Summary and Current Status
Turkish pediatric surgeon Riza Ferit Bernay is the former rector of 19 Mayis University, as well as several other universities. He was 1 of 40 individuals detained by the Turkish police on April 13, 2009—the third wave of detentions/arrests in an 18-month period in connection with an ongoing investigation into what prosecutors allege is an attempt to provoke the overthrow of the current government by military coup. (The case is referred to as “Ergenekon.”) Four days later, on April 17, Dr. Bernay and seven others, including several academics, were arrested; the other 32 were released. Dr. Berney was detained without charge until August 5, 2009, when he was one of 52 co-defendants named in the third indictment of the Ergenekon case. The following day he was released on bail pending trial.
The second Ergenekon trial, in which Dr. Bernay and 51 others are co-defendants, began on September 7, 2009. Subsequently, the Istanbul 13th High Court merged two indictments—the one that included Dr. Bernay and another group of 56 defendants arrested earlier. The trial then proceeded with a total of 108 co-defendants. During the ensuing months, dozens more defendants were charged with members in Ergenekon. Eventually, as the trial dragged on, the court fused all of the defendants into one mass trial consisting of 275 defendants. On August 5, 2013, the court finally issued verdicts in the case. The court acquitted 21 of the defendants, and the remainder were sentenced to lengthy sentences, including consecutive life sentences for some. Dr. Bernay was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He remains free pending the outcome of his appeal.
Dr. Bernay is well-respected by the Turkish medical community and is not known to have ever advocated or practiced violence. To the best of our knowledge no credible evidence has been presented to date to support the serious charges brought against him.
Dr. Bernay graduated from Hacettepe University Faculty of Medicine in 1978. He did his residency in pediatric surgery at 19 Mayis University Faculty of Medicine from 1979 until 1984. In 1989, he travelled abroad to pursue further studies at the University of Arkansas Pediatric Hospital.
Since the completion of his academic studies, Dr. Bernay has worked at military, state, and private hospitals. He currently chairs the Department of Pediatric Surgery at 19 Mayis University Faculty of Medicine, where he has taught since 1991. During the 1990s he assumed more administrative duties at the university, including a year as vice dean of the Faculty of Medicine. In 2000, Dr. Bernay was appointed rector of 19 Mayis University by Turkey’s former president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer.
In addition to his responsibilities at the 19 Mayis University, Dr. Bernay serves on both the Executive Board of the Turkish Association of Pediatric Surgeons and the Advisory Board of the Journal of Pediatric Surgery. He is a member of the British Association of Pediatric Surgeons.
Arrest and detention without charge
Early in the morning on April 13, 2009, Dr. Bernay was detained by police in the Black Sea province of Samsun and transferred to Besiktas Courthouse in Istanbul for interrogation by public prosecutors. Police also reportedly conducted a search of Dr. Bernay’s residence and took away five bags of hard drives, documents, and CDs. Dr. Bernay was one of a group of 40 individuals detained in 18 Turkish cities during simultaneous police operations. Of this group of detainees, Dr. Bernay was one of eight individuals, including several other prominent academics, whose arrest was subsequently ordered by the Istanbul 14th High Criminal Court. The following weekend, thousands of people demonstrated against the detentions, arrests, and searches in front of the mausoleum of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Dr. Bernay was held in detention without charge for more than three and a half months. Because the public prosecutor had decided that all information in the case was to be considered confidential, during this period, even Dr. Bernay’s attorneys were prevented from reviewing it. This lack of access made it difficult to prepare an adequate legal defense.
The “Ergenekon” Case
As noted in the Summary section, Dr. Bernay was one of the co-defendants named in the third indictment of the “Ergenekon” case, which was accepted by the Istanbul 13th High Court on August 5, 2009. According to the prosecution, he and other suspects were identified in the course of the Turkish government’s “Ergenekon” investigation, which began in June 2007 when 27 hand grenades and explosives were discovered in the Istanbul home of a retired noncommissioned Turkish military officer. According to Human Rights Watch:
[“E]vidence suggests that the grenades were similar to those used in attacks on the Istanbul offices of the daily newspaper, Cumhuriyet, in May 2006 and the armed attack on judges at the Council of State in April 2006. The investigation that followed uncovered evidence pointing to a much larger conspiracy, including evidence of plans to assassinate the prime minister, the former chief of staff, several members of Parliament from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, the writer Orhan Pamuk, and others.”
Ergenekon—which, in a legend about the genesis of the Turkish people, refers to the Turks’ mythical homeland—is the name given to an illegal alleged ultranationalist group consisting of former military and police officers, politicians, journalists, and some intellectuals. Over the past few years several hundred people were detained in connection with the investigation. More than 175 of those were arrested and accused of plotting to destabilize the country and pave the way for a military coup. Since the first cache of weapons was discovered in 2007, additional weapons were found, including, in early 2009, missile launchers, plastic explosives, and ammunition. Given that a significant number of those arrested in the Ergenekon case in 2009 were opposition figures from intellectual circles and secularist civil society groups, like Dr. Bernay, there was great concern that the investigation had become politicized, targeting critics and opponents of the ruling Islamist party’s policies.
On October 20, 2008, in a 2,455-page indictment, 86 people—including senior retired military officers, alleged members of organized crime, leading figures from the media, academics, lawyers, and activists from civil society organizations—were brought to trial allegedly for crimes they committed as members of Ergenekon. Subsequently, two more groups of people, also alleged to be members of Ergenekon, were indicted. The second indictment in March 2009 named 56 people, and the third indictment in August 2009—which included Dr. Bernay—named 52 people. On August 6, 2009, judges in the Istanbul 13th High Court decided to combine the second and third indictments and hold a mass trial of all 108 co-defendants. The second trial began on September 7, 2009. A courtroom with a capacity of 740 people was built, in Silivri prison where many of the defendants were held, specifically for this trial.
According to news reports, all of the individuals indicted in this case were accused of carrying out at least one activity listed in the indictment with the intention of bringing about the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Turkey. Alleged activities reportedly included setting up and leading a terrorist organization; attempting to destroy the government and parliament or hindering them from carrying out their duties; recording personal data and leaking footage of compromising recordings; acquiring, destroying, falsifying, and stealing secret documents on Turkish intelligence; and carrying explosives and firing weapons to threaten lives. Dr. Bernay reportedly faced charges of “belonging to an illegal armed terrorist organization and attempting to overthrow the government and the National Assembly; or attempting to prevent those organizations from performing their duties.”
Dr. Bernay told the CHR that the evidence presented against him by the prosecution included the fact that other university rectors and others also named in the Ergenekon case had his telephone number. Although it is believed that his telephone was tapped for some time, the prosecution reportedly was unable to produce a single conversation that could be construed as criminal activity. Another argument Dr. Bernay says was used by the prosecution to support the charge against him was that he attended several mass public meetings. These meetings included a demonstration of almost 50,000 people who were opposing a new government law related to universities, one supporting republic values in October 2003 in Ankara, and a panel discussion related to the Caliphate (hilafet) and the secular education system, in Ankara in March 2004 (with an audience of about 1,000 people). He neither organized nor participated as a panelist in any of these events.
Subsequently, as the number of defendants in the Ergenekon case grew to a total of 275, the court decided to merge all of the defendants and trials into one mass trial. On August 5, 2013, the court finally issued verdicts in the case. The court acquitted 21 of the defendants, and the remainder were sentenced to lengthy sentences, including consecutive life sentences for some. Dr. Bernay was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He remains free pending the outcome of his appeal, which is expected to take at least a year.
For suggestions of possible actions on this case, please contact the CHR staff at 202-334-3043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Updated November 25, 2013