Witness Confirms Gokhan Teacher Tortured to Death by Police
Prison Cellmate Recollects Moments of Horror After Teacher’s Suspicious Death
Two years after his tragic death, details of teacher Gokhan Acikkolu’s last days have emerged and come to public scrutiny once again as one of his prison cellmates offered a harrowing account into the torture claims.
The Turkish public was stunned by revelations over police torture of Acikkolu in summer 2016. The Turkish authorities steadfastly refused torture claims then and stamped out an independent investigation into the tragic incident. In the official account, he died because of health problems presaging his prison days.
But according to his family, and independent observers, Acikkolu was tortured to death. He was brutally beaten and deprived of medical treatment although he suffered a heart attack in prison. Prison administration turned down his family’s quest for transferring him to a hospital for a proper treatment and denied access to most needed medicines for his diabetes. When he was finally brought to a hospital in August 2016, it was too late to save him.
More startling and disturbing was the fact that almost two years after his death, authorities cleared him of coup-related and terrorism charges and restored the now deceased teacher back to his post. It was too little and too late.
How he died in prison still remains a matter of controversy and mystery. The way how the Turkish government handled the case fuels genuine skepticism and suspicion over the official narrative. Almost nobody believes it in Turkey.
And with a former prison cellmate of the deceased teacher now publicly speaking about his last days, the issue has taken a new turn. Journalist Cevheri Guven, living in northern Greece after fleeing the persecution in Turkey, spoke to Bold Medya, divulging details about how police headquarters in Istanbul became the center of torture for people who were taken into custody in the post-coup crackdown.
The Gokhan teacher appears to be the first victim of torture in this notorious place. Guven says that there are more than 15 witnesses who corroborate the claim that Acikkolu was tortured to death.
A teacher, who spoke to Bold Media on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution back in Turkey, was staying in the next cell to Acikkolu’s room. He also suffered torture at the same place, Istanbul Police Department headquarters.
There was a doctor in the witness’ room. He tells Bold Medya that one day there was a chaotic and urgent hurry on the part of policemen who back and forth moved from one place to another in a state of panic in the corridors.
Panic pervaded the atmosphere, and police shouted at one another. At one point, the door of their cell was wide opened. Police fetched the doctor there and urged him to check the situation of Gokhan teacher next room.
The doctor, the witness said, was trembling and his hands were shaking when he returned the room. Police moved Gokhan teacher out. “We lost the friend [Gokhan teacher],” the doctor told other prisoners in the cell.
The account of the witness challenges the prosecutor’s official document about the cause of Acikkolu’s death. The teacher, the prosecutor wrote, died of his diabetes. But the doctor, who, upon the request of police officers, first intervened to help Acikkolu said he died of beating. He appeared to receive fatal blows to his head and died of torture, not diabetes.
Cerebral hemorrhage or heart attack, the doctor said was the probable cause of Acikkolu’s death, the witness told in a new video interview.
Acikkolu was among the tens of thousands of people who had been remanded immediately in the aftermath of a failed coup in 2016. He was a history teacher at a public school in Istanbul’s Umraniye district when he, along with his wife, were both dismissed in a sweeping purge campaign.
His death was a particular case that stained public conscience as authorities denied a funeral service for his family. Istanbul Mayor’s Office refused to provide a space in a graveyard, so did the local officials in Acikkolu’s hometown, a village in the central province of Konya. Officials even proposed burying him in the “cemetery of traitors,” a policy briefly introduced as a form of punishment against coup plotters. Facing public criticism, the government later retracted the idea.
The teacher was interrogated neither by a prosecutor nor by the police officials. During his detention, he only faced mistreatment and, according to his family, torture. When his situation deteriorated, he was taken to a hospital, only to be sent back to the police detention.
Guven details how his wife, Mumine Acikkollu, struggled to deliver his medicines in the face of the official ban. After her first visit to custody to see her husband, she detected signs of torture and lodged a petition with the office of Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor to investigate whether her husband faced torture. But her efforts yielded no tangible result in the chaotic atmosphere of the post-coup era.
Their agony did not end with the teacher’s death. The inhumane treatment by authorities and denial of funeral service added to their plight.
Two years after into his death, authorities still refuse to launch an investigation into the role of police officers over his death. But as more and more people speak out and more witnesses come out to offer their sides of the story, it becomes ever difficult for authorities to bury the truth and drag their foot for a thorough probe.
Acikkollu might have been the first victim, but certainly was not the last one. As long as his case remains unresolved, police officers and officials, who commit crimes against humanity and involve in torture, would acquire the feeling that they may get away with whatever they do. They should not have such an impunity and freedom.
If Acikkollu’s torturers are brought to justice, other officials would be deterred and further such incidents would be prevented.
Veli Saçılık, a sociologist and leftist activist, has visited the grave of Gökhan Açıkkollu, a teacher who was tortured to death while in police custody in the wake of a controversial coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016 over alleged membership in the faith-based Gülen movement.
Saçılık, who lost his right arm in a military operation known as “Operation Return to Life” conducted in December 2000 in 20 prisons across Turkey, is a renowned figure in Turkey who has been detained many times by the police for taking part in demonstrations on behalf of individuals who were removed from their posts by the government after the coup attempt.
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.
Saçılık visited Açıkkollu’s grave in the Central Anatolian province of Konya on Saturday and delivered a short speech there, which he later posted on his Twitter account.
Last week, Açıkkollu was “reinstated” to his job at a public school in İstanbul one-and-a-half years after his death.
The activist said he was paying a visit to Açıkkollu’s grave to bid him farewell.
