Carleton PhD student returns to Canada after imprisonment in Turkey

Cihan Erdal was held in a Turkish prison for 262 days and was unable to leave the country even after his release. On Friday, he stepped off the plane in Ottawa, ready to return back to life.

Cihan Erdal spent more than 260 days in prison, 26 days in solitary confinement

Cihan Erdal, left, and his spouse, Ömer Ongun. On Friday, Erdal stepped off an airplane in Ottawa after spending more than 260 days in a Turkish prison. (Submitted by Ömer Ongun)

For months, Cihan Erdal and his partner Ömer Ongun wrote pages of letters to each other every week, deprived of the instant messaging most couples rely on. 

With Erdal held in a Turkish prison for 262 days, and Ongun not recognized as Erdal's spouse, the men needed to find new ways to connect.

The Carleton University PhD candidate — accused by the Turkish government of inciting protests — would write about the conditions of the prison, his visitors and the books he was reading, while Ongun would describe the new stores in Ottawa and the changing seasons.

On Friday the two saw each other face to face after Erdal stepped off a plane, free again and ready to continue his research into youth-led social movements in Europe. 

"It has been too long [since] I was separated from my loved ones, from Ömer, and I was deprived of my freedom," said Erdal, who was first imprisoned in September 2020. 

"So I just took a deep breath when I saw him at the airport."

Erdal was released from Turkish prison a year ago, but he was forced to stay in the country and report to local police regularly. 

While he never doubted he'd see Ongun again, he thought it may take years longer. 

WATCH | Cihan Erdal and his partner Ömer Ongun 'thrilled' he's home:

Carleton University student back in Canada after imprisonment in Turkey

6 months ago
Duration 2:34
Cihan Erdal and his partner Ömer Ongun say they’re thrilled Erdal is home after his imprisonment in Turkey, and describe how letters kept them connected through the toughest times.

For Ongun, Friday felt surreal.

"Your life continues, but it just feels kind of lifeless," he said. "So I just had this shine on my face as soon as I saw him at the airport. And we were like, wow, this is real, right? This is really in person."

'Kafkaesque' scenario in confinement 

Erdal spent the first 26 days of his imprisonment in solitary confinement. 

"I was shocked and, like, trying to make sense of my Kafkaesque situation in that cell, just alone."

The darkest moment for Ongun was the first 36 hours of Erdal's detainment — knowing Erdal had been taken somewhere, but left waiting for a phone call from lawyers.

Erdal was once a youth member of the People's Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish political party that the Turkish government accuses of instigating the protests that left 37 people dead in 2014. He was accused of inciting terror and violence, and faced a life sentence if found guilty.

Last summer Turkish lawyers presented evidence showing that Erdal, a permanent resident in Canada, had nothing to do with the protests because he wasn't in the same city when the HDP executive committee met to discuss its strategy.

The Turkish court ultimately released Erdal on bail. 

Unsure when he'd be able to leave Turkey again, Erdal sought political asylum in a undisclosed third country, walking hours to the border. 

From a border camp, he was able to alert Canadian officials and arrange his trip home.

"The government of Canada was not involved with his departure from [Turkey]," Jason Kung, a spokesperson from Global Affairs Canada, told CBC News in an email. 

"Due to privacy considerations, we cannot provide any further details."

For now, the couple is looking forward to some down time, focusing on their dreams in Ottawa and trips within Canada. 

"I'm thrilled that this has become a success story," Ongun said. "For us, it was a horrifying experience that no one deserves to go through."

Carleton University PhD student Cihan Erdal is back in Canada, after he was arrested and released from prison in Turkey more than a year ago.

With files from Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco and Joseph Tunney

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