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Monday 17th
posted by Morning Star in Features

STEVE SWEENEY describes the crackdown of human rights that has come in the wake of the failed coup attempt against Erdogan

A SERIES of rallies took place across Turkey on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the failed coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 15 last year.

The largest of the rallies on what was dubbed “Democracy and National Unity Day” was in his home town of Istanbul where tens of thousands reported participated.

They took place just a week after the 2.5 million strong justice march, the biggest demonstration against Erdogan’s rule since he was elected president.

In typical bluster Erdogan told the crowds gathered: “We will cut off the heads of those traitors. Be sure that none of the traitors who betrayed this country will remain unpunished.”

And he said that the perpetrators of the coup should be forced to wear “Guantanamo-style” uniforms as he hailed the defenders of the nation.

While he undoubtedly retains a level of popular support in the country, it is no surprise that large numbers took part in the government co-ordinated demonstrations.

People were encouraged to take advantage of free transport bedecked with Turkish flags and slogans relating to the failed coup attempt to take them to the rallies.

Imams read a government-written sermon at Friday prayers as Erdogan’s influence extends into the mosques and religious sphere.

And on Saturday Erdogan read a nationalist poem that was broadcast to the nation.

An academic friend passed on details of text messages that had been sent to her and her colleagues from the head of the national education department threatening them with legal proceedings if they did not take part in the rallies.

They were told that they must be at the state-sponsored events “until morning prayers” or they would face action. 

And similar text messages were sent from municipalities in largely Kurdish areas that have been taken over by government-appointed administrators.

Threats such as these are not uncommon as the regime tries to build an artificial sense of unity and support for Erdogan.

Yet Turkey is a country where democracy and national unity barely exist and has become even more fragile and divided since last year’s uprising.

The coup attempt saw Turkish soldiers and parts of the airforce bomb the parliament building and they declared they had taken power via the state broadcaster.

However Erdogan had been tipped off about the plot, allowing him time to flee before he could be caught and he appeared via video call to the nation, urging people to take to the streets.

It quickly became apparent that the coup attempt was set to fail as thousands poured into squares in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.

All opposition parties issued a statement condemning the coup attempt, leaving it without popular or political support.

Turkish soliders have since claimed under interrogation that they did not know they were taking part in a coup, having been told it was a military training exercise.

Erdogan was quick to blame the so-called “Gulenists” (often referred to Feto, meaning the Fetullah Terrorist Organisation) for instigating the coup, claiming that they had infiltrated key organs of the state, the judiciary and military.

The Feto movement is made up of supporters of Fethullan Gulen, an Islamic cleric living in exile in Philadelphia, US.

Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have not always been had an antagonistic relationship with Gulen.

They shared values and both had a vision of transforming the Turkish state into one based on nationalism with a strong, conservative religious ideology.

However the relationship soured in 2013 when the Gulenists in the police and judiciary started acting a little too independently, and the cleric publicly criticised Erdogan for his handling of the Gezi Park protests.

This led to a split and has culminated in the Gulenist movement and its various guises being listed as a terrorist organisation.

While there is no conclusive evidence that Gulen was behind the coup attempt — the cleric himself denied involvement and condemned the coup — it has been used as a pretext for purges in all sectors of public and private life.

The initial response to the coup attempt was brutal. Erdogan rounded up nearly 3,000 troops suspected of a part in the plot and issued arrest warrants for 2,745 judges warning that they will pay a “heavy price.”

And he claimed the uprising was “a gift from God” giving him “a reason to cleanse our army.”

The prime minister, in a statement believed to be a veiled threat to the US, warned that any country that stood with Gulen was at a state of “war” with Turkey.

Following the coup, Erdogan called for the reintroduction of the death penalty, a promise that emerged again in his victory speech following April’s rigged referendum in which he consolidated his increasingly authoritarian power.

His pronouncement was also designed to send a message to the European Union, which deemed the introduction of the death penalty to be a “red line” in Turkey’s accession plans.

In the year that has followed the coup attempt over 100,000 government workers have been sacked, thousands of teachers and academics purged for signing a peace petition, hundreds of opposition TV and media outlets shut down and around 170 journalists are currently in jail.

A total of 50,000 arrests are believed to have been made in the past year.

And Erdogan moved against the pro-Kurdish HDP following the lifting of immunity from prosecution for lawmakers leading to the arrest and imprisonment of 12 MPs, including co-leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag who face jail terms of hundreds of years on terrorism charges.

This effectively neutralised all forms of opposition — from the military removing the threat of a coup, the media denying the public information and a voice for the opposition and from the parliament removing political opposition.

Opposition to Erdogan has taken increasingly desperate forms. A case involving a primary school teacher and an academic has become symbolic of the struggle for justice and democracy in Turkey.

Nuriye Gulmen and Semih Ozakca are on the 129th day of their hunger strike and their situation is becoming increasingly desperate with their health rapidly detariorating.

Both were dismissed from their jobs as part of the post-coup clampdown that has seen thousands of teachers and academics purged from their posts and placed on government blacklists stopping them from working.

And in May the pair were arrested as the government feared their cause would gain broader support and bring people out onto the streets in protest as their lawyers said they were detained to stop a “Gezi-sized protest movement” from growing.

Gulmen and Ozakca are fighting not just for their freedom but for justice and their reinstatement. While opposition politicians have urged them to end their hunger strike, they remain determined and defiant.

The government appears to be willing to let them starve to death rather than be seen to back down.

Their case is one of many injustices in the country as Erdogan’s grip tightens.

They need and deserve our support and solidarity. The recent justice march was a step forward in the struggle for freedom and democracy. It shows that a mass movement can develop that goes beyond the parliamentary struggle.

And it shows that sections and layers of Turkish society can be won over and break away from support for Erdogan’s ruling AKP.

This will not happen overnight however and will need to be built patiently and with solid, concrete demands that go beyond those proposed by CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu from the platform at last week’s rally.

And we must offer our support and solidarity to all democratic forces that are fighting for change. Solidarity with the people of Turkey.

  • Steve Sweeney is a Morning Star reporter. He can be reached on Twitter on @SweeneySteve.