The inconvenient impact of Gergerlioğlu

Since President Erdoğan announced the human rights action plan in early March, there has been a lot of action regarding human rights issues! Conservative MP Gergerlioğlu lost his mandate, the second biggest opposition party is faced with a closure case, and Turkey abandoned the Istanbul Convention. How will the EU react to recent developments in Turkey at the leaders summit this week? Would they prefer to rely on the announcements or look at reality?

Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu has now lost his parliamentary mandate and been stamped with a prison sentence of 2.5 years. This is a blow to Turkey’s democracy, as is the closure case against the People's Democratic Party (HDP). Let us take a look at why he became a target of the government in the first place.
In 2014, an NGO organized pre-election trips to different regions within Turkey ahead of the first presidential elections. I signed up for the Thrace trip to Edirne and Kırklareli. There were both Turkish and foreign journalists present. We visited the local political parties, journalists, and business associations and spoke with people in the bazaars and city centers. This was a rather younger crowd of mainly freelancers. However, there was also a more senior man, who then wrote a regular column for the online Turkish portal T24.

On the first evening, we all were at dinner near the Evros/Meriç river. Some of us ordered beer or even rakı. The T24 columnist finished his meal quickly and got up, saying it was sinful for him to be close to people drinking alcohol, but that he did not judge anyone for drinking.

A year later, similar pre-election tours were offered ahead of the June 7, 2015 elections. This time I signed up for Kayseri-Konya. The crowd and program were similar. The T24 columnist was also there again. We spoke a bit more this time. I learned that he was a physician at a state hospital in Izmit and active in local human rights associations.

In 2017, a foreign journalist told me, he would like to profile some people who lost their job because of the so-called KHK decrees, not only leftists or Kurds, but also conservative or religious people. I then remembered the T24 columnist, who had lost his job at the hospital, because he shared a photo of two mothers in front of coffins, one with the Turkish, the other with the PKK flag, making an appeal to peace, which was interpreted as terror propaganda. The foreign journalist agreed to profile this man, Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu. So, we met in spring 2017 both in Istanbul and in Izmit, where he still lived.

While working as a pulmonologist, Gergerlioğlu became active in the conservative human rights association Mazlumder. In the 1990s he led a protest every Saturday against the headscarf ban in Izmit. In the mid 2000s, when he was the head of the local Mazlumder office, he went to Ankara to present himself as a candidate for the elections for the governing party, “because they had human rights and equality in their program, so I thought I would be a good match.” He wasn’t chosen. However, in 2007, he made it to Ankara as Mazlumder elected him as its president, a position he held until 2009. Commuting between Izmit and Ankara with a full-time job at the hospital, was no long-time solution. Back in Izmit he became the spokesperson of the Kocaeli Peace Platform, but also continued his devotion to Islam as he regularly met with a group of people to discuss Islamic theology and texts.
In late 2016, his life was turned upside down. He lost his job, source of income and, as part of Cem Küçük’s demand for the KHKs to die a social death, he was not allowed to stay on the board of his mosque association, which sought to build a new mosque in his neighborhood. After months of unemployment, he finally found a job at a private hospital in Batman. It was not his first contact with the Kurdish issue, but it would remain central to his life until today, as in 2018 he became an MP for the HDP for his home province Izmit, a province with few Kurds and leftists where he received almost 90,000 votes.
As an MP, Gergerlioğlu continued focusing on human rights violations. He drew attention to the fate of many KHKs in dire conditions and tried to help them to find employment again. He drew attention to the fate of mothers with young children in prisons, as well as the seriously ill who were not allowed to die at home. He made public the strip searching of women in police stations and prisons, which were denied by state authorities, but then confirmed by women of all social classes and political backgrounds.
But he becomes an inconvenience for the state, not only because he talks about these issues, but also makes them public at home and abroad. To make matters worse he a similar background as those who run the state: He is a Turk, conservative and religious, he prays five times a day, fasts, he has campaigned for the headscarf and read religious texts and interpretations in Islamic reading circles. He is so inconvenient because he is not a left-wing Kurd, or a left-wing Turkish Alevi. That is why he has become a target.
Again, because of the 2016 social media posts with the two coffins, he has now lost his parliamentary mandate, and stamped with a prison sentence of 2.5 years was confirmed. This is a blow to Turkey’s democracy, as is the closure case against the HDP. The timing is also crucial, just one week ahead of the EU summit where “a positive agenda” with Turkey will be on the agenda.
In early March, the Turkish government tried to address long-time rule of law concerns by announcing a “human rights action plan.” A debate on a new, more democratic constitution has also started. After years of a tense domestic situation following the coup attempt, the message is that EU standards, human rights, and the rule of law will again gain prominence.
How will the EU, which is of course “very concerned” about these recent developments, react on March 25-26? Give Turkey the benefit of the doubt and trust in the announcements or look at facts and reality?

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