International News

Jailed Christian More Isolated in Istanbul

Posted: Monday, May 14, 2001 at 11:49 AM CT

ISTANBUL (Compass) -- The lawyer of Christian prisoner Soner Onder has confirmed that due to ongoing months of tensions in Turkey's prisons, no one except himself has been allowed to visit his client since late December.

According to an April 9 news release from Open Doors, a family member last visited Onder on December 28, when an older sister was allowed to see him at the high-security Umraniye Military Prison in Istanbul.

During the third week of December, 30 prisoners and two guards had been killed in a four-day raid by Turkish soldiers on the barracks of 20 Turkish prisons, including the Umraniye prison. The hard-line attempt to restore control over the nation's troubled prisons had been prompted by spreading hunger strikes among the 72,000 prisoners, culminating in death fasts. Hundreds of prisoners joined the protest against government plans to close down large wards and move prisoners into small cells.

The barracks where Onder was housed went up in flames during the clashes, which dominated live TV news coverage in Turkey for nearly a week. "All his clothes were burned up except what he was wearing," his sister said, and he and his cellmates were crowded into another prison barracks.

"It is very tense here," Onder told his sister. At that time, he said, three or four men were occupying facilities intended for only one prisoner, sharing mattresses on the floor and surviving on the minimal jail diet without any food supplies from their relatives allowed into the prison.

"There is still a very strained atmosphere at the prison," Onder's lawyer Hasip Kaplan confirmed in early April. Kaplan said that his client's physical health appeared good, under the circumstances, the several times he has seen him since January.

Onder is serving a reduced life sentence for alleged participation in a Kurdish terrorist attack that killed 12 people in Istanbul on December 25, 1991. Only 17 at the time, Onder testified that he was coming back from Christmas church services when he was arrested off a bus near the attack scene, and then tortured to extract a false confession. According to this confession accepted by the court, Onder was caught throwing Molotov cocktails at the crime scene.

Born into a Syrian Catholic family from southeastern Turkey, Onder and his family believe he was arrested and later convicted simply because his I.D. card reveals his birthplace to be Diyarbakir, center of the Kurdish separatist movement in the region.

Now 28, Onder will be eligible for release on June 25, 2003, when he will have completed three-fourths of his sentence, ordered reduced because he was a minor when arrested.

Kaplan is pursuing legal channels to qualify Onder for early release under a broad prison amnesty enacted on December 22 to reduce all criminal sentences by 10 years. At least 20,000 of Turkey's convicted criminals walked free within the first week, and another 15,000 will eventually be released, as efforts continue to ease prison overcrowding and phase out large jail wards.

After three years, Onder's case still remains in line for preliminary review by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France. Individual cases submitted to the ECHR must have exhausted all appeals within their own nation's judicial system, and then only 10 percent are accepted for formal judicial review.

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