Mustafa Kabakcioglu, a 44-year-old former deputy police chief who spent four years in solitary confinement, died alone on a white plastic chair in Gümüşhane Prison in August this year.
Since then, white chairs have become the symbol of protest for people around the world to draw attention to the more than 126 people who have died suspiciously in Turkish prisons or detention centres.
“His head just dropped into the back of the chair, so we used the white chair as a figure,” said Hafza Girdap, the executive director of Advocates of Silenced Turkey and a scholar at Stony Brook University in New York State.
Protesters from AST held peaceful White Chair Protests in 22 locations around North America on Nov. 22, including Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto, where protesters hung banners featuring Kabakcioglu and other arrested journalists, politicians, and writers.
After an alleged attempted coup in 2016, the regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on dissenters and arbitrary arrests have increased dramatically, Girdap said.
“He was put into that cell because of the claim that he was exposed to COVID-19,” Girdap said. “However, he tested on the day of his death and was negative.”
Kabakcioglu, who suffered from diabetes, asthma, and high blood pressure, had written a letter to the prison infirmary two days before his death requesting medical help for symptoms that appeared unassociated with COVID.
“Mustafa Kabakcioglu passed away because of the negligence and cruelty in the Turkish prisons,” said Erkam Ak, a University of Toronto student and volunteer of AST.
“His case is a very telling story of how an average person persecuted by the regime gets stripped away of all rights and privileges and gets left to die essentially in their chamber,” Ak said.
At the Toronto protest, two men sat on the white plastic chairs to symbolically reenact Kabakcioglu’s death in the prison, about 720 kilometres east of Turkey’s capital Ankara.
“This kind of protest with meaningful and artful content is the least I can do for people back home,” Ak said. “I am afflicted by a similar injustice that happened to my family in Turkey.
“I have attended the demonstration to be part of these people that want to make a statement in places they are living,” she said.
Demonstrators read a statement saying the Erdogan regime has filled prisons with opponents and that thousands of political prisoners have been held despite widespread COVID-19 outbreaks in jails.
“We wanted to bring awareness to suspicious deaths and human rights violence in Turkey,” said Hansa Gunsel, an interior designer in the GTA and a volunteer of AST.
“Kabakcioglu’s last moments on the white chair became a representation of many untold stories,” Gunsel said.
Protesters called for an investigation of the deaths and prosecution of responsible officers.
Other cities that held a Peaceful White Chair Protest included New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.