Between Terror and the Government Crackdown, Turkish Society Is Under Threat

Turkey's Cumhuriyet
A security agent stands guard in front of the Cumhuriyet newspaper's headquarters in Istanbul on October 31, 2016. Turkish police detained the editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, state media reported on October 31, while the daily said several of its writers were taken into police custody. Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty

The sun has not yet risen in Istanbul, but Aylin* is wide awake. She has tidied her flat, sent a few messages to friends, and packed a small bag. She makes coffee and, catching her reflection in the dark windows, sits down to wait: for a knock on the door, or the sound of boots running up the stairs to her flat.

Aylin is a human rights activist, well-known to the Turkish authorities, and since the failed coup of July 15, 2016 that led to a sweeping crackdown on government critics, she has performed this ritual almost every day. She says that she is terrified of being woken up by the police, in one of the dawn raids that have claimed so many of her friends and colleagues in recent months.

Is Aylin just paranoid? It seems not.

Since the coup attempt, tens of thousands of people have been arrested in Turkey. Near 400 NGOs have been permanently closed and Turkey now accounts for almost a third of journalists imprisoned worldwide. Many of the people who have spent time in Turkey’s overflowing jails are there on the flimsiest of pretexts; like Şenol Buran, who runs the cafeteria at the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper, and spent nine days in detention after he was overheard saying that he would not serve tea to President Erdoğan.

This is the new reality in Turkey, where everybody has to watch what they say. No insult is too small to be taken seriously by the authorities, intent on stamping out criticism of any kind. So Aylin tries to prepare, because if she is arrested, she has no idea how long she could be away for.

On December 31, the hearing of the case of novelist Asli Erdoğan took place in Istanbul. Erdoğan was released from jail on 29 December after spending 132 days in pre-trial detention. Her “crime” was writing a column for the Kurdish daily newspaper Özgür Gündem, which was shut down under the state of emergency enacted following the coup attempt. Erdoğan lived out Aylin’s nightmare—she was detained in a dawn raid on her apartment, to which she would not return for more than four months. Her pre-trial detention was arbitrary, a punishment intended to send a message to others who might think about speaking out against the authorities.

Erdoğan’s release from jail seemed like a small window of hope in Turkey’s dark recent history, but it was short-lived. Two days later, on New Year’s Eve, a gunman carried out a horrific attack on an Istanbul nightclub, killing 39 people and injuring 65. It was a terrifying start to the year. On January 4, the Turkish parliament voted to extend the country’s state of emergency for another three months. Any hopes that Turkey would be a safer, freer place in 2017 sputtered out before the year had even begun.

The state of emergency has been the backdrop to repeated human rights abuses since it was introduced in July. It removes key fair trial provisions, as well as vital safeguards against torture and other ill-treatment. The government is using these emergency measures, impossibly broad in scope, to silence and intimidate those who dare exercise their right to criticize.

For example, journalists Erol Önderoğlu and Ahmet Nesin, and human rights defender Şebnem Korur Fincanci, are among those facing charges of “terrorist propaganda” for taking part in a campaign of solidarity with the newspaper Özgür Gündem. On the day after Asli Erdoğan was released, Turkish authorities charged the prominent investigative journalist Ahmet Şik with “making propaganda for a terrorist organization.” He is accused of having links to three groups with contradictory ideologies, including the Gülen movement that the government accuses of having masterminded the coup attempt, ignoring the fact that Şik has been an outspoken critic of the movement for years.

There is no doubt that Turkey is facing extreme security challenges, and it has a duty to protect the people under its jurisdiction. Apart from the coup attempt, 2016 saw repeated brutal attacks on civilians by armed groups including the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But the issue of how to address these increasing threats is something that needs to be discussed openly, by a wide range of voices. Instead, the authorities have compounded the fear of the population by clamping down on freedom of expression and incarcerating anybody who speaks out of line.

This year has left a deep mark on Turkey, and the fear in the air is palpable. In Istanbul, I cannot help noticing that people speak more quietly in public, with guarded looks on their faces. At home they watch television “panel discussions” where everybody has the same opinion, and are repeatedly frustrated by blocks on social media sites and an ever-diminishing choice of media outlets. It feels like life has lost its color.

This crackdown risks destroying the very fabric of Turkish society. The civil society organizations that have recently been permanently closed include those working with survivors of torture and domestic violence, local humanitarian organizations providing aid to refugees and internally displaced persons, and Turkey's leading children's rights NGO, Gündem Çocuk. This vibrant civil society is being reduced to a wasteland, and it is hard to overstate the impact that its destruction will have. In these confused and frightening times, we need the brave voices of journalists, activists and human rights defenders more than ever; instead, they are being thrown into the black holes of prison cells.

The new year in Turkey started out in the worst possible way. People are already living in fear of attacks; they should not have to live in fear for speaking out. They are already mourning the hundreds of lives lost over the past year; they should not have to mourn their freedom.

As daylight spreads through her kitchen, Aylin breathes a hesitant sigh of relief; she has made it to the start of another day. But what tomorrow will bring, for her and for her country, remains uncertain.

(*Name changed to protect her identity)

Andrew Gardner is Amnesty International’s Turkey researcher, based in Istanbul.