder cancer for six years.

Enes (5), Mesut (7) and Tarık (10) are another example. Murat Özonur, the father, has been in jail since February 12, 2017, while Dilek Özonur, the mother, was arrested on May 28, 2020. The three have been left to the care of their elderly grandparents living in the western province of Manisa.

At the peak of the pandemic in March, in video footage shot by the mother before her arrest, the three children were asking for their father’s release.

“I am five years old. I have always seen my father in prison. Let me at least see him at home,” Enes said at the time.

“I feel at a loss as to how to console them. Since I myself am unable to grasp why their parents were arrested, how can I get them to make sense of their situation? I cannot express how sad I am. I cry every day without letting my grandsons know it. We try to look after them without hurting their feelings or breaking their hearts,” the grandmother was quoted by the Hizmet News website as saying.

Emine and Hamit Eker have been under arrest since March 9, 2018, with their sentences having been upheld by Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals. Their two sons are also under their grandparents’ care. 

Even worse, three pregnant women were arrested in June. Among the three were Sehat Sarı and Ümmiye Kara, whose husbands were both previously arrested due to alleged links to the Gülen movement. Sarı, five months pregnant and the mother of another child, was at risk of suffering a miscarriage as she had in the past. Her 1-year-old son Mustafa Vedat was left with his grandmother.

The third pregnant woman, Hatice Aydın, was also at risk of having a miscarriage and was taking medication for it. Aydın is also a mother of two, Elif Erva (2) and Yavuz Selim (7).

Another mother of two, Şerife Ünal, wrote a letter to Gergerlioğlu in December explaining the dire situation that her family members faced.

“I am writing this letter in a great despair and exhaustion. I have been imprisoned for 21 months [30 months now], while my husband has also been in jail for 37 months [46 months now]. We have two little sons. My 62-year-old mother, Havana Ünal, was taking care of my children. However, she was also arrested 13 days ago. In addition to all the hardships we have suffered for the past three years, the arrest of my mother has overwhelmed us even more. My children are in very bad condition. My 70-year-old father is trying to take care of my children on his pension and tries to meet our needs in prison. We have been experiencing huge financial and emotional problems,” said Ünal in her letter.

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