President Erdoğan’s pursuit of Fethullah Gülen’s supporters has imprisoned thousands and left many collateral victims frightened for their livelihoods, and their lives. The rule of law has been forgotten.
State violence: riot police detain a girl at a rally for women’s rights in Ankara, on 4 March 2018 (Stringer · AFP · Getty)
The K family live on a small estate of six tower blocks in a middle-class outer suburb of Istanbul, where everyone knows what has happened to them. Mrs K has two teenage children: ‘We’re in the middle of a psychological war that the government is waging on us. Every knock at the door makes us afraid we’re about to be arrested. Our lives could come to an end at any time, if we get pulled over in the car, or just with a phone call.’
This climate of fear is the result of the Turkish government’s offensive against the billionaire preacher Fethullah Gülen, founder of the Hizmet movement, once President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ally. Having helped Erdoğan win power in the early 2000s, Gülen, a US resident since 1999, became the ‘traitor’ who allegedly initiated and covertly steered the legal investigation of Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) in December 2013. Gülen now stands accused of having orchestrated the failed coup of 15 July 2016, though no evidence has been produced.
There are tens of thousands of collateral victims in Erdoğan’s witch-hunt against Gülen’s alleged supporters. Mass arrests, expulsions from the public sector, army and security services, and judicial harassment are all part of an unprecedented purge of Turkish society. The state of emergency since the failed coup was further tightened by two decrees last December. Even the repression that followed military coups between 1960 and 1980 never reached such a scale. Gülenist sympathisers are not the only targets: in February the well-known writer Ahmet Altan was sentenced to life imprisonment for ‘attempted overthrow of Turkey’s Grand National Assembly’ and ‘attempted overthrow of the constitutional order’; this provoked an outcry in Turkey and abroad.
Three days after the July 2016 coup, while Mrs K was travelling with her husband to their hometown of Konya, she heard that all Gülenist schools, including her son’s, were to close. Mr K returned to Istanbul to enrol him in another school. While he was on his way, his employer called to tell him he’d been sacked. Mr K had previously taught history at a Gülenist school, but for four years had worked in the state system. A few hours later, Mrs K, a state school theology teacher, heard her contract had been terminated too.
That evening police in balaclavas turned up at the couple’s home. Mr K was handcuffed, thrown to the floor and beaten to get him to name the members of the ‘terrorist group’ responsible for the attempted coup. The police then took him away.
Even AKP voters under threat
The couple were AKP voters, and ‘always praised the Turkish nation and the republic’ to their pupils. Mrs K cannot understand why they would be treated as terrorists. Their case illustrates the authorities’ strategy of making everyone feel threatened, including past and current AKP supporters.
Mrs K spent five days trying to find out where her husband was being held. He was diabetic and she was worried that the police wouldn’t allow him insulin. She eventually discovered he was at the police headquarters on Vatan Street, but she never saw him alive again. Officially he died of a heart attack; his medical file notes a cracked rib and statements from fellow detainees mention lengthy torture.
Mrs K and her children now rely on the kindness of the few neighbours who haven’t turned their backs on her, and a little work she gets as a seamstress, which brings in $180 a month. After a year of desperate efforts, she got the authorities to open an inquiry in mid-2017, but she is still waiting for the results.
N, a teacher, was at the police headquarters around the same time as Mr K. The words ‘hell’ and ‘terror’ recur in his account of his experience. He kept looking over his shoulder to make sure no one was eavesdropping. A former pupil from the Gülenist school where he taught had been denounced and arrested for owning a book by Gülen, and in detention had given the name of a teacher, a friend of N, with whom he had recently exchanged text messages. After a police beating, the friend gave them N’s details.
N was beaten for hours by five policemen, who insisted he confess to being in a ‘Gülenist terrorist group’. ‘I’m just a teacher. I had nothing to do with the coup,’ he told me with tears in his eyes. He appeared in court after a week in detention. ‘They didn’t listen to me. It was just a formality for them.’
‘I’ve lost everything’
He was then transferred to prison, where he shared a cell built for seven with 30 others. He was finally released on 28 December 2016, is living with his parents, awaiting final judgment, and feels sure he will be sentenced to 15 years. Why did he not flee abroad as many have done in the past two years? ‘I’ve lost everything and my family have already suffered so much. But I’m a Muslim and I still believe that good will triumph over evil.
