UMFM is currently in the midst of some special programming practices due to COVID, please read the update below or follow our socials for the latest updates!

Listen Live

On-air now: Bang & Whisper 1:00pm–2:00pm

Up next: Pastoral MIDI 2:00pm–3:00pm

Program Directory

Talking Radical Radio

Cihan Erdal is a schol­ar at Car­leton Uni­ver­si­ty in Ottawa. In Sep­tem­ber 2020, while on a vis­it to Turkey, he was arrest­ed and jailed. His hus­band, Ömer Ongun, was imme­di­ate­ly plunged into a whirl­wind of activ­i­ties orga­niz­ing the Free Cihan Erdal sup­port cam­paign. After nine long months in prison, Erdal was released in mid-June, though he may not yet leave Turkey and is still at risk of re-arrest. This is the couple’s first inter­view togeth­er since his release. Scott Neigh speaks with them about their lives, about Erdal’s deten­tion, and about the cam­paign to free him.

Erdal was vis­it­ing Turkey to spend time with fam­i­ly and to engage in research for his PhD. When he was arrest­ed, he had just enough time to call Ongun in Ottawa and tell him that the police were at the door. That was last time they were able to speak direct­ly to one anoth­er for nine months.

The cou­ple orig­i­nal­ly moved to Ottawa from Istan­bul. Erdal was a stu­dent and want­ed to pur­sue a PhD in soci­ol­o­gy at Car­leton. Ongun was work­ing in the cor­po­rate sec­tor in Turkey, and the move allowed him to pur­sue his inter­est in doing equi­ty, diver­si­ty, and inclu­sion work. As well, though they lived in a pro­gres­sive area in down­town Istan­bul, anoth­er con­sid­er­a­tion in their deci­sion to move abroad was recent shifts in the broad­er polit­i­cal con­text in Turkey towards greater hos­til­i­ty to LGBTQ people.

Anoth­er fac­tor was con­cern that Erdal might be at some risk because of his his­to­ry as an activist, though they thought the risk was quite low. He had been involved in stu­dent, peace, trade union, and LGBTQ move­ments. He was a found­ing mem­ber of Turkey’s Green Left Par­ty. Then he became a mem­ber of the exec­u­tive com­mit­tee of Turkey’s third-largest polit­i­cal par­ty, the left-wing People’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty (or HDP).

Erdal’s pol­i­tics pri­or­i­tize the rights of mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties and are, he said, a pol­i­tics of words, dia­logue, con­ver­sa­tions, and nego­ti­a­tions.” In the con­text of a sub­stan­tial his­to­ry of polit­i­cal vio­lence in Turkey, he said, I believed in the poten­tial of end­ing violence.”

Though he hadn’t been involved in sev­er­al years, when he was detained back in Sep­tem­ber, it was at the same time as 16 oth­er peo­ple who also were or had been high-rank­ing mem­bers of the HDP. The charges were relat­ed to demon­stra­tions in Turkey’s Kur­dish areas in 2014 protest­ing Ankara’s refusal to take action to pro­tect Syr­i­an Kurds from ISIS. The only evi­dence pre­sent­ed specif­i­cal­ly rel­e­vant to Erdal were two Face­book posts that had noth­ing to do with the protests. And he said the charges as a whole are high­ly con­jec­tur­al.” It is, he said, a polit­i­cal case” that is close­ly linked to high pol­i­tics, to elec­toral pol­i­tics” and those arrest­ed are polit­i­cal hostages.”

Erdal spent the first 25 days of his deten­tion in soli­tary con­fine­ment. The rest was spent at a dif­fer­ent prison in some­what bet­ter cir­cum­stances, but his lawyers still had to con­stant­ly fight to get him access to decent conditions.

Mean­while, on the oth­er side of the world, Ongun got active. Unlike Erdal, he had nev­er real­ly been an activist, but that changed quick­ly. He reached out to friends and to col­leagues of Erdal’s at Car­leton Uni­ver­si­ty. He put togeth­er the Free Cihan Erdal sup­port com­mit­tee. The com­mit­tee mobi­lized peo­ple to put pres­sure on Cana­di­an and Turk­ish author­i­ties. They did lots of media and social media work. They got state­ments of sup­port from unions, aca­d­e­m­ic orga­ni­za­tions, and many oth­er groups. They enlist­ed the help of lawyers in Cana­da and in Turkey. They raised funds to cov­er cam­paign and legal expens­es, and Erdal’s costs. There were protests not just in Cana­da but in half a dozen oth­er coun­tries as well. Accord­ing to Erdal, pop­u­lar pres­sure played an impor­tant role in the improve­ments he was able to win in the con­di­tions of his imprisonment.

There is a good chance that the cam­paign also played a role in the deci­sion in mid-June. Erdal had a court appear­ance with three of the oth­er detainees, which includ­ed his first oppor­tu­ni­ty to make a state­ment in his own defense. And much to his sur­prise and relief, and to Ongun’s, Erdal and the oth­er detainees in court that day were ordered released.

The tri­al is not over, so Erdal is not yet allowed to leave the coun­try and return to Cana­da and there con­tin­ues to be a risk that he might be detained again. The sup­port com­mit­tee is con­tin­u­ing to raise funds to cov­er Erdal’s costs while he remains stuck in Turkey with­out an income. As well, Erdal is cur­rent­ly a per­ma­nent res­i­dent in Cana­da, and very soon the com­mit­tee will be mobi­liz­ing sup­port­ers to push the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to fast-track his cit­i­zen­ship appli­ca­tion, which would facil­i­tate his return home.