Summary and Current Status
Mehmet Haberal is a Turkish university rector and internationally respected transplant surgeon. He was 1 of 40 individuals detained by police on April 13, 2009—the third wave of detentions/arrests in an 18-month period in connection with what was, at the time, an ongoing investigation into what prosecutors alleged was 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. Haberal and seven others, including several academics, were arrested; the other 32 were released. Dr. Haberal 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 second Ergenekon trial, in which Dr. Haberal and 51 others were co-defendants, began on September 7, 2009. Subsequently, the Istanbul 13th High Court merged two indictments—the one that included Dr. Haberal 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. Haberal was sentenced to 12-1/2 years in prison, but was released that day pending the outcome of his appeal.
Because of serious health problems and the decline of his health following his arrest, Dr. Haberal was held in state custody in the Cardiac Unit of Istanbul University School of Medicine Hospital under armed guard, where he received regular medical attention. In late 2010, however, the state’s Forensic Medicine Institute issued a report claiming that Dr. Haberal’s health was much better than had been claimed by his doctors, stating that he “can even play golf, tennis and bowling.” Soon after this report was made public, police raided his hospital room and reportedly found him in possession of a computer with Internet access, a cell phone, and a radio transmitter, which they said were in violation of detention policies. Two doctors at the Istanbul University hospital, who were treating Dr. Haberal, and a nurse were arrested. In late February 2011 the government ordered Dr. Haberal to be transferred to Mehmet Akif Ersoy Heart Surgery Research and Teaching Hospital. Doctors at this hospital reportedly wrote reports stating that his health was considerably improved. On Saturday, March 12, 2011, Dr. Haberal was transferred to Silivri prison, approximately 50 kilometers from Istanbul, where many of the others accused of having ties to “Ergenekon” were kept during the trial. According to his attorney, Dilek Helvaci, Dr. Haberal’s heart stopped twice on March 13, 2011, and in the four days following his imprisonment he had four heart spasms. Dr. Haberal was hospitalized a number of times after that because of heart problems. He remained in Silvri prison until his release on August 5, 2013.
This case was brought to the CHR’s attention by an IOM member who is a professional colleague of Dr. Haberal with extensive knowledge of his work and who holds him in high esteem. To the best of our knowledge no credible evidence has been presented to date to support the serious charges brought against him. Dr. Haberal is well-respected by the Turkish medical community and is not known to have ever advocated or practiced violence.
Dr. Haberal is a prominent Turkish transplant surgeon, well-known and respected internationally for his work. (For details about his education and medical career, please see the “Brief Professional Bio” section at the end of this case summary.) In addition to his accomplishments as a medical doctor, Dr. Haberal is also a central figure in Turkey’s academic community. He is president and rector of Başkent University near Ankara, which he helped to found in 1993. The university has more than 9,000 students.
Dr. Haberal has been active in the Turkish political arena as well. He advocated successfully for the passage of legislation regulating transplantation in Turkey. He has also provided leadership in establishing other laws and government policies related to medical care. In 2000, Dr. Haberal reportedly declined an invitation from the Turkish prime minister to run for president of Turkey. The former president of Turkey, Suleyman Demirel, is reported to be a close personal friend of Dr. Haberal. Over the years, Dr. Haberal reportedly has been affiliated with two center right political parties, Anavatan Partisi (Motherland Party, ANAP) and the True Path Party. On several occasions, Dr. Haberal reportedly has taken part in meetings of secularists who have been critical of government policies. He is also the owner of the Kanal B television station, which is known for its defense of Turkey’s secular laws.
Arrest and Detention without Charge
On April 13, 2009, Dr. Haberal was detained by police in front of the Başkent University Hospital and transferred to Istanbul for interrogation later that same day. He was one of a group of 40 individuals detained in 18 Turkish cities during simultaneous police operations. Of this group of detainees, Dr. Haberal was one of eight individuals, including several other prominent academics, whose arrest was subsequently ordered by the Istanbul 14th High Criminal Court. (The timing of his arrest prevented his participation in and delivery of a keynote address to an international meeting on pediatric transplantation in Istanbul attended by transplant specialists from over 60 countries.) On the day of his detention, police also reportedly conducted a search of Dr. Haberal’s residence, offices, and the Kanal B television station. 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. Haberal was held without charge for more than three months. Because the public prosecutor had decided that all information in the case was to be considered confidential, during this period even Dr. Haberal’s attorneys were prevented from reviewing it. This lack of access made it difficult to prepare an adequate legal defense.
According to his attorneys, the chairman of the court that heard their appeal for Dr. Haberal’s release, 12th High Criminal Court Judge Necat Ede, withdrew from the case in late June 2009 citing “institutional pressure” from the government and negative insinuations about his objectivity in the media.
Health Concerns and Conditions of Detention
Dr. Haberal suffered from serious ill-health. On the day that he was initially detained, after he was transferred to Metris Prison in Istanbul, Dr. Haberal suffered a heart spasm. He informed the prison authorities that he has serious health problems and was promptly transferred to Bayrampaşa State Hospital for a medical examination. After doctors at the hospital confirmed that he suffers from cardiac arrhythmia, he reportedly demanded to be transferred to his university’s hospital in Ankara. Instead, authorities transferred him to the Istanbul University School of Medicine Hospital. According to his attorneys, he was treated in the hospital’s intensive care unit for 12 days, was given an angiography, and was diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia as well as severe anxiety and depression. Turkish authorities transferred him to the Cardiac Unit of Istanbul University School of Medicine Hospital. According to June 2010 court records, Dr. Haberal’s medical records at Istanbul University indicate that he has been diagnosed with vasospastic coronary artery disease, arrhythmia, anxiety, and depression. The medical records further indicated that his medical condition was worsening daily, and he was at risk of “sudden death.”
