All the president’s men
On the night of Friday 15th July, troubling news started to emerge from Turkey. A faction of the Turkish military was trying to overthrow the elected government. Tanks were rolling through the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, soldiers were storming the headquarters of state broadcaster TRT and fighter jets were bombing the parliament building. Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge – since renamed “15th July Martyrs’ Bridge” – was under military lockdown.
But resistance came swiftly. Shortly after news of the uprising broke, Turkey’s opposition parties all issued statements condemning the army’s violent intervention and professing their support for the elected government. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was holidaying in the seaside resort of Marmaris at the time, issued a televised appeal via FaceTime in which he asked the people to defend the country against the junta. “Go to the streets and give them their answer,” he demanded. Social media was awash with people opposing the coup attempt, and despite a curfew declared by the rebels, tens of thousands followed their president’s command and took to the streets to protest.
“We heard Recep Tayyip Erdogan, God’s lion, call for our support on TV.
He called on all patriots to stand up for Turkey, so we did”
It would be the first time in Turkey – which has experienced a string of bloody military coups since its foundation in 1923 – that civilian resistance forced the military to back down. Ordinary people marched in massed ranks to confront armed troops, stood in front of tanks to stop them from advancing and dragged rebel soldiers from their vehicles. Only a few hours after it had begun, the uprising was over. At least 240 had died and over 1,000 had been injured.
While the country was largely united in opposing the coup, the overwhelming majority of those who faced it down in the streets of Istanbul and Ankara were fervent supporters of President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Recep Akbulut, the 60-year-old owner of a small restaurant in Çengelköy, a neighbourhood on the Asian side of Istanbul on the shores of the Bosphorus, described how the men of his family immediately followed the president’s call to defend Turkey against the insurgency. “We grabbed our guns as soon as we heard,” he tells me, three months after the fateful night. “We heard Recep Tayyip Erdogan, God’s lion, call for our support on TV. He called on all patriots to stand up for Turkey, so we did.” Çengelköy, situated between Istanbul’s Kuleli military high school, where the coup is said to have started, and the locked-down Bosphorus Bridge, became the scene of a shoot-out between armed residents and the military. At least 24 people were killed in the battle, including Akbulut’s younger brother Kadir. For Akbulut it was a sacrifice worth making. “We had not expected something like this. This coup attempt was treason, an ignominy!” says Akbulut. “But we will clean up these traitors that tried to overthrow our government. And we will find out which countries were in league with them, too.” Like many in Turkey, he believes that Western governments, subsequently harshly criticised for their apparent lack of solidarity with their democratically elected ally, had approved of the coup attempt.
Three months on, bullet holes still riddle some of the façades in Çengelköy. In a shop window on the main street of the neighbourhood hangs a blurry photograph of a man in torn military garb who has obviously been badly beaten. “This is what we did with those traitors,” reads the caption.
Turkey on democracy watch
For weeks following the botched coup, people took to the streets to celebrate its failure. Drivers decked out their cars with Turkish flags and raced them around, honking their horns and blasting out songs praising the president. Officially organised “Democracy Watches” – anti-coup demonstrations at which crowds followed Erdogan’s ongoing order to occupy the streets and protect the country – were held in many cities across Turkey. Attendees were addressed by leading AKP politicians and were supplied with free tea and sandwiches by local authorities.
In Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, Democracy Watchers were encouraged to take selfies in front of screens showing glossy anti-coup videos while street sellers peddled tote bags, mugs and other souvenirs featuring Erdogan’s face and silhouettes of people standing up to tanks. Posters appeared on public buses and ferries proclaiming the sovereignty of the Turkish people and the victory of democracy over military coups and terrorism. But the mood amongst those critical of the government did not fit the slogans. “I did not go out to join the Democracy Watches,” says one woman who lives near Taksim Square and who wishes to remain anonymous. “I just did not fit in. I felt uncomfortable there, even though I was against the military coup.”
The government was quick to assign blame. Erdogan immediately pointed to US-based Muslim cleric and former ally Fethullah Gülen as the mastermind behind the bloody coup attempt. Gülen’s movement, Hizmet, which he claims is civic and non-political, has millions of followers in Turkey. It shares a background in Turkish nationalist Islamist movements with the AKP, and for many years was protected by Erdogan despite a widespread belief that it had infiltrated the nation’s judiciary and its security apparatus, including the army. The friendship between Erdogan and Gülen started to sour in 2012, but the president declared all-out war on the cleric following the eruption of a massive corruption scandal in 2013 that implicated the AKP government, Erdogan’s closest associates and his family. Erdogan, then prime minister, blames Gülen for the allegations. The government now refers to Hizmet as FETÖ – the Gulenist Terror Organisation. Gülen has strenuously denied any link to the coup attempt.
Few have dared to voice doubts about the government’s narrative concerning the uprising lest they, too, are accused of being Gülen supporters. However, some journalists and commentators in Turkey have stressed that a coalition of several factions in the army acting to further their own agenda is a more likely scenario, underlining that the most crucial questions concerning the failed military
intervention remain unanswered. Who headed the junta? Did the government know about a possible military uprising? Why did Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) fail to prevent it? There is still little clarity about what actually happened on the night of 15th July.