“He [Açıkkollu] has been reinstated to his job, but he was massacred under detention. As a person who lost one of his arms in prison, I have experienced a lot of pain in this country, and perhaps when I lost my arm, Gökhan thought a terrorist had lost his arm, but when we lend an ear to each other’s pain and say nobody should be subjected to torture and when we dream of a humane life, everything will be different. At that time, we will not embrace a gravestone but each other. This is the important thing,” Saçılık said as he laid a bouquet of flowers at the teacher’s grave.
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.
It was revealed that Turkish teacher Gökhan Açıkkollu, who had been tortured to death under police custody in the wake of a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016, over his alleged membership to the Gülen movement, was found innocent after 1,5 years and he was reinstated to his duty(!)
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government led by Turkish autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which led to the death of Açıkkollu under the police custody, has eventually decided over the innocence of the deceased teacher.
The reinstatement decision for teacher Açıkkolu was given by Turkish Education Ministry on Feb. 7, 2018, with the decision number E.2561776. The official document for the reinstatement of Açıkkolu was delivered by the principal of the school, that he used to work for, to Açıkkollu’s teacher wife, who had also been dismissed from her duty by a government decree under the rule of emergency declared in the aftermath of a controversial coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Thus, the honor of the late Gökhan Açıkkollu was restored by saying a simple ‘pardon’ after 1,5 years passed over his death(!)
Açıkkollu was detained on July 24, 2016 on trumped-up charges of coup plotting and terrorism and stayed in police custody for 13 days, during which time he was subjected to both physical and psychological torture. He was never officially interrogated, and the police did not even take a statement from him. Instead, he was taken from his detention cell every day to face torture and rushed to the hospital when his condition deteriorated, only to be shipped back to detention. He told doctors about abuse and torture; yet, in some cases, his statements were not even registered in medical reports, and evidence of physical abuse was covered up under pressure from the police.
Teacher Açıkkollu was beaten, slapped in the face, kicked in the rib cage, kneed in the back and his head banged against the wall. His medical check-up before he was put in detention showed no signs of any heart troubles; yet, he was pronounced dead due to heart failure. When he collapsed in his cell, emergency services were belatedly called and he died in detention, although official records were doctored to reject the false fact that he died at the hospital.
Prof. Dr. Şebnem Korur Fincancı, the President of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV), emphasized that Açıkkollu lost his life in consequence of a heart attack due to the torture he was exposed to in her report.
His family had found out his death when they were called to the İstanbul Forensic Medicine Institute. The ill-treatment for Açıkkollu continued here as well. It was said that the funeral could be given on condition that he was to be buried in “a graveyard of the traitors,” prepared by İstanbul Greater Municipality for the alleged “traitors,” despite he was not tried yet and even his interrogation was not done. Imams assigned by the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) did not even wash his funeral and they had refused to conduct a funeral prayers for Açıkkollu.
His family had to disinfect the funeral with their own efforts and was obliged to take him to his hometown, Konya province, with their own vehicle. Here too, the imam of the local mosque did not perform the funeral prayer because of the instruction given by the Religious Affairs Directorate by saying that the ‘funeral prayer will not be performed for the traitors.’ So, the last duty for him was also done by his close relatives.
A new report from the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) titled “Tortured to Death” exposes the case of 42-year-old history teacher Gökhan Açıkkollu, who died after enduring 13 days of torture and abuse in police detention in İstanbul.
The report details every day he was kept in custody, where he was repeatedly beaten by his interrogators. The government documents, medical reports, independent opinions and witness statements obtained by SCF and revealed in the report show his death was not due to natural causes.
“The details of this single case with hitherto unknown facts about Açıkkollu’s death have really shaken our investigators, and we have decided to dedicate this report to his memory to show the world what is taking place under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s brutally oppressive regime,” Abdullah Bozkurt, the president of SCF, said.
“He was telling doctors every day what he was going through, and the prosecutor’s office was getting copies of these records on a daily basis. Yet he was time and again sent back to detention to face a new round of torture that eventually claimed his life,”’ he added.
The report also exposes the names of the police officers who were present in the building at the time of Açıkkollu’s death and urges the Turkish government to hold to account those who were responsible for his death.
Unfortunately, the terrible saga of Açıkkollu’s family was far from over even after his death as authorities neither arranged for a hearse to transport him nor provided embalming of the body, which are standard services in Turkey for all deceased. He was hauled in a utility vehicle to the cemetery where the government imam refused to lead a prayer service. His wife, Mümüne Açıkkollu, was also briefly detained afterwards by the same prosecutor who ordered the detention of her husband.
The public prosecutor dropped the probe into torture allegations although he had more than enough evidence of torture according to the documents provided by government-designated health facilities. Several witnesses came forward and testified to torture. After a long legal challenge, the prosecutor had to open another probe, but there was no progress reported on the second probe, either.
Turkish authorities continue to deny that there is torture in Turkey while blocking the publication of a report by the Council of Europe Anti-Torture Committee (CPT), which visited Turkey for a fact-finding mission in September 2016.
The accumulation of overwhelming evidence in this case is quite valuable considering that the police in Turkey often try to cover up the commission of crimes. Authorities tamper with evidence and doctors’ records and ensure that the text of witness accounts, autopsies and medical reports reflect the official version of the detainee’s death.
Deaths in detention and prisons due to torture, abuse and ill treatment have become a recurring theme in Turkey with close to 100 cases reported as suspicious deaths and suicides in the last 16 months alone.
Many human rights monitoring groups have documented cases of torture and ill treatment of detainees that suggest a widespread, systematic and deliberate torture by the government of President Erdoğan.
SCF has already published several reports confirming that such cases have been taking place in detention centers and jails or sometimes in black sites that were used as mass holding facilities for a large number of detainees without due process.