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Turkey's Erdogan builds more prisons as post-coup purge persists

The White House slapped sanctions on Turkey’s justice and interior ministers over the case, which has badly strained relations between Washington and Ankara, culminating in President Donald Trump’s sudden decision to raise trade tariffs on Turkish steel.

Also imprisoned is NASA scientist Serkan Golge, a U.S.-Turkish citizen convicted of links to FETO that the State Department says are “without credible evidence.”

The crackdown has even reached inside the U.S. mission in Ankara, where three workers are accused of links to the PKK — including Hamza Ulucay, a Turkish national who worked there for more than three decades before his arrest this year.

In January, Erdogan’s government created a commission to review decisions made under the state of emergency, but its members are appointed by the same authorities responsible for approving dismissals and the enforced closing of Gulen-linked schools.

“In the meantime, those affected have no right to work in public service, their bank accounts are frozen, and passports confiscated,” according to Human Rights Watch, which said more than 102,000 people had appealed to the commission, though it has yet to begin issuing any decisions.

Image: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets supporters on Aug. 7, 2016 in Istanbul
TOPSHOT – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greats supporters on August 7, 2016 in Istanbul during a rally against the failed military coup on July 15.Ozan Kose / AFP – Getty Images file

Status is irrelevant in Erdogan’s purge.

New York Knicks center Enes Kanter, a Turkish national who has long been an outspoken critic of Erdogan, was charged in December with insulting him in a series of tweets. Prosecutors want to try Kanter in absentia and have him sentenced to more than four years in prison, if he is convicted.

Kanter wrote in Time on Tuesday that he could not go home because of his views. “This month, my dad will face trial in Turkey,” Kanter wrote. “He is a university professor, not a terrorist. Because I play in the NBA, I am lucky enough to have a public platform, so I’ve used every opportunity to make sure everyone knows about Erdogan’s cruelty and disdain for human rights.”

Turkey is a crucial U.S. partner in the region — it borders Iraq and Syria, and hosts a U.S. base at Incirlik from which strikes against ISIS have been launched.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees and who visited Brunson in jail, suggested last month that Washington should seek an alternative base in the region. “Turkey is an important NATO ally but isn’t acting like one,” she said.

Game of chess

High above courtroom 29 on the sixth floor of Istanbul’s giant central courthouse is a brass engraving of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the secularist founder of modern Turkey.

Directly facing him on Thursday morning was Tunca Öğreten, attending only the third hearing since his pre-dawn arrest.

Although released from prison on bail last October, Öğreten has yet to be cleared of the allegations against him or be committed for trial. Turkish authorities still have the laptop computers and iPhones seized from his apartment.

Image: Istanbul' Çağlayan Justice Palace — Europe's largest courthouse
Istanbul’ Çağlayan Justice Palace — Europe’s largest courthouseMurad Sezer / Reuters file

“They even took my iPod for God’s sake,” he recalls. “It’s just my music. What do they want with it?”

Öğreten believes his case is an act of revenge by the government after he reported the contents of hacked emails from Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak.

He was not allowed to see a lawyer until five days after his arrest, and the precise charges against him have changed at least twice; he was briefly accused of membership in a proscribed Marxist terrorist organization, DHKP.

Albayrak was energy minister in 2016 when hacked emails, circulated to a number of journalists, revealed his company was allegedly linked to the trade of oil from ISIS-held territories in northern Iraq. He is now the finance minister tasked with managing Turkey’s inflation-crippled economy. Albayrak has denied the accusations, although Öğreten’s report was never officially disputed.

“Of course they are doing this to punish me,” Öğreten said. “At my first hearing the judge didn’t even ask any questions. It is the risk we take by reporting in Turkey.”

He passed his time in jail by playing chess with other inmates, and managed to avoid beatings from officers — even notorious naked searches.

Each day, prisoners are required to strip to their underwear to prove they are not concealing contraband items. In an act of defiance, Öğreten simply lowered his underwear. “After I did that a couple of times they just stopped asking,” he laughed.

Perhaps most cruelly of all, he was prevented from seeing his fiancee, Minez, 31; Turkish law only guarantees prison visits for spouses. Eventually the couple got married in the prison chapel. “Finally, she could visit me,” he said. “I am so proud of her. She has been so strong through everything. She is also a journalist, so she kind of understands, but it has been so difficult for her.”

Since his release, he has been able to return to work as a freelance reporter, including for an online Turkish news site, Dikem, but is banned from traveling.

His lawyers on Thursday asked a judge to lift the travel ban and return Öğreten’s personal items; after a brief recess, the judge refused.

“They still have my music,” Öğreten sighed.

Image: Tunca Ogreten, a Turkish journalist who spent one year in jail without trial
Tunca Öğreten at home in Istanbul.Danielle Villasana / for NBC News

Four decades after Alan Parker’s stomach-churning “Midnight Express” hit American movie theaters, conditions in Turkey’s prisons have improved — but rights groups say beatings and abuse remain commonplace.

The Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) reported in one of its studies, “Suspicious Deaths and Suicides in Turkey,” that there has been an increase in deaths inside Turkey’s jails and detention centers. Among the recent cases is that of Sabri Çolak, a retired professor who was jailed reportedly because he once appeared in a television documentary about Gulen.

The State Department country report for Turkey cites a catalog of prison abuse cases “included alleged torture of detainees in official custody; allegations of forced disappearance; arbitrary arrest and detention under the state of emergency of tens of thousands, including members of parliament.”

Although the Ministry of Justice did not respond directly to NBC News, it has described the country report as “one-sided” and “subjective” and said abuse allegations are always investigated. It was “pushing the limits of irony” that the U.S., which had violated rights at Guantanamo, “dares to evaluate Turkey with respect to human rights and freedoms,” the ministry said.

According to figures published in an August report by the New York-based Journalists and Writers Foundation, some 44 percent of inmates in Turkey are still awaiting trial or appeal.

“Even though the state of emergency has ended,” Öğreten said, “we are still living it every day.”

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