The Özdemir judgment recently delivered by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has become a beacon of hope for tens of thousands of people in Turkey who were prosecuted on politically motivated charges after a failed coup in July 2016. The applicant, former teacher Yasin Özdemir, pursued his application without the assistance of a lawyer. He had not even specified how much he wanted in damages since he didn’t know he was supposed to.
Having his teacher’s license revoked and being arrested in 2016, Özdemir says, “The ruling came just as I was starting to suspect that the ECtHR had forgotten about me.” While he still maintains hope that one day he will return to his profession, he has been most impacted over the course of the past five years by the constant hate speech that led to him being excluded from his social environment. “My dad thinks I’m a terrorist,” says Özdemir, adding that he hopes the ECtHR verdict will allow the society in Turkey to finally realize the vast extent of rights violations.
In the judgment released in the final days of 2021, the Strasbourg-based court found that Özdemir’s conviction over his social media commentary on the faith-based Gülen movement that predated the July 2016 attempted coup, for which the Turkish government blames the movement, was in violation of his right to freedom of expression. The court said that prior to the failed putsch there had been no court decision in Turkey that the movement was a “terrorist organization” and that previous acts cannot be considered to be the crime of praising crime and criminals.
Jurists believe the judgment has implications for some 150,000 Gülen-related cases pending before Turkish courts. Almost all of these trials concern acts and statements that predate the 2016 attempted coup. Prominent human rights jurist Kerem Altıparmak wrote on social media: “This is a critical assessment. While the applicant was convicted of praising crime and criminals, if there is no [criminal] organization [to praise] and therefore the conviction is in contravention of the principle of legality, the same outcome must occur for trials on charges of membership in the organization in question. In other words, after the judgment for Yasin Özdemir, we can say that the ECtHR will find rights violations in cases where applicants appeal their ‘FETÖ’ convictions based on Article 7, which means that tens of thousands of cases will be impacted by paragraph 40 in the Özdemir judgment.”
FETÖ is a pejorative term first coined by the Turkish government and later adopted by the judiciary to refer to the Gülen movement.
‘I didn’t have a lawyer. I wrote my application myself’
The ruling was a welcome development for thousands who are on trial on charges of membership in the Gülen movement. Applicant Özdemir used to be a social sciences teacher in the province of Isparta until the 2016 coup. In his complaint to the court he gave details about his work for a Gülen-affiliated educational institution.
“After my graduation from university, I moved to Isparta, where my fiancée lived. I applied for a job in 21 different places. I even wrote to the governor, asking for employment. Finally, I started to work at a private tutoring center, but my insurance premiums were not being paid. Then I received a job offer from a Gülen-linked tutoring center. They handled my insurance properly, and I began receiving a regular salary. As the center did busines with Bank Asya, I opened an account there. Afterwards, due to my performance, I received another job offer from a private school affiliated with the Gülen movement. I worked there for four years.”
After the 2016 coup attempt, past affiliation with a Gülen-linked educational institution or having an account with the Gülen-linked Bank Asya became retroactively criminalized by Turkish authorities. Thousands who worked legally at institutions that had been operational for decades began to stand trial on terrorism-related charges.
Özdemir was detained and arrested in October 2016. After being held for a while in a one-person cell in an Isparta prison in which he was exposed to raw sewage, he was put in a crowded ward with other political prisoners. The charges leveled against him included his praise for the Gülen movement on social media. Although Özdemir was released after his first hearing, he subsequently received a suspended sentence of seven months, 15 days. He then took his case to an appeals court to no avail. In August 2017 the Constitutional Court rejected his individual application, along with those of some 70,000 other applicants, on the grounds that they had not exhausted domestic remedies.
When he received the rejection, Özdemir was surprised to find that while his name was written on the cover of the file he received from the Constitutional Court, the contents were about someone else. According to Özdemir, the simultaneous rulings on 70,000 people were produced through copy-paste. When he finally exhausted domestic remedies, he decided to apply to the ECtHR. As he did not have a lawyer, he personally prepared the application form as well as other documentation.
‘My father called me a terrorist’
Özdemir says after losing his job he was stigmatized by society. Doing a number of different jobs including driving trucks to make a living, Özdemir says what hurt him the most was the social exclusion and hatred he was subjected to. After being released from jail, his friends would not answer his phone calls and unfollowed him on social media. Özdemir says that even his own father had called him a terrorist, which had a significant impact on his state of mind.
‘I thought the ECtHR had forgotten about me’
After submitting documentation to the ECtHR about the pressure and the discrimination he had gone through, he began thinking that the Strasbourg court had forgotten about him until he saw the judgment on his case.
“I sought justice in my own country, despite those who said it would lead nowhere. Finding justice outside my country is painful, but it was my right. While the judgment will not bring back the years I’ve lost, it is significant in that it can serve as a precedent for those who suffered rights violations like I did. Amid what we went through, there have been people who lost their lives, whose families were torn apart, who lost their health. We have been excluded from society. I stood trial for crimes I didn’t commit. It is a serious violation of rights.”
Özdemir explains that despite receiving job offers thanks to his experience and successful career, he was not able to do his job due to his license being revoked. One of the offers was from the most prestigious private school of his city.
After July 2016, a specific mark named “Code 36” was registered on the social security profiles of those fired from their public and private sector jobs on account of links to the Gülen movement. Özdemir says this also led to his applications for other jobs being turned down.
“I can’t handle the fact that I was faced with such an injustice when I have always tried to be a good teacher, taken an interest in my students’ problems, kept in touch with their families, paid my taxes regularly, donated blood to the Red Crescent every three months, tried to fix every problem I saw. My house has been raided by the police three times. Once, I was at an education-related seminar. I don’t know what the procedure will be from now on. The ECtHR did not set damages in its judgment since I was supposed to request them in my petition. I didn’t know this. My only wish is for justice to be served for everyone.”
Özdemir’s dream is to recover his teaching license and to return to his profession.