Turkey – in fear and lawlessness

Do we see a connection between the protests in Istanbul and Ankara, the lawsuits against the opposition and the power politics of the authorities? The sentences on 5th  August were tragic for Turkey with respect to the “rule of law”.

When Turkey’s current prime minister Tayip Erdogan won a clear election victory in 2009, with well over fifty percent of the votes, he received a mandate from the people that could have given the country a democratic development and international confidence.

The regime had, and still has, the unconditional support of the USA, while Europe is far more critical to the country’s handling of human rights and freedom of speech. The link to EU is broken, and Turkey probably does not want to become a harassed member. After the presidential terms of George W. Bush and the terrorist attacks on 11 September, the U.S.  with its anti-terror legislation, takes an easier view on human rights violations because their own credibility is regrettably impaired.

President Gül and Prime Minister Erdogan have played well as a team with the U.S., which we recently witnessed during Hillary Clinton’s visit in August 2011 – just prior to her resignation as secretary of state. Not one critical word was spoken publicly about the country’s deplorable development, including mass arrests of opponents, primarily journalists, writers and publishers, doctors, lawyers, NGO activists, students, union leaders and mayors – many of them Kurds. Whether or not the U.S. is comfortable with the Islamization of Turkey that is now taking place is an interesting question. And for Erdogan this may be a balance between the blessing from the U.S. and an apparent domestic power politics.

The modern Turkey?

Is it more difficult for a political leader like Erdogan, who increasingly develops apparent, authoritarian characteristics – to the consternation of many people, to lead a basically secular society, than a society where secularism is downsized? Can authoritarian power politics easier be exercised under a controlled Islamized society? These are controversial issues.

Erdogan shows by his actions that he increasingly follows the strategy of building down the modern secular society. It’s probably not for religious reasons, but the pace of the regime’s Islamization is substantial and growing rapidly – on various levels. And one can only imagine what comes after the insults Erdogan had to swallow during the violent demonstrations early this summer, with Istanbul and Ankara as the main venues.

This is the rebellion of the secular, modern Turkey. The demonstrations in Istanbul were not about the threat of building a new supermarket in Gezi park. That was only a pretext, and it would have been easy for the prime minister and president to turn this rebellion into something positive, if they had wanted to. Or maybe they did not understand the seriousness of the situation?

To consolidate power
The pattern is that Prime Minister Erdogan and his regime primarily want to consolidate power. His populist and eventually fascistic rhetorics for “the best of the nation» means in practice to concentrate his own power through violence, control and weakened secularism. His election victory could have been used to consolidate and democratize the Turkish legal community – in trust for his people.

Erdogan can not be re-elected as prime minister in the elections in 2015. The test of his popularity is the local elections in March 2014. It is obvious and stated that Erdogan wants to become president, but with enhanced power of office. The goal is kind of an American federal model, implemented in Putin-style.

Whether he can change the constitution in time remains to be seen. Opposition In Gezi Park and Taksim may have been a critical eye opener even for his supporters throughout the country. The local elections will give us a taste of how strong Erdogan’s presidential candidacy really is.

The scope of the trials
The Ergenekon verdicts on Monday 5th August in many ways confirmed the regime’s fear of secularism. The case has both a scope and an involvement beyond the clique of alleged «coup organizers» – 275 accused, involved in this case from a multitude of professional environments – in particular critical artists and intellectuals.

The defenders – 1000 privately paid or volunteer lawyers – look at the case and the verdicts as pure political manipulation. All critics are concerned about the regime’s abuse and manipulation of the legal system to ensure power. Increasingly social critics, journalists, publishers and writers are being jailed and TV channels closed – more than in any other country. The fear is widespread, and selfcensorship increases.

The Ergenekon case cuts deep into the democratic rules, violating human rights and freedom of expression. The mere fact that the government has set up a special court to deal with and ensure the outcome of the trial, demonstrates how power politics, control and management is a guiding principle for the regime.

The coarsest issue in the proceedings is the distortion of the facts and misuse of legal texts in order to produce evidence and judgments. Even distorted official translations of legal texts were revealed during the writing of this article. For this court free speech and criticism of the regime is synonymous with «violence to stop the government from carrying out its task,» and the penalty is «life imprisonment», translated correctly. (Penal Code § 312).

A clear pattern
The sentences show through its eerie extent and pattern a thoroughly political trial. For the pattern is evident. Simply put: Life long sentences given to those who threaten and criticize the regime. Those who are set free are those that are not threatening.

The penalties are glaringly high. 17 have received prison sentences for life, that is unless a higher court or the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg overturn the verdicts.

On Monday 5th  August all the defendants were present in a worn-down courtroom the size of a sports hall, with microphones hanging from the ceiling, cameras along the walls and soldiers taking note of the protesters in order to fine them.  All surrounded by 200 nervous gendarmes – was it in fear of the 700 defense lawyers, public intervention or the defendant’s escape? It is not easy to guess. The room reeked of anxiety and opposition. And yes, we see a connection between the current symbol cases in Turkey: This trial, the demonstrations in Gezi and Taksim and the regime’s power politics. This will have consequences for the country.

Beguiled by duplicity
The regime’s power politics gives Turkey a decreasing credibility with partners around the world, including Norway. Democratic pressure must be exercised from the international community. Democracies abiding by the rule of law can no longer allow Erdogan’s double game – mislead the international society and – at the same time suppress his population – in violation of what international rule of law requires. It is now high time that Norway also wakes up and realizes what is going on in Turkey.

William Nygaard
president, Norwegian PEN

NOTE.  This is a google translation of the original Norwegian text, corrected for obvious mistakes by secretary general CM Iversen.