“Human rights in Turkey are in peril,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia, only days after the failed coup on 15 July 2016. “The sheer number of arrests and suspensions is alarming. The coup attempt unleashed appalling violence, and those responsible for unlawful killings and other human rights abuses must be brought to justice, but cracking down on dissent and threatening to bring back the death penalty are not justice.”
In the following weeks, the organization sparked controversy after declaring that it had gathered ‘credible evidence that detainees in Turkey are being subjected to beatings and torture, including rape, in official and unofficial detention centres in the country’.
If true, these claims are an indication of just how far the country once presented as a model of ‘Muslim democracy’ has veered off course. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, vehemently denied the allegations. “Turkey has a zero tolerance toward torture,” he said in a recent address, suggesting that some of those detained were beaten during scuffles as pro-government citizens took to the streets. “If you have any self-respect, come to Turkey; visit our parliament, talk to our wounded,” he lashed out. “You’ll see who did what to whom.”
Amnesty International, however, stands by its claims. “These findings are based on detailed interviews with lawyers, doctors, family members and an eyewitness to torture in a detention facility,” said Secretary-General Salil Shetty, reiterating the call for independent monitors to be given immediate access to detainees.
Indeed, on 7 September 2016, a delegation from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) visited three detention facilities in Turkey and met with high-level government representatives, law enforcement officers and NGOs. The CPT’s report of the visit, due to be released in November, will be an important step towards assessing the veracity of these allegations.
The concerns of Erdogan’s critics at home, however, go beyond torture and ill-treatment. The day after the coup, Sabanci University’s Ayse Kadioglu provocatively described the coup attempt as ‘Erdogan’s Reichstag fire’. In an article for the independent media platform openDemocracy, Kadioglu wrote: ‘We are witnessing the consolidation of a new form of authoritarian regime with a populist streak. One thing [is] certain: there [will] no longer be room in Turkey for people who can listen, read, analyze and think critically. The attempted coup d’état of 15 July 2016 is like the last nail in the coffin.’
‘The country is gradually returning to normal – but it is a new normal where there is less oxygen for civil society,’ wrote Amnesty International’s Andrew Gardner. ‘A blurring of the distinction between culpability for the coup and being an [Islamist preacher Fethullah] Gülen sympathizer has already been visible. The authorities’ definition of “traitor” could be broadened further still to encompass secular, leftist or Kurdish critics.’
At first sight, these fears are well founded. Within days of the coup, Turkey declared a state of emergency, granting the government the power to rule by decree and allowing government security forces to hold detainees for up to 30 days without charge.
The government also launched the largest political purge in Turkey’s recent history, with at least 35,000 people detained and 75,000 public servants dismissed, including close to 3,000 judges and prosecutors suspected of supporting Gülen. The Pennsylvania-based cleric is the leader of the Hizmet movement, which is believed to have millions of followers worldwide and billions of dollars in assets. He was once also one of President Erdogan’s most powerful allies and now stands accused of masterminding the plot to overthrow him.
As detentions and dismissals continue, there are growing fears that the post-coup purge will widen in scope beyond suspected Gülen supporters to all political opponents. Also dismissed, for example, were 44 signatories of the Academics for Peace petition. The controversial petition, signed by over 2,200 academics, criticized the ongoing military offensive in Turkey’s south-east against the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and called for a cessation of hostilities. President Erdogan had severely criticized the petition, describing it as “biased”, “one-sided” and “terrorist propaganda”, and urging the judiciary to take action against such “treachery”. In the following weeks, many signatories were put on trial or sacked from their jobs.
Similarly, with a decree in early September, more than 12,000 teachers, all members of the left-wing teachers’ union, Egitim-Sen, were dismissed for suspected ties to the PKK. Four days later, another decree ousted 28 democratically elected mayors, mostly from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), and replaced them with government-appointed trustees.
With the government casting its net ever wider, the opposition parties are growing increasingly vocal in their criticism. In a sharply worded statement, the HDP slammed the government for actions that will ‘make the Kurdish problem an unresolvable one’.
