Resisting a military junta in the 1997 coup, Kantarci was imprisoned at 16 and released nine years later. He always stood for the country's religious freedom.

A few hours before the military coup unfolded in Türkiye on July 15, 2016, Halil Kantarci posted a selfie on Twitter which showed him with a cigarette dangling from his lips. 

The caption read: "If I die, remember me like this".

Soon after tweeting, he heard a loud noise outside and learned the country was in danger of falling prey to a military takeover. Paying no heed to his wife's pleas — she wanted him to stay indoors — he ran out on the street to join the resistance. 

The rogue soldiers, who were out on a rampage following the orders of the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO), shot 36-year-old Kantarci dead. 

The coup attempt was defeated on the same night. For the first time in the country's post-War history, Turkish citizens saved their democracy from a violent takeover. Kantarci was among 251 fellow Turks who were mercilessly gunned down by the putschists.  

But Kantarci's short lifetime is representative of Türkiye's turbulent past. He came of age as a prisoner of conscience. In 1997, at the age of 16, he received a death penalty on the charges of being associated with the National Youth Foundation, which supported deposed Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party. The death sentence was served by a military junta as the Erbakan-led government was toppled the same year in what became known as Türkiye's postmodern coup given that it was a non-violent takeover. 

Prior to the coup, Kantarci had had several run-ins with the military. He was first detained in 1995 while he was returning from an Erdogan rally in Istanbul’s Kagithane district. Erdogan was then the mayor of Istanbul, and he was a strong supporter of Erbakan. 

A few days later, he was released. Within a year, however, he was detained again for participating in a protest that demanded the conversion of the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque, a deeply sensitive demand in Turkish politics that was eventually met on July 24, 2020.

With the unfolding of the 1997 post-modern coup, the Turkish military arrested him again, citing the charges of his previous detentions. This time, he was handed a death penalty - though it was later overturned on the grounds of clemency and altered to a 9-year-long prison stay.  

"They did not have any solid reason to imprison Halil (Kantarci) but they still put him in jail for 9 years. They merged his previous detentions to hand him a tough sentence," said Tayyar Tercan, a friend of Kantarci. 

Like Kantarci, many public servants and civilians were victimised on the charges of being Erbakan supporters. Tens of thousands were sacked from their jobs and sent to prison. Women who wore headscarves were denied education as the dress code did not fit the definition of secularism espoused by the military leadership of that time. The coup, therefore, was the only way for them to remove the conservative prime minister Erbakan from power and protect secularism, a way of life propagated by the military elite of that time.  

The consequences of the events of February 28 linger because unfinished trials are still ongoing.

During the imprisonment, Kantarci was repeatedly tortured, says Murat Koparan, one of his another close friends.

"Kantarci and other political detainees went on a strike for a month because the authorities were refusing them prayer rugs," he told TRT World. 

"The prison officers who openly supported FETO leader Gulen and advocated his views did not like Kantarci. To break his will, they forcibly cut his hair. He used to have long hair back then," according to him.   

The incident left a deep impact on Kantarci's psychology. Nine years after he was freed, Kantarci did not like visiting barber shops. The sight of scissors in a stranger's hand made him anxious. "He got his haircut only two to three times a year," Koparan said. 

As the FETO terror network gained ground in Türkiye, it began to target its most fervent critics. Kantarci was one of them and his anti-FETO image landed him on the terror group's hit list, according to him. 

"Kantarci knew that he was on FETO's execution list for a long time." 

As his teenage imprisonment disrupted his education, he dropped out of school. "But he did not give up on reading. He read a lot in jail. He was an avid reader of history, and philosophy. He improved his writing and oratory skills, which helped him as a social activist."  

Kantarci came from a family of goldsmiths. He joined his father's business after his imprisonment. 

On the night of the July 15 coup, he resisted the rogue soldiers near the Cengelkoy police station, which was raided by FETO-linked soldiers. 

Before stepping out of his house, he kissed his three children and hugged his wife, who never ceased to insist he ought to remain at home. He told her that if something untoward were to happen to him, on a night such as that, it would happen regardless of his whereabouts. 

He was shot twice. Kadir Kantarci recalled his brother Halil Kantarci's last words. “I love my wife and children and I entrust them to the Ummah (community).”

Turkish NGOs started a campaign to fund an orphanage in Sri Lanka and named it after Kantarci. A kindergarten in Istanbul's Uskudar district and a Muslim seminary in Izmir province were also named after him. 

Source: TRT World