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‘I pray for a miracle’: Frenchman fights to be repatriated from Turkish prison

·7-min read

The Istanbul Criminal Court sentenced Fabien Azoulay to 16 years and eight months in prison in 2017. His lawyers and relatives have been fighting ever since to have him repatriated to France. They have now decided now to publicise his case to put pressure on the French government.

"I pray and cry every day for a miracle. I can't imagine staying here for the full 16 years and eight months,” Azoulay wrote in letters sent to his family from Giresun prison in northeast Turkey, and seen by FRANCE 24.

Already incarcerated for almost four years for "importing a banned narcotic product", Azoulay, 43, has asked the French state to repatriate him so he can serve out the rest of his sentence in his own country.

Azoulay, who is gay and Jewish, says he is being harassed, mistreated and threatened on a daily basis.

Carole-Olivia Montenot, one of Azoulay's lawyers, describes feeling a sense of impotence as she hears of the horrors experienced by her client. "It is terrible. He is being intimidated, his fellow inmates are telling him to convert to Islam and to pray five times a day. He is also being harassed because of his sexual orientation," she told FRANCE 24.

"His conditions of detention are an attack on human dignity," said Sophie Wiesenfeld, founder of the think-tank Hexagon Society and president of the Fabien Azoulay Support Committee.

"There are so many of us here living in such a small space. To go to the toilet at night, we have to walk on top of people who are sleeping. When they are woken up, they get angry and there are fights," Azoulay wrote in a letter sent to a relative.

Drug recently banned in Turkey

When he flew to Turkey nearly four years ago, Azoulay never imagined that he would end up in a Turkish prison. During a trip to Istanbul to get hair implants, he bought GBL (Gamma-Butyrolactone), a synthetic drug popular in party circles. He paid $300 via a Lithuanian website and arranged to have it delivered to his hotel.

"The product had been banned in Turkey just a few months earlier. But the website had not updated the list of countries that had banned it. Azoulay was therefore unaware that this product had been classified as an illegal narcotic in Turkey," Montenot explained.

Turkish customs intercepted the package and tracked its path to Azoulay's hotel room, where they arrested him.

According to Montenot, the arrest was followed by "a succession of small hearings that each lasted about five minutes". Azoulay’s fate was decided on February 27, 2018, at the end of an "accelerated trial that lasted for about 15 minutes, including all the translations", she said. The court sentenced the French national to 20 years in prison, later reduced to 16 years and eight months for good behaviour at an appeal hearing.

Despite his appeal and a legal petition, Turkish courts confirmed the initial verdict. Azoulay's sentence was finalised in January 2019. Five months later, his lawyers launched a repatriation request that would allow him to serve his sentence on French soil.

Azoulay was first incarcerated in a prison in Maltepe, a district of Istanbul. He believed it was necessary to hide his religious affiliation and explained in a letter sent to a friend that "jihadists are trying to radicalise other prisoners". In this overcrowded prison, he said he was subjected to forced prayers, physical violence and even witnessed a murder.

"One guy had his throat slit by a group of four Syrians. I was sleeping when it happened but the screams of the other prisoners woke me up. The sight of blood everywhere was frightening, worse than a horror movie. I later learned that the prisoner who died had made sexual advances on one of the Syrians and that, in the name of Allah, he had to pay with his life because of his homosexuality," he said in the letter.

'Collateral damage'

Although he tried to hide his sexual orientation from other inmates, Azoulay was the victim of a homophobic attack in November 2019. "A fellow prisoner knew he was gay. In the middle of the night, he threw boiling water all over Fabien’s body, causing second-degree burns. Fabien had to be transferred to hospital," said Montenot.

Azoulay's lawyers reported this to France’s foreign ministry, which called an emergency meeting. The ministry proposed getting Azoulay transferred to another prison in Turkey. His legal team refused and reiterated their demands for his repatriation.

Azoulay was nevertheless sent to the prison where he is currently being held, 800 km from Istanbul. "He is even more isolated there than he was in Istanbul,” says Wiesenfeld. “His family can no longer visit him because the area is surrounded by jihadists and it’s dangerous.”

Letters and a brief weekly telephone conversation with his brother are the only means of communication he has with his family.

The repatriation process remains at an impasse. "The request for Fabien Azoulay's transfer, which was made officially in November 2019, has not seen any progress for almost two years," his lawyers said in a statement dated April 8. "We are aware that dealings between France and Turkey are strained, but it is not acceptable that Fabien Azoulay should bear the brunt of this.”

"Fabien is collateral damage of the misunderstandings between France and Turkey,” says Wiesenfeld.

Relations reached new lows in October 2020, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan controversially said that France’s President Emmanuel Macron needed to “have a mental check”. France had also drawn the wrath of Turkey for its military involvement in the eastern Mediterranean, an area that is the subject of Greek-Turkish tensions.

A détente seemed possible after a telephone conversation at the beginning of March between Macron and Erdogan. However, a new row erupted in France at the end of March over plans to build a mosque in Strasbourg.

In this tense diplomatic context, his lawyers and the Hexagon Society are struggling in their fight for Azoulay. "We sent letters to the foreign affairs ministry, to the Turkish ambassador to France and to the French ambassador to Turkey. Their replies made us believe that the ministry would like to act but that it cannot, that it has to wait for the green light from the Élysée presidential palace."

Contacted by FRANCE 24 on Monday, a diplomatic source indicated that "the foreign ministry in Paris and our embassy in Turkey are fully mobilised regarding Mr. Azoulay’s situation".

"Our consular services are in regular contact with Mr. Azoulay as well as with the Turkish authorities to inquire about his situation and the progress of his request for a transfer to France. In Paris, the services of this ministry are in regular contact with the family and lawyers of our compatriot."

For their part, Azoulay’s lawyers sent a letter to Macron that has so far gone unanswered, Montenot says.

He wants to commit suicide

On Saturday, a support group for Azoulay launched a petition to alert the public. By Tuesday morning it had already collected more than 77,000 signatures, including those of high-profile French personalities such as writer and economist Jacques Attali, Paris Deputy Mayor Audrey Pulvar and writer Pascal Bruckner.

But Azoulay's ordeal continues. "His brother is trying to help Fabien as best he can. If he told him the true extent of the French government’s inertia, I don’t think Fabien would survive," says Montenot.

"Fabien has told his family that he will not make it through this, his fourth year in prison. He has fallen into a major depression. He is on medication and wants to commit suicide. He fears for his life."

This article was translated from the original in French.