Dr. Haberal reportedly remained hospitalized in the cardiac unit under state custody and continued to be given twice-daily electrocardiograms and medication. We understand that he was forbidden from leaving his hospital room. He was only allowed to see visitors who had been approved by the public prosecutor, and all visits were audio recorded.
As noted in the summary section, Dr. Haberal’s health situation has deteriorated since he was transferred to prison on March 12, 2011. His heart stopped two times on March 13, 2011, once at 12:45 p.m. for 22 seconds and again at 4:17 p.m. for 42 seconds. In the four days since he was put in prison, his lawyer, Dilek Helvaci, stated that he had four heart spasms. Dr. Haberal has been hospitalized several times since then as well for heart-related problems.
On April 9, 2012, Dr. Haberal’s mother, Medine Haberal, died at Baskent University Hospital following an illness. His request to visit her before she died to say farewell was denied. However, he was granted a 72-hour pass from prison to attend her funeral in the Black Sea city of Zonguldak on April 11. He reportedly made the trip by ambulance because of his own frail health. Press accounts report that Dr. Haberal was escorted by approximately two dozen soldiers who followed him closely. His father also died while Dr. Haberal was in prison. When his father died two years ago, Dr. Haberal reportedly was not permitted to say good-bye to him or to attend his funeral.
Dr. Haberal and the “Ergenekon” Case
As noted in the Summary section, Dr. Haberal 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. Haberal, 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. Haberal—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. That second trial began on September 7, 2009. A courtroom with a capacity of 740 people was built, in Silivri prison where 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. Haberal was accused of “forming and leading 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. Haberal applied to the 13th High Criminal Court of Istanbul for release on bail for medical reasons and because he did not present a flight risk. His application was rejected. He subsequently appealed the verdict. Although his application was rejected again, the chief justice of the court dissented in his opinion. The chief justice stated that, “Mehmet Haberal has serious heart problems and, according to his medical records, doctors do not even approve him to attend hearings. All the evidence regarding his case has been collected and, because of his condition of health, there is no risk of him destroying evidence. The right to life is the most important right of any person and preventing someone from obtaining good medical care does constitute a violation of the right to life. Mehmet Haberal is a world renowned surgeon and hundreds of patients are waiting for him to obtain treatment, he is a rector of a university and, because of his medical condition and his age, he does not possess any risk of flight.” In February 2010 Dr. Haberal again applied for release and for damages from the judges for pain and suffering. On June 8, 2010, the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Dr. Haberal. The judges ruled that every defendant (nine judges were named in the suit) must pay Dr. Haberal 1.500 TL (approximately U.S. $900) for wrongfully keeping him in custody. The reasons given by the judges for this decision were the following: Dr. Haberal’s life has been closely monitored during the investigation. It is not convincing that he is a flight risk or at risk of destroying evidence, particularly given the technical resources used to monitor him. Also, it was decided that remaining in hospitalized imprisonment compromises Dr. Haberal’s right to life. The judges ruled that sufficient reason was not presented to the court to warrant keeping Dr. Haberal in custody and this situation is against the law. It constitutes serious misconduct and requires liability of the defendants. Despite the court’s ruling, no action was taken to release Dr. Haberal from state custody.
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. Haberal was sentenced to 12-1/2 years in prison. He was released that day pending the outcome of his appeal.
Brief Professional Bio (taken from his CV and information provided by professional colleagues)
A prominent Turkish surgeon, Dr. Haberal is founder and president of the Turkish Transplantation Society and councilor of The Transplantation Society, an international forum for the world-wide advancement of organ transplantation. He is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons and an honorary member of the American Surgical Association.
Dr. Haberal graduated from Ankara University Medical School in 1967. In October 1971, Hacettepe University conferred upon him the title of General Surgeon Specialist. He obtained additional training as a fellow at the Shriner’s Burns Institute and the John Seally Hospital in Galveston, Texas, and at the Colorado University Medical School’s Transplantation Center in Denver, Colorado.
Over the past quarter century, Dr. Haberal also played an instrumental role in the establishment of a number of important medical institutions in Turkey. In 1980 he established the Turkish Organ Transplantation and Burn Foundation, which facilitated organ-sharing and procurement throughout the Middle East. He later developed a network of 14 hemodialysis centers throughout Turkey that perform about one-third of all the dialyses in the country. With support from the Haberal Educational Foundation, he helped establish a hospital for the care of burns and transplantation. Subsequently, he oversaw the construction of six full-service hospitals throughout Turkey.
The list of Dr. Haberal’s professional accomplishments is impressive. He was the first person to perform a living-related kidney transplant, a successful cadaveric liver transplant, and a pediatric segmental liver transplant in Turkey. He was the first person in the world to perform both an adult segmental liver transplantation and a living kidney/liver transplantation from a living-related donor. He has performed more than 2,000 kidney and 200 liver transplants.
Up until he was detained, Dr. Haberal continued to perform at least two transplant operations weekly.
Dr. Haberal has written or co-written 1,200 Turkish and English scientific publications and 6 books and founded the journal, Dialysis, Transplantation, and Burns. He has served as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Dialysis and Transplantation, as a member of the editorial board of Clinical Transplantation Proceedings, and as guest editor for eight issues of Transplantation Proceedings.
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