What has become clear is that Erdogan has used the botched coup to rid himself of all unwanted opposition in his crackdown on alleged putschists. On 20th July, he announced a three-month state of emergency that was recently extended until January 2017, and might well be prolonged again. This enables the president and the AKP cabinet to bypass parliament, rule via decree, and suspend rights and freedoms if they deem it necessary. The government insists that these measures will only be used to target those immediately associated with the coup attempt, but the purge has been widened to root out further opposition, including potential sympathisers with Gülen’s movement as well as leftists, Kurds and anyone critical of the government.
A number of emergency decrees have been passed, leading to the shutdown of dozens of media outlets, private schools, universities and foundations. The investigation of possible coup plotters has turned into an all-out witch hunt.
More than 140 journalists now languish in Turkish jails, making the country once more the world’s leader in jailing reporters. According to independent Turkish media platform P24, the number of media outlets shut down in the wake of 15th July now exceeds 160. Journalists speak of a blackout especially in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, where violence has surged again following the breakdown of a ceasefire between the Turkish state and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) last summer. Groups monitoring freedom of expression warn that the shutdown of all critical and independent media will make human rights violations easier and more likely, since nobody will be watching. On television, from which the vast majority of people in Turkey get their news, it is now impossible to find any reporting that challenges the government narrative.
“Now we live in a country where we only hear one voice, where we only see one single angle, one single view on things”
Hamza Aktan, former news editor of the independent channel IMC TV, which was shut down via emergency decree in October, said that the government had managed to “break the back of free and critical media in Turkey”: “Now we live in a country where we only hear one voice, where we only see one single angle, one single view on things,” he says. “By closing down all these critical voices the government clearly outlined what kind of Turkey they want. If the putschists had succeeded, I’m sure they would have done the exact same thing.”
In addition to the crackdown on all critical media, tens of thousands of civil servants, including teachers, academics, members of the judiciary and the security forces, as well as employees in various ministries and public offices, have been dismissed or suspended. Many of those dismissed in the teaching sector were members of the leftist teachers’ union Egitim-Sen. According to the state news agency Anadolu, 37,000 people have been formally arrested since 15th July. Altogether criminal procedures have been started against more than 85,000 people. In many cases there seems to be little evidence against them.
Hasan, a prosecutor, and Ümit, a criminal judge, both of whom are representatives of the Judges and Prosecutors Union in Istanbul, say that the purges have crippled a judiciary that was already under pressure before the coup attempt. More than 3,700 judges and prosecutors have been dismissed or arrested since 15th July for alleged links to FETÖ.
“Things are going from bad to worse,” says Ümit. “Suspensions and dismissals have increased a lot, and the so-called proof used by the authorities to justify these measures is unacceptable. People are fired without an investigation, without a court case and with zero tangible evidence. It’s the opposite of justice.” Being the recipient of a scholarship from a Gülenist school or an account holder at Gülen-affiliated Bank Asya (whose licence was only revoked on 22nd July 2016) can lead to sudden dismissal and allow the government to launch an investigation for “terrorism support”. The passports of civil servants who have been accused are immediately cancelled, and their assets seized.
“We had to start collecting money amongst union members for families who have been left with nothing and cannot get by any longer,” explains Hasan. “Our union has long spoken out against the Gülen infiltration of the judiciary that happened with the active help of the AKP and Erdogan. Of course they should be removed from public posts, but within the scope of the rule of law. There has to be evidence, a fair trial, and a court ruling. People cannot just be fired because of gossip about them, or because they sent their children to a Gülenist school.”
His colleague Ümit agrees. “Furthermore, we have to separate the charges. Coup plotting and running an illegal organisation such as FETÖ are two different matters entirely,” he says. “Before one can say that these two things are related, you have to have solid proof.”
Both underline that they firmly oppose any attempt at a military takeover of an elected government. “The government now uses this opportunity to bring the entire judiciary firmly in line,” says Ümit.
The mass arrests and widening purges have also led to a noticeable shortage in judges and prosecutors, with many having to deal with several court hearings taking place at the same time in different courtrooms, making it impossible to hear each one. “My workload has doubled,” explains Hasan. “On some days it’s physically impossible to deal with the amount of case files on my desk. I feel like we lose the honour of our profession because we have to rush through them.”
The police, within which Gülen is said to have been especially influential, have also been thinned out by the ongoing crackdown, with thousands of officers in jail, dismissed or suspended. According to the two judicial officers, this has had a crippling effect on their work and ongoing investigations. “Everything takes much longer now,” explains Hasan. “Paperwork, communication. Some arrest orders are not carried out at all because there are not enough police officers.” In addition to that, claims Ümit, the overcrowded jails all over the country have led to perpetrators of crimes which carry sentences of under four years being let off the hook without serving any prison time at all. “There is a growing sense of impunity for certain crimes,” he says. “What does this do to a society? If citizens do not believe in justice and the law any more, society will break down. This is unsustainable.”