Thousands of Turks live, like N and Mrs K, in temporary reprieve. Since August 2016 Turkey’s Official Gazette has published a monthly list of 2-3,000 people suspected of collusion with terrorist organisations. Media with close ties to the authorities relay the news: 115,000 Turks have been stripped of the right to vote, receive a pension or own a passport. Fear permeates Turkish society. People I contacted refused to talk through fear of being sent to prison on the flimsiest pretext.
’People on those lists have become pariahs,’ said F, a young psychologist who has been out of work since his name appeared on a list. He has no job, passport or right to benefits, and gets by as best he can. ‘The hardest part is the isolation. I still do a bit of work for private practices. But it’s lonely... Friends turn away for fear of being “contaminated”. Fortunately some of us who have suffered the same treatment are getting organised.’ Once a week they get together to talk and publicise their cause on social media. But fear of arrest is constant.
Unlikely alliances have formed. ‘Islamists come to us for help,’ said Mustapha Görkem Doğam of the leftwing Eğitim-Sen union, which represents schoolteachers. ‘We’re used to repression, but it’s new for them. We give them what help we can.’ But the union’s demonstrations are attracting fewer people. In December 2017 just nine attended a weekly protest to demand the restoration of their rights in Altıyol Square near Kadıköy, a district on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.
Dr Cihangir Islam, 58, was dismissed from the university of Kars, where he taught orthopaedics, and had to go into private practice. No hospital would employ the founder of the Mazlumder NGO, which defended the victims of oppression, especially veiled women, in the 1990s. Near the end of his career, Islam found himself on a list, probably for signing a petition in support of university teachers facing prosecution.
Some prominent figures are trying to respond to these abuses of power. Mustapha Sezgin Tanrikulu, of Kurdish origin and a member of parliament for the centre-left CHP (Republican People’s Party), has been fighting since the 1980s, as a member of various NGOs, to have the rule of law respected. Some of his fellow activists have been assassinated. In weekly videos for his 512,000 Twitter followers, he provides information on Turkey’s ‘unprecedented’ situation.
He has been charged under the amended article 301 of the penal code, which punishes anyone found guilty of criticising ‘Turkish democracy, the government and institutions’ with between six months and two years in prison. Every week he meets a group of lawyers to argue the cases of detainees such as journalist Ahmet Şik. But parliament merely rubber-stamps the wishes of the president.
‘There’s no longer any parliamentary activity worthy of the name,’ said Ayhan Bilgen, a member of parliament for the leftwing Kurdish HDP (People’s Democratic Party). He has been imprisoned several times in the last 18 months, and two of his party’s leaders, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, who have been detained since 2016, face heavy sentences for allegedly supporting the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). ‘The authorities are crushing all opposition,’ said Bilgen. ‘This has got to stop or there will be civil war soon.’
Many see parallels between the strategy of terror and earlier Turkish history. ‘The authorities have often needed to find an enemy,’ said a journalist in exile in France. ‘Alevis, Armenians, Kurds... Today it’s the Gülen brotherhood. It’s probably because Turkey isn’t a homogenous nation, but a collection of peoples who need uniting by force against a common enemy.’
This interpretation may have intellectual appeal, but it underestimates how exceptional the current situation is, said Professor Ahmet Kuyaş of Galatasaray University. ‘It’s not just about a political party coming to power and sacking all the incumbent bureaucrats, as happened between 1908 and 1913, and with Mustafa Kemal [Atatürk] in 1923, and in 1950 when the democrats took power, or even after the military coup in 1960. Gülen and the AKP came to power together. And today the government is conducting a purge. That’s completely new. Even in 1908 and 1913, people were made to retire, but they weren’t stripped of everything the way those accused of being Gülenists are today.’
‘The alliance with Gülen has been profitable to the AKP,’ said Selim Koru, a consultant with a centre-right thinktank attached to the Ankara chamber of commerce. ‘They used Gülen and now they’re getting rid of him.’ But Kuyaş foresees the end of this ‘extraordinary time’, when those who have been purged demand the state rehabilitate them. ‘The AKP’s already lost the big cities: Istanbul and Ankara voted no in the referendum on 16 April 2017.’
Görkem Doğam of the teachers’ union acknowledges that the purges are slowing but thinks that ‘the AKP still has considerable room for manoeuvre and another list could appear at any time.’ Fear is becoming more engrained each day, since no one knows how far the government, having tamed the judiciary and removed the last checks on power, is prepared to go.
Translated by George Miller
(c) 2018 Le Monde diplomatique