The main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who had emerged as an unlikely ally for President Erdogan in the aftermath of the attempted coup and appeared at his 3-million-strong pro-democracy rally on 7 August 2016, also lambasted the government for “going too far” with rule by decree, announcing that they will sue for the annulment of decrees that they consider unconstitutional.
“If evidence doesn’t count, if there’s no criteria, if people draw up lists of who they think is guilty, then why have trials?” Emma Sinclair-Webb, director of Human Rights Watch in Turkey, told The Atlantic. “It becomes a travesty of justice. It becomes an empty process.”
Interestingly, even President Erdogan is complaining that the purges are getting out of hand. “The good folk is getting jumbled together with the bad folk,” grumbled Erdogan in a recent interview. Erdogan repeated the same refrain to governors: “I don’t want you to compete with each other on who gets more public servants dismissed,” he said. “I want you to be fair.”
“In Turkey, the messenger is hurting the message,” said Selim Sazak, a Turkish politics expert with the New York-based Century Foundation, in an interview with Fanack. “Human rights organizations, especially high-profile ones like Amnesty [International] and Human Rights Watch, are suffering from a credibility crisis.”
Sazak attributes this crisis to the ambivalent stance such organizations took during the highly controversial Ergenekon and Balyoz coup plot trials, in which an alliance of top military officers and secular power brokers were tried on charges of plotting to overthrow the country’s elected government, and thousands of secular officers and generals were purged from the army.
From the beginning, the cases were widely criticized by legal and forensic experts for being tainted by forged evidence, false testimonies and rigged verdicts. For Turkey’s secularists, they were the Islamists’ grand scheme to take over the secular regime’s last remaining bulwark: the military.
With the exception of a few lonely voices, like veteran analyst Gareth Jenkins and Princeton professor Dani Rodrik, whose father-in-law was a former army general and a lead defendant in the Ergenekon case, most foreign observers uncritically endorsed the investigations as a necessary step to break the military’s grip on civilian politics.
In a 2011 op-ed for the New York Times, Emma Sinclair-Webb criticized the trials not for going too far, but for not going far enough to ‘investigate evidence of much wider involvement by some key defendants in a longer history of unlawful and criminal activity’. Lauding the case as a ‘milestone in civilian control over the military’, Sinclair-Webb only casually mentioned the ‘concerns about the fairness of trials’, ranging from ‘flimsy evidence’ and ‘prosecution of journalists as coup plotters’ to ‘misuse of protected witnesses’ and ‘prolonged pretrial detention’.
In contrast, Gareth Jenkins wrote as early as 2011 that the cases were ‘riddled with absurdities and contradictions’, concluding that the evidence was ‘not only deeply flawed but most likely fabricated’. ‘The only characteristic that the accused all appeared to share,’ wrote Jenkins with uncanny prescience, ‘was an opposition to the [Justice and Development Party]; and to the Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, [JKP’s] more important political ally.’ Dani Rodrik was even less sparing in his criticism, describing the cases as ‘patently sham’ and a ‘miscarriage of justice’.
“The fact that Gülen lives in the US – and Washington is not that keen to return him back – is already a problem,” said Sazak. “As if that were not bad enough, there is also the series of unforced errors from Sec. [John] Kerry’s equivocations to [National Intelligence Director James] Clapper and [CENTCOM commander Gen. Joseph] Votel’s remarks to [former CIA vice-chairman Graham] Fuller coming out in Gülen’s defence.”
Sazak continued: “Most of Erdogan’s supporters don’t have much of a problem with what’s happening right now or care much about what the West thinks. It is the urban, educated, secular people who care. They remember bitterly how the West used to lavish praise on both Erdogan and Gülen, as they were sounding the alarm on both. Now, they see Amnesty [International] or the New York Times, which just published an op-ed from the editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman without once mentioning the fact her newspaper was directly owned by the Gülen movement, unsparingly assailing Erdogan for how he is handling the Gülenists.”
According to Sazak, the West will find little support for its cause in Turkey without an honest reckoning of its fraught history with Erdogan and Gülen. “There are many who do not approve of some of the things happening, whatever their reason and purpose,” he says. “At the same time, they view all this talk as a form of political grandstanding, particularly because they cannot reconcile themselves with the West’s selective compassion.”