Carleton student Cihan Erdal freed from Turkish prison

A Carleton University PhD student and Canadian permanent resident who spent the last 262 days in a Turkish prison has been freed.

PhD student was part of a mass arrest in September; can't yet return to Canada

Carleton University student freed from Turkish prison, partner says

2 years ago
Duration 1:58
Ömer Ongun says his partner Cihan Erdal has been released from a Turkey prison after presenting a defence in front of a judge. Erdal was imprisoned in September 2020 while conducting research for his doctoral thesis.

A Carleton University PhD student and Canadian permanent resident who spent the last 262 days in a Turkish prison has been freed.

Cihan Erdal, 32, was taken into custody in September while visiting Turkey as part of a mass arrest of dozens of people — including three students and a university professor — who were accused of fomenting anti-government protests more than six years ago. 

He was released Tuesday around 4 p.m. ET, according to Ottawa-based human rights lawyer Paul Champ, who is part of Erdal's legal team.

Erdal's partner of 10 years, Ömer Ongun, told the CBC Radio's World Report Nil Köksal earlier Tuesday that the release is conditional and Erdal can't return to Canada yet.

"I'm jazzed. I am so happy that he's finally free. [It's] just unbelievable. I am struggling to believe it," Ongun said in an interview from Ottawa. 

"This was the first time he actually made a defence and he made a beautiful defence, an excellent defence."

Once released, Ongun said Erdal will travel to Istanbul until he and his lawyers can secure permission for him to return to Canada. He will have to check in with local police twice a week.

A Turkish court has decided to release Cihan Erdal, a 32-year-old PhD candidate at Carleton University and a permanent resident of Canada. He was taken into custody in Turkey during a mass arrest in September 2020. (Submitted by Ömer Ongun)

Deadly protests

Erdal, an LGBTQ and environmental activist, was once a youth member of the People's Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish political party that is the country's third largest.

The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses the HDP of encouraging supporters to take to the streets in 2014 to protest the government's lack of support for the Kurdish town of Kobani, in Syria, while it was under threat of attack from ISIS fighters.

Thirty-seven people were killed in clashes in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast that October as people filled the streets, angry that the Turkish Army wasn't moving in to protect Kobani and its people.

Erdal had been held at a detention centre in the Turkish capital of Ankara and was originally kept in solitary confinement.

"He hasn't been politically active in the last six, seven years and has been living in Canada for quite some time," said Ongun. "He was just arrested arbitrarily and unlawfully and was charged for lifetime imprisonment."

Ongun said Erdal personally made an impassioned speech in court, saying he has no connection to the crimes being prosecuted, openly declared his activism for gay rights and stressed that he joined the party to make his country a better place.

In this undated photo, Ömer Ongun, left, poses with Erdal, his partner of 10 years. Once Erdal is released from prison, Ongun said he will have to remain in Turkey until he gets permission to return to Canada. (Submitted by Ömer Ongun)

Champ, Erdal's lawyer, called the charges "politically-motivated." He said Turkish lawyers presented evidence showing that Erdal had nothing to do with organizing the protests because he wasn't in the same city when the HDP's executive committee met to discuss its strategy. 

"We were very confident that he was going to be released because it was so utterly baseless," said Champ.

"We're confident that Cihan will be fully acquitted in the next couple of months."

Pressure campaign

Erdal's release comes after a campaign that sought to pressure Turkey to free him from prison.

Canadian officials have raised Erdal's case in private discussions with the Turkish government. In a January 2020 resolution condemning Turkey's crackdown on opposition members, the European Parliament highlighted Erdal's case.

And the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions is currently reviewing a petition lawyers filed on Erdal's behalf, which Champ said could lead to a ruling that ongoing limits to his freedom are in violation of international law.

Ongun said supporters have also written thousands of letters to Turkish and Canadian embassies in recent days.

"Cihan's name was very, very much around and circulated. The campaign became very strong globally," he said.

Though he said he hasn't been able to speak to Erdal throughout his partner's entire detention, Ongun said he's put on his favourite t-shirt in anticipation of a video chat.

In a statement to CBC News, Global Affairs Canada said it is aware of the release of a Canadian permanent resident in Turkey. 

"The Government of Canada does not comment on matters before the court," the statement said. "In the interest of the well-being and privacy of the individual, we will not be providing further details at this time."

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