Illustration: Crystal Yung
by Ryan Conrad
Cihan Erdal is a doctoral student studying social movements in the sociology department at Carleton University. Last month while visiting family and preparing for field research in Turkey, his country of origin, he was apprehended and arbitrarily detained by Turkish authorities. A permanent resident of Canada, he now sits in solitary confinement awaiting formal charges.
Omer Ongun, Cihan’s partner of many years, has been organizing with friends and colleagues demanding Cihan’s release and safe return home to Ottawa where they live together. I spoke with Omer shortly after a social media blitz to celebrate Cihan’s birthday on October 22nd.
Ryan Conrad: Can you tell me more about your partner Cihan? What made you fall in love with him and start a life together in Ottawa?
Omer Ongun: Cihan and I met in 2011 when we were both still at college in Istanbul. We met online first, chatted for quite some time and eventually decided to meet in person. It was quite unusual, but I guess we were a little scared, in the closet. I remember I was literally shaking and my heart was beating so fast when I first saw him. From the first moment, I knew this was the person I would spend the rest of my life with.
A year later, Cihan wrote a letter describing our first meeting. He is a truly romantic, kind, gentle spirit. He is also very courageous and vocal when it comes to human rights, injustices, and discrimination. Cihan is a young scholar and a well respected member of the community in Ottawa.
Like many other queer couples, we wanted to be seen as ‘normal,’ [to be] free from all the hate out there, and start a family where we would be respected, accepted, valued for who we are. In 2017, Cihan moved to Canada and I joined him in 2019. We are both permanent residents here. Canada has still a lot to do in terms of social justice and human rights, but this is our chosen home and we are glad to be part of the community in Ottawa.
RC: Can you tell me the last time you heard from Cihan? How he is doing?
OO: The last time I spoke with Cihan was a few minutes before his arrest. It has been almost a month now that I have neither heard his voice nor seen him.
However, his lawyers and parents can see him. He is doing alright. According to his parents, his voice smiles each time he hears about the support and solidarity he is receiving.
The last time they spoke, he sent me a note saying our love is what keeps him strong. This is one of those moments when I truly believe #lovewins.
RC: What kind of conditions is he facing in prison while he awaits formal charges and trial?
OO: Cihan is still in solitary confinement in a high security prison in Ankara awaiting trial. The conditions are extremely difficult. No daylight, no air circulation, no communication with other detainees or friends. He doesn’t have access to his books, school materials, or notes. This is a struggle — we are fighting with lawyers to ease his conditions and continue to report the violations of his rights as a prisoner of conscience.
RC: What are the actual charges he is facing? Upon his arbitrary detention formal charges were not laid for days, and it is my understanding he was unsure why exactly he was being detained.
OO: There is no indictment and no trial dates, so we still do not know what he is accused of. According to the Human Rights Watch’s report [www.hrw.org/news/2020/10/02/turkey-politicians-and-activists-detained], the Ankara prosecutor’s investigation accuses Cihan and other detainees of “attempting to destroy the unity of the state, membership in the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and carrying out activities on its behalf, spreading terrorist propaganda, inciting and praising criminal activity, and inciting murder. The penalty, if convicted for attempting to destroy the unity of the state (separatism), is life in prison without parole.”
The evidence that the prosecutor has so far presented against them in the ongoing criminal investigation consists of the HDP’s (People’s Democratic Party) social media postings on Twitter calling on people to join the October 2014 demonstrations against Turkey’s complicity with ISIS along its Syrian border. The prosecutor alleges that the postings are evidence that the party was acting under PKK orders. Aside from the lack of evidence connecting the 2014 tweets to the protests, Cihan certainly had no responsibility for the protests as he was not in attendance at HDP meetings where the issue was discussed, nor was he aware of any tweets regarding the protests. Moreover, he has had no involvement in the HDP or any Turkish politics since 2016.
[Editor’s Note: For context on the PKK, the HDP, and the Turkish government’s crackdown on dissent, please see our earlier article on Cihan’s arrest, “Carleton Student Arrested: Turkish State Repression Continues.”]
RC: What kind of response have you gotten from the Canadian or Turkish governments? My emails to both the Canadian Embassy to Turkey and the Minister of Foreign Affairs have gone unanswered for over a month.
OO: Although we know Cihan is not a Canadian citizen yet, Canada has the right to make inquiries and ask questions to the Turkish authorities where it appears that fundamental human rights are at risk.
We know Global Affairs Canada is monitoring the situation. We do not know exactly what they are doing because that gets in the realm of diplomacy. Obviously it is very sensitive because it deals with the sovereignty of another nation. The Turkish Embassy in Ottawa has also been notified. We know [Canadian officials] are very well aware and I am sure they will do everything in their capacity to share Cihan’s story and the support he is receiving across the globe with the officials in Turkey.
RC: Many scholars and progressive activists have signed an open letter demanding Cihan’s release. What else can people do to support you, Cihan, and the campaign to bring him home to Ottawa safely?
OO: Some 2,500 academics worldwide — including famed international scholars Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Silvia Federici, Etienne Balibar, and Enzo Traverso — have signed the petition demanding that Turkey release Cihan. We have a campaign website [freecihanerdal.ca] where readers can find more details, see different statements and press releases. We also have an email Zap tool on the website which makes it easier for people to send out letters.
We ask everyone to send letters to their MPs, MPPs, the Turkish Embassy in Ottawa, and Global Affairs Canada asking for advocacy for Cihan’s immediate and unconditional release. There is also an ongoing fundraising page on GoFundme [www.gofundme.com/FreeCihanErdalnow] to help cover the legal costs and logistics of his defence.
HDP: People’s Democratic Party, a Turkish parliamentary party that campaigns for minority rights and participatory democracy
PKK: Kurdistan Workers’ Party, revolutionaries who operate mostly in Turkey – former communist nationalists, now ‘democratic confederalists’ who favour decentralization, pluralism, feminism, and environmentalism.
ISIS: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, neither a real state nor truly Islamic, also know as Daesh for its Arabic acronym
For more context on how Cihan’s arrest fits into a broader struggle between the Turkish state and the HDP and PKK, see “Carleton Student Arrested: Turkish State Repression Continues.”
For information on the PKK, democratic confederalism, and the revolution in Rojava, see “What’s Happening in Northern Syria? An Atypical Guide to the Rojava Revolution and its Enemies.”