Turkey has cleared thousands of workers of being coup plotters. But months of misery and dire prison conditions have left their mark
ISTANBUL, Turkey – At 27, the future looked promising for Ahmet. He was soon to be married to his girlfriend. A psychologist by training, he had just switched jobs and taken on a lesser-paying but personally more fulfilling job as a primary school teacher.
Then life became a living hell, a hell that began in October 2016 and lasted until 28 December of last year, and included 87 days of imprisonment in dire conditions.
Turkish authorities had decided that any connection to Bylock, an obscure phone messaging app, was evidence enough to prove they were Gulenists. Authorities say Gulenists used Bylock and then another app called Eagle to communicate.
I will never forgive the government for what it did to me. I had nothing to do with FETO and they destroyed my life
- Ahmet, primary school teacher
Gulenists are followers and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Turkish preacher accused of orchestrating the failed coup attempt of July 2016.
Gulen went from staunch ally of the ruling party to arch nemesis in the space of a year in 2013.
Ahmet, an alias, was one of thousands arrested for links to Bylock. His claims of innocence fell on deaf ears.
It was only in the last week of 2017 that the Ankara chief prosecutor admitted that 11,480 people were wrongfully imprisoned for alleged connections to Bylock. An application named Mor Beyin was used to deliberately divert users of eight apps – mostly Islamic religious ones – to Bylock servers.
Tens of thousands of people were rounded up under emergency powers after the failed coup attempt (AFP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a speech on 10 January, laid the blame on the Gulenists, whose organisation officials call the Fethulahist Terrorist Organisation (FETO).
"The organisation didn't hesitate to employ a tactic that threw more than 11,000 innocent people into the fire. They directed people to the Bylock site through hidden codes. Their aim is to dilute the struggle [against Gulenists]. This plot has also been thwarted," said Erdogan.
"I believe investigations and trials will be conducted with the same attention to detail, and separate the innocent from the guilty," he said.
Human rights organisations, however, warned right from the start that care was needed as the wide-ranging crackdown was launched under state of emergency powers, which made arrest and imprisonment easier.
The speed of the crackdown also had the government's critics worried about the health of the investigations.
In October 2017, police launched a dawn raid on Ahmet's apartment to arrest him. Yet he had moved from that address two months before.
Ahmet went to a police station voluntarily after a friend had told him police had raided his former flat and were looking for him. Despite his actions, Ahmet says he was handcuffed and roughed up.
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He had been suspended from his teaching job by state of emergency decree in October 2016 and was sacked via another decree a few months later. He said he wasn't on the run or hiding and had only moved residence due to financial difficulties.
More than 50,000 people have been arrested in the crackdown, 48,305 in 2017 alone, and more than 150,000 have been detained.
The majority of top-level civilian Gulenists who were active in the media, judiciary and various other organs have fled Turkey. Most of Turkey's Western allies refuse to extradite them, citing concerns over fair trials and the evidence used to implicate them.
Many of them continue to lobby strongly against the Turkish government, enraging authorities even more.
Riot police arrest protesters outside an Ankara court last September during the trial of two Turkish teachers on a hunger strike over their dismissal after the failed coup (AFP)
More than 165,000 public sector workers have been sacked or suspended from their jobs under state of emergency decrees, with most unable to find employment in the private sector due to the stigma attached to those dismissals.
Many of the eight apps that Mor Beyin linked to Bylock were related to the Islamic faith. Ahmet had installed three of the eight apps. One was an ezan app that played the call to prayer at Muslim prayer times.
Ahmet said he had installed that app a few years back when he was doing his compulsory military service because his posting was in a remote location where he couldn't hear the call to prayer.
The large numbers of arrests and detainees have been both a source of hope and despair for Ahmet, and his feelings continue to fluctuate wildly even after his ordeal ended on 29 December.
"I am grateful that it has ended. After what I went through you learn to be grateful for everything. It could always be worse and I am not the only one suffering," Ahmet told Middle East Eye.
"But I will never forgive the government for what it did to me. I had absolutely nothing to do with FETO and they destroyed my life. I only feel fear to be honest."
"But I would be lying if I said I wasn't overjoyed when my lawyer brought me the list of those to be released with my name on it.