Both men also express serious concerns about reports of ill-treatment and torture in police detention and Turkish jails. As part of one of the recently-passed emergency decrees, detention periods (the time before one is brought before a judge to decide on pre-trial detention) have increased from four to 30 days without the obligation to consult doctors during that time, and access to lawyers has been restricted. “This is typically what happens in countries where there is torture,” Ümit says.
In a report published in October, Human Rights Watch said that the new regulations have given “a blank cheque” to police to torture, abuse or threaten detainees. Ümit adds that in addition to the detentions, the mass dismissals on flimsy suspicions have also led to a different kind of suffering. “For many, this spells social death,” he says.
Ahmet and Aysegül, both teachers in Istanbul, can only agree with that statement. Both were fired as a direct consequence of an emergency decree as alleged Gülen supporters on 1st September, together with around 2,400 other teachers in Turkish schools.
“I am not sure what we are accused of exactly,” says Ahmet, who has been teaching for over a decade. “My guess is that we used to have an account with Bank Asya – it’s the only thing I can think of.”
It has been a month since he and his wife lost their jobs overnight. Both say that they debated for a long time if it was safe to speak to a journalist. Their parents told them not to, arguing that in order to increase their chances of reinstatement they should not do anything to anger the government. “My parents both support Erdogan. They say that the government probably knows what they are doing.” Ahmet shrugs. “But even so they think that our dismissal was unlawful, and that we should be allowed to return to our jobs.”
Neither he nor his wife received an official notice, a justification or a court order. Instead they learned of their dismissal via the internet. “Our names were published in the online version of the official gazette. That was all,” Ahmet says. Both had been suspended earlier in August. “We have no means to defend ourselves, but since our names are now associated with terrorism and coup plotting, we are blacklisted.” His wife underlines that they opposed the coup, and have never been politically active. “I want you to put that in for the record,” she says.
Her husband adds that his search for employment has so far come to nothing. He used to be in very high demand as a tutor, but parents are now unwilling or too scared to let him teach their children, for fear that they will be seen as accomplices. Schools will not hire him. Ahmet, who did not want to give any details about his teaching credentials for fear that he would be recognised, says he has started to look for day work in factories and textile workshops to at least make a little money to survive on.
“Many lawyers refuse to take up the cases of alleged Gülenists: the prospect of defending the government’s enemies does not appeal to many”
“But each time the people there ask: ‘Why did you quit your teaching job? Why would you want to do this?’ And since my name is on a publicly accessible list it is no use to lie.” He sighs. “So far I have not been able to find any work.” The couple are lucky that their parents have been able to help them out with paying their mortgage, but their savings will soon come to an end. “In addition to that it is possible that the government might freeze our assets at any moment,” Ahmet worries. This would mean that he could not sell his car or other possessions as an emergency solution. The couple now only use cash, too scared to put money into their bank account lest it be confiscated without warning.
Legal representation is hard to come by – the couple explain that many lawyers refuse to take up the cases of alleged Gülenists: the prospect of defending the government’s enemies in the current atmosphere does not appeal to many. Those who do take up their cases often ask for exorbitant fees. “There is a real ‘black market’ now,” says Ahmet. “Those lawyers ask hundreds of thousands of lira, it’s impossible for us.”
The new divide
Solidarity has proven to be in short supply for those dismissed in the regime’s post-coup clean-up. Many of the teachers and other civil servants dismissed on charges of being members of a terrorist organisation are too scared to call each other or to meet in order to discuss a possible strategy and share their information. “That will just give the government another reason to accuse us of conspiring against them,” Ahmet insists.
The couple add that the hardest thing to bear has been the uncertainty of not knowing what they did wrong and therefore how to make it right again. The accusations have led to family members and friends turning their backs on them.
“Much worse than the sudden lack of employment and an income is the complete isolation,” says Aysegül quietly. “We used to have visitors over all the time. Now people have either abandoned us or are too scared to even call. Our students turn away when they see us in the street.” She pauses. “Being turned into such a pariah overnight – that is the worst thing of all.” In the febrile, paranoid post-coup atmosphere, many more pariahs are being created in Turkey each day.
Since the two teachers were fired, thousands more have been sacked, leaving some schools, especially in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, struggling with severe staff shortages.
On 11th November, Turkish authorities closed 370 non-governmental organisations and associations, including groups defending women’s and children’s rights. They, too, are being accused of links to terrorism. One day later, President Erdogan appointed a chancellor to Istanbul’s prestigious Bosphorus University following an emergency decree that allows him to bypass the preferences of academics and university staff.
After the night of 15th July, some analysts said that the government had two choices: to embrace a free, pluralistic society or opt for authoritarianism. It seems clear that Erdogan and his government have chosen the latter, and those who hoped Turkey might become more democratic and open after the failed coup no longer nurture such expectations. “I would sum it up like this,” says investigative journalist Ahmet Sık. “The coup was prevented, but the junta came to power.”
At their request, the names of the interviewees in this piece have been changed.
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