Turkish Rights Crackdown, Global Outcry Both Intensify
23 February 2019, 09:47
Turkish authorities have issued hundreds of arrest warrants for military personnel accused of involvement in a 2016 failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. All are accused of links to the U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is blamed for masterminding the botched takeover, VOA news reports.
Security forces carried out simultaneous raids on the homes of 295 military personnel early Friday, with senior officers, including colonels, being among those sought by authorities.
The prosecutor’s office said the arrests were the result of a surveillance operation centering on the use of public pay phones, allegedly by members of an underground network affiliated with Gulen.
Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, is accused of using his network of followers within the security forces to try to seize power, a charge he denies.
Mass arrests are continuing across Turkish society in connection with the attempted coup, with more than 70,000 people currently jailed. As the crackdown intensifies, however, critics increasingly accuse the government of seeking to stifle dissent rather than protect democracy.
On Tuesday, a Turkish appeals court upheld the convictions of 14 journalists and officials working for Cumhuriyet, the last critical mainstream newspaper. All face jail sentences on terrorism charges, linked to supporting Gulen.
The convictions have provoked widespread criticism and incredulity given the paper has been an outspoken opponent of Gulen for decades, writing exposes on his followers’ alleged infiltration of the Turkish state.
“We only have two days to live. It is not worth it to spend these days kneeling in front of vile people,” said journalist Ahmet Sik in reaction to his conviction and a seven-year jail sentence. Sik is now a member of parliament of the pro-Kurdish HDP.
Four of those convicted face jail, with their appeals process exhausted. The remaining continue to challenge their verdicts.
Since the failed coup, scores of journalists have been jailed, and international human rights groups and media rights groups regularly cite Turkey as the world’s worst jailer of journalists. Ankara maintains that all those in prison were put there for non-journalist activities.
Turkey vs. PKK
The convictions Thursday of 27 academics by an Istanbul court on terror charges is adding further to criticism of the crackdown. The academics were jailed for two years because they signed a petition calling for an end to a decades-long conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish rebels of the PKK. Turkey, the United States and European Union have designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.
So far, 129 academics have been convicted, with hundreds more still standing trial. Their prosecutions have drawn worldwide condemnation.
The European Parliament’s patience with Ankara appears to be running out. The parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs called Tuesday for a full vote in March to suspend Turkey’s membership bid, citing the deterioration of human rights and the establishment of a partisan judiciary.
“Human rights violations and arrests of journalists occur on an almost daily basis while democracy and the rule of law in the country are undermined further,” European Parliament member Marietje Schaake said in a statement.
“Baseless allegations [are] a new sign of the European Parliament’s prejudice against our country,” Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hami Aksoy responded.
The European Parliament vote, however, is not binding, with Europe’s leaders having the final say on the fate of Turkey’s membership bid.
With Turkey an important gatekeeper to migrants seeking to enter Europe, analysts suggest European leaders will be reluctant to incur Ankara’s wrath.
On Wednesday, the legal crackdown widened further, with Osman Kavala, a leading philanthropist and millionaire businessman, accused of sedition, a charge that carries punishment of life in prison without parole upon conviction. He has been in jail for more than a year pending charges.
Kavala is one of the main supporters of civil society in Turkey, seeking to build bridges across cultural, religious and ethnic divides.
Alleged Gezi ties
In a 657-page indictment, Kavala and 15 others are accused of supporting and facilitating the 2013 nationwide anti-government protests known as the Gezi movement.
The Gezi protests were one of the most dangerous challenges to Erdogan, who was then prime minister.
With the Turkish economy facing a deep recession and soaring inflation, the broadening of the legal crackdown to cover the 2013 civic protects is seen by analysts as a warning.
“The government realizes more and more that things are definitely not going the right way,” said political scientist Cengiz Aktar. “The government sends the message: Don’t dare to take to the streets and protest against my policies. I will be very harsh in repressing these kinds of protests.”
International outrage over Kavala’s prosecution continues to grow, with condemnation from the Council of Europe and European parliamentarians.
“Shocked, outraged and sad at the same time … accusing him of attempting to destroy the Republic of Turkey is totally crazy,” tweeted Kati Piri, European Parliament deputy and rapporteur on Turkey.
“President Erdogan and his government have concocted an entirely politically motivated case against Osman Kavala and 15 others,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. “Reinventing the Gezi protests as an externally funded coup attempt organized by Kavala is a cynical attempt to rewrite history and justify decimating Turkey’s independent civil society.”