How Turkey’s people lost their rights

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How Turkey’s people lost their rights

Turkish writer Hakki Mahfuz writes about Turkey and human rights today.


Artist Kaya Mar with his picture Erdoğan, the Turkish Sun King. Photo: PjrNews / Alamy Stock Photo

During a training workshop in Istanbul in summer 2017, they put in prison well-known human rights activists, including Amnesty International (AI) Turkey Director Idil Eser and founding member Özlem Dalkıran. They are still in prison before their trial for helping a terrorist organization. They do not say which terrorist organisation.

Their lawyer Hülya Gülbahar sees this as a clear message to Turkish society: ‘We now live in a country without citizens’ rights, and there is no chance for organizations to defend these rights.’

When AI Secretary-General Salil Shetty called world leaders to speak out about the human rights crisis, very few democratic protesters inside the country were hopeful. Advocates for a secular Turkey are still trying to get used to the label ‘the East’ after the fall of the Soviet Union. Turkey’s NATO membership no longer meant it was part of ‘the West’ but as ‘moderate Muslims’ who could bridge East and West.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) seemed happy to play a leading role in the Middle Eastern world. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was one of Erdoğan’s Western supporters. After her visit to Turkey before the election in October 2015, some people thought she was involved in the election campaign.

Earlier in the year, there were other elections. On 7 June 2015, a group of leftists, feminists, LBGTI+, and peace activists supported the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP). They helped it to be the third largest party in the Turkish parliament. The victory of this democratic group did not last very long. The ruling AKP quickly got new elections to restore its majority. More than half the population was very angry about this.

The four months between the two elections were full of problems. There were bombs across the country, some claimed by ISIS or Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK). A few weeks before the second elections, two bombs killed 103 people at an Ankara Peace Rally. But only days later, Merkel visited Erdoğan and everyone smiled for the cameras. It seemed that the two politicians were laughing at a sad country. It was in this situation that Erdoğan won his majority again.

A strange and useful coup

The attempted coup of 15 June 2016 was strange. It finished in a few hours. The most experienced Turkish political analysts could not understand the coup, in which 264 died, or its effects.

Much of the Western media sees the coup as Erdoğan’s plan to keep power. But there is more and more evidence that Gulenist military officers planned it. It seems likely Erdogan knew of the coup and was ready use it as an excuse for a general crackdown. Up until 2013 the Gulenists were close friends of the AKP and had important positions in the Turkish state. During two show-trials, in 2007 and 2010, Gulenist judges helped Erdoğan to lose Kemalist military officers who saw themselves as guarantors of Turkey’s secular constitution. By 2013, more than 10 per cent of generals and admirals were in prison.

But the Gulenists wanted a bigger share of power. Erdoğan resisted, and started a kind of secret civil war. The Gulenist judiciary and police now started corruption operations against Erdoğan and his business associates and in December 2013 the government made Gulenist networks illegal.


A nightly demonstration of Erdoğan supporters after the coup. Photo: Mstyslav Chernov

Turkey’s democratic bloc knew from the start that it was the end for them if the Gulenist coup succeeded. But the state of emergency after the coup was used as an excuse to close all political space and silence the critics.

They shut down HDP co-chairs and deputies, and publications such as the socialist Evrensel, pro-Kurdish Őzgűr Gűndem and even the mainstream, secularist Cumhuriyet. These days they send the ‘accused’ to court for helping organizations and ideas they have spent their lives fighting against. This is like 1930s Germany and makes critical thought very difficult.

It is no longer possible to say there is any real rule of law in Turkey, but the courts are full. Dissidents from all political backgrounds fill the courtrooms. Many of the Gulenists say they are sorry and ask for the state to forgive them. Other dissidents – democrat, feminist or pro-Kurdish – are in prison under false charges. They will not change their ideas and they say the judiciary are working against the rule of law.

After all the pain in today’s Turkey, the honesty of these dissidents gives hope to people who are trying to work for a just and democratic country.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).