Events within two weeks of the election of the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suggest that the dire state of human rights violations in Turkey will continue to go from bad to worse, and that the worst is yet to come.
After winning an easy victory in elections that were deemed neither free nor fair, Erdoğan’s government has moved to dismiss more than 18,000 people including teachers, academics, engineers, auditors, police and army officers and even veterinarians from government jobs because an overnight decree branded them ‘terrorists’.
There have been no judicial investigations or effective administrative probes that suggest these individuals were involved in any kind of violence, terrorism or ‘criminal acts’ other than holding unpopular views or belonging to critical, opposition or minority groups in Turkey. The latest purge brings the number of civil servants who have been abruptly and arbitrarily fired from their jobs within the last two years to around 150,000. This is unprecedented in the history of the Turkish Republic.
The second indicator that suggests Turkey is heading into more turbulent waters in terms of rights violations was flagged during a recent cabinet reshuffle in which Erdoğan kept two key ministers who have been driving the mass persecution in Turkey. One is Süleyman Soylu, interior minister since 2016, who has a proven track record of rounding up hundreds of people on detention warrants every week and often brags about how the crackdown on critics is moving forward under his watch.
The Interior Ministry’s own data show that on average from 500 to 1,000 people are taken into custody every week in dawn police raids.
Soylu is an ultranationalist politician who does not hesitate to promote bizarre conspiracy theories, for example that the United States set up the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as a hoax terror group, or that the US encourages Afghan migrants to go to Turkey. He has also asserted that European governments are deliberately sending synthetic drugs to Turkey to poison Turkish youth.
Abdülhamit Gül, a hard-core Islamist politician who was brought in to the government by Erdoğan as justice minister, is another key figure who kept his portfolio thanks to his role in the blatant abuse of the criminal justice system to persecute critics, launching unjustified prosecutions against opponents of Erdoğan and building more and larger prisons in Turkey to accommodate a staggering number of political detainees. Nobody knows exactly how many people are currently incarcerated in the country because the Justice Ministry, whose jurisdiction includes the administration of prisons across the nation, stopped publishing daily data on the size of the prison population in March 2017. Prisons remain overcrowded despite the fact that Erdoğan issued an amnesty for rapists and murderers in 2016, allowing close to 50,000 convicted criminals to go free in order to make room for political detainees.
It is likely that we will see a further escalation of rights violations in Turkey, where the Erdoğan regime has been using the crackdown for two reasons. First, the need to perpetuate a climate of fear of a government that relies heavily on intimidation tactics to keep the opposition in disarray, deepening the divisions and polarisation in society and eliminating potential challengers such as the jailed former leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas.
Second, Erdoğan’s long-held ambition of transforming Turkey’s secular democracy into an Islamist-rooted autocracy without checks or balances, and certainly without any accountability or transparency in governance, drives the government’s agenda. The large number of dismissals under the pretext of fighting terrorism contributes to the fulfilment of the Turkish president’s dream. Erdoğan is not only destroying the institutions of the republic and building new ones under his recently acquired imperial powers, he is also staffing the entire civil service with loyalists and partisans to fill the void created by the mass purges.
The Turkish government has not disclosed the reasons for these dismissals, but many suspect they resulted from unlawful profiling based on personal beliefs, social orientation or political affiliation.
These suspicions were confirmed in the latest decree, in which authorities forgot to delete the reasons for the dismissal of 5 individuals out of over 18,000. It cited the school they or their children were enrolled in, social media postings or comments, the opinion of the agencies they work for or their police record. Despite the serious nature of the charges – these people were accused of being terrorists or coup plotters – the so-called evidence in no way warrants such a conclusion. None of it would stand up to the scrutiny of any independent court in the world.
Unfortunately, we have seen similar cases in the prosecution of hundreds of journalists in Turkey on terrorism, espionage or plotting a coup. When these indictments are examined for evidence against critical and independent journalists, there is nothing to suggest their involvement in any kind of violence or terrorism. Rather, articles critical of the government that in some cases may go back five years, books, social media comments and TV commentary and analysis were cited in indictments as evidence of terrorism.
Today 239 journalists are in jail in Turkey, and the government wants to arrest 143 others who were forced to flee the country to escape wrongful imprisonment.
This targeting of critical and independent media is part of a systematic and deliberate campaign by the Erdoğan government to meet its aforementioned goals. Erdoğan is aware that a robust and critical media would undermine the government narrative, which is one often based on lies, half-truths and fake news, thus eliminating the climate of fear and providing a platform for opposition parties to reach voters. That is why he started to pursue critical media immediately after major corruption investigations in December 2013 that incriminated him and his family members. He asked people at public rallies not to purchase critical newspapers and pressured advertisers to not place ads in these papers. In 2015, right before snap elections, the Erdoğan government orchestrated the seizure of the country’s third-largest media outlet, Koza Ipek, which owned two popular TV networks, two print dailies and one radio station. The next year he moved in to confiscate the nation’s best-selling newspaper, Zaman, and seized the largest privately-run news agency, Cihan.
In the last two years, according to official figures, some 80,000 people in Turkey, including 17,000 women and 700 babies have been jailed, and almost 170,000 have faced legal action, mostly in the form of lengthy detention in police custody. More than 100 people have died in detention centres and prisons under suspicious circumstances. Torture and ill treatment including rape have become regular occurrences in contravention of Turkey’s international commitments under UN treaties. It seems that this dire situation has not quenched the thirst of the regime and that Erdoğan is out to deprive more Turks of their freedom in the post-election era.