The ‘gift from god’ that crushed Turkish democracy

As Turkey marked 60 years since the coup of May 27, 1960, pro-government circles began suddenly professing their fears of a plot to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the conservative Justice and Development Party that has run the country for nearly two decades.

Sabah newspaper columnist Ersin Ramoğlu said he feared that members of the movement led by Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist scholar whom the government sees as behind the 2016 coup attempt, are hiding within public institutions and plotting a second putsch with the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).

“They are still in the army, press, security, bureaucracy, municipalities and politics,” Ramoğlu wrote last week. “They will put the nation on the street with CHP and HDP hands and create anarchy. Then they will appear as saviours!”

It has been nearly four years since Erdoğan appeared to Turkey as a saviour, beaming into citizens’ hearts via Facetime on CNN Turk as his country faced a coup on July 15, 2016.

Former judge and judicial diplomat Yavuz Aydın remembers the moment as if it were yesterday. From Manisa he watched on television as putschist planes attacked parliament, the military pushed back and mosques called citizens to the streets to defend the homeland.

By dawn, Erdoğan’s government had regained control -- the president famously described the attempted ouster as “a gift from god” -- and Aydın felt secure enough to sleep. But he woke to find himself on a list of thousands of judges and prosecutors to be purged, sent out by a new WhatsApp group called Unity in the Judiciary.

“I went to bed as a judge at 6 a.m. and woke up four hours later as a terrorist. This was incredible speed,” he told Ahval in a podcast, adding that for years the government had been compiling a list of judges and prosecutors it planned to dismiss.

“They were waiting for the right time to do this and they found the right time with the ‘gift from god’ July 15 coup attempt,” Aydın said. “I didn’t expect this gift to be so huge.”

More than 4,500 judges and prosecutors, about a third of the judiciary, were charged with links to Gülen and dismissed. Aydın acknowledged that the movement did have a significant presence within the judiciary, saying perhaps as much as 20 percent had some Gülenist sympathies, but he said the purge was not solely about that.

Though he says he has no connection to Gülen or the movement, Aydın felt proud to be among the purged, as it proved his independent-mindedness. “Most of these judges and prosecutors are really not Gülenist,” he said. “The reason they were dismissed is that they would not bow their heads to the intimidation.”

Since even before the coup, but particularly after, Erdoğan’s government has been weaponising the judiciary, using the charge of terrorism as a tool to beat back any who do not bow their heads, from the Gezi protesters of mid-2013 to the Kurdish supporters and pro-peace activists of late 2015 and early 2016, as well as countless critical journalists and rising political opponents.

“The judiciary was never independent at all in Turkey,” said Aydın. “But as young judges, we really had high hope that things were going to get better.”

He worked on European Union affairs within the ministry of justice starting in 2005. Around this time, Turkey abolished the death penalty and made other Western-friendly judicial reforms as its EU accession negotiations began.

Whispers of a military-led coup plot soon emerged. In two long-running court cases, known as Ergenekon and Balyoz, the ringleaders of the supposed plots were charged and ultimately imprisoned on widely questioned evidence.

“After these Ergenekon and Balyoz cases, we saw how things really are and our dreams collapsed,” said Aydın. “We saw again that the judiciary was used as a tool to suppress some people, to intimidate…Now it’s the turn of Gülenists to be intimidated.”

After the failed 2016 coup, the government linked more than 600,000 Turkish citizens to Gülen, who has been living in the United States for more than twenty years and who fell out with Erdoğan in 2013 after years of cooperation. A quarter million people were detained and more than 100,000 jailed. These numbers, Aydın said, represent about a 10-fold increase from the number of prosecutions resulting from earlier Turkish coups.

The judiciary has been eviscerated. A report by Reuters this month found that close to half of Turkey’s 21,000 judges and prosecutors -- at least 45 percent -- have three years’ experience or less, and in some provinces the average age of judges is 25.

“Nobody cares for justice anymore,” said Aydın. “They want the judiciary to be the perfect tool to consolidate their autocracy.”

In his column last week, Ramoğlu pointed to the recent comments of CHP Istanbul head Canan Kaftancıoğlu, who predicted a change in government “through early elections or some other way”. Though Ramoğlu expressed his fear of the latter, the likelier scenario is that he and the government fear ouster by democratic means a good deal more.

The CHP has been gaining ground, as seen in last year’s local elections, and Turkey’s economy has taken another dive during the coronavirus crisis, with the lira hitting an all-time low. For the past year, Erdoğan and other officials have sought to link the CHP to the HDP, a party they frequently label as terrorist and part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey for decades.

“For the Kurdish movement, this is nothing new,” said Aydın, who served as Turkey’s counsellor of justice in Brussels from 2011 to 2014.

During this period he worked on the case of Pinar Selek, a sociologist and advocate for Kurdish communities who was charged for involvement in the 1998 blast at Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar, which killed seven people. Aydın found no evidence of Selek’s involvement in the blast, which several experts had attributed to a gas leak, and presented this to his superiors.

“They laughed and I asked, ‘why are you laughing?’” Aydın recalled. “They said, ‘you have been staying in Brussels for too many years. We have been keeping tens of thousands of people in jail with much less evidence than this for being a member of [terror groups]’.”

As with the Istanbul blast, the Turkish government has taken great advantage of the failed coup, using it to largely destroy checks and balances and the rule of law, and to stifle political opponents, parliament, media freedom and free expression.

“All these things have been just eradicated. It’s almost impossible to reverse now,” said Aydın, adding that even key Western institutions have been enabling Turkey’s democratic decline.

One problem is that the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) persists in presenting Turkey’s Constitutional Court as a potential remedy to the vast failures of the Turkish justice system. The ECHR ignores thousands of questionable rulings by the Constitutional Court, according to Aydın, because if it were to rule that the Constitutional Court is illegitimate then it, the ECHR, would become the default venue for countless Turkish cases.

“There would be hundreds of thousands of cases reaching Strasbourg at once and they don’t want this happening, they don’t want this huge backlog,” said Aydın. “Even the ECHR is becoming part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.”