"We hugged and both of us broke down in tears. The same happened later in the ward. Five of us from the same ward were being released and everyone was so happy for us."
Fear and a lack of forgiveness is not just limited to Ahmet but to thousands of innocent people and their family members affected by the same injustice.
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A 25-year-old law school graduate who was also among the 11,480 people to be released terminated his interview with MEE midway as fear of potential repercussions gripped him and his parents.
He had developed anxiety as a result of his imprisonment and constantly broke down in tears. His parents, too, kept glancing at the window and door with concerned glances.
Instead of embarking on a career upon completing law school, he spent 120 days jailed in miserable conditions.
Ahmet, from the southeastern city of Adiyaman, experienced similar conditions in prison.
When he was first detained in October 2017 he was put in a makeshift detention centre before being sent to prison by a judge.
"I was actually grateful when I was formally arrested and sent to prison. I was grateful because in prison there were only 22 people with two toilets in our ward," he said.
"I had to sleep on the floor because the ward was meant for 10 people but at least here I had a thin mattress and a foul-smelling blanket.
"During my first nine days it was 100 people and one toilet. We had to queue for long periods and the stench was suffocating. We had to sleep on the thin carpeting."
Squalid conditions were not the worst of his problems either. Ahmet said while there was no organised verbal and physical mistreatment by prison officials, there were some officials who regularly targeted people accused of being Gulenists.
"It makes it even more unbearable when you know you are innocent. There are many moments in there when you just want to end it all," said Ahmet.
An Istanbul rally marks the anniversary of the coup attempt in Turkey (AFP)
‘Suicide risk high among purge victims'
Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a medical doctor specialising in respiratory illnesses and also a human rights activist, follows the situation of those impacted by state of emergency decrees and the crackdown closely.
He told MEE that the trauma resulting from the crackdown runs deep and was tearing lives apart.
"Out of 2,173 people I spoke to who are directly affected, 16 percent said they have considered suicide. This is a very high number," said Gergerlioglu.
"Then there are the divorces, family estrangements, social ostracisation, the financial problems, and the psychological trauma that the children of affected families experience."
He said his research showed that 17,000 women and 700 small children were in prison and that they are the ones who are the most psychologically traumatised.
Gergerlioglu, once also the chairman of the Islamic human rights organisation Mazlumder, was himself dismissed from his job at a state hospital by emergency decree for alleged terrorist propaganda on behalf of the PKK. He says the reasons cited were appearances on the now shuttered IMC TV channel and a social media post.
It makes it even more unbearable when you know you are innocent. There are many moments in there when you just want to end it all
- Ahmet, primary school teacher
"What makes the situation starker when you think about the high percentage of victims considering suicide is that the majority of those targeted are pious conservative Muslims," said Gergerlioglu.
"It creates another internal conflict for them where their belief says suicide is a sin but they are so despondent that they seriously consider it."
Ahmet and his family have wrangled with many of the issues pointed out by Gergerlioglu.
While Ahmet's mother, sister and girlfriend never wavered in their belief of his innocence, his father stopped speaking to him and told him the state wouldn't come after him if "he had done nothing".
His mother kept getting harassed by people in her local area "only because she believed her son is innocent", according to Ahmet.
Erdogan said the Gulen network was responsible for setting up those falsely accused (AFP)
Gergerlioglu said the one positive to emerge from all this trauma is that many of these pious conservative Muslims have stopped placing blind trust in the government.
"Before they never questioned anything and always supported it simply because it was an Islamic ruling party in power which claimed to believe in justice. Now they are questioning this definition of justice. Most are silent because of fear but they will tell you privately how disappointed they are," said Gergerlioglu.
Ahmet said the memories of the injustice would haunt him forever but he wanted to focus on the positives, especially the love and trust he received from his mother, sister and girlfriend.
He and his girlfriend have decided to get married at the first opportunity.
"Despite my piled-up debt I might not be able to sue the state for mental and material damages out of fear, but that will never mean that I forgive them.
"How can I, when every time I see the tears that my mother and girlfriend were made to spill?"
Ahmet's name and exact dates of incidents affecting him have been withheld at his request
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.