Among those imprisoned is Idil Eser, Amnesty International’s director in Turkey. “I have committed no crime,” she wrote to me from detention last week. Nor have any of the others. Since the July coup in 2016, the Turkish government has seized on any whisper of dissent as an excuse to crack down on political opponents. In this climate, even defending human rights is treated as a crime.
Despite a foreign policy supposedly committed to supporting human rights defenders globally, the EU’s public response to Turkey’s horrific crackdown on human rights has been muted.
On July 25, at a meeting with Turkey’s foreign minister in Brussels, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has an opportunity to make amends. Rather than hide behind honeyed words and soft diplomacy, she must make an explicit demand for the release of Eser and other unjustly detained human rights defenders.
Just last year, people in Turkey looked on in horror as journalists were dragged away during live broadcasts. Children were roused from their sleep as jets thundered overhead and gunshots echoed across the city. During 12 hours of bloodshed, 250 people were killed and thousands injured. Many people felt a sense of relief the next day when news spread that the attempted coup had failed.
But that feeling was short-lived. Five days later, the government imposed a state of emergency. Since then, it has been extended every three months. And its effects become progressively worse each time. Criminal investigations have been opened against 150,000 people accused being part of the “Fethullahist Terror Organization,” which the government claims masterminded the July coup. Every day, the number of people under investigation grows.
As a result of the crackdown, some 50,000 people languish in jail. Among them are at least 130 journalists, the highest number of any country in the world. More than 100,000 public sector workers, including a quarter of the judiciary, have been arbitrarily dismissed. Last week alone, more than 140 arrest warrants were issued for IT workers, and hundreds of academics were cast out of their jobs.
Last month, the purge arrived at Amnesty International’s door. Taner Kılıç, Amnesty Turkey’s chair, was remanded in pretrial detention on the fictive claim that he is a member of the Fethullahist Terror Organization. Authorities accuse him of being in possession of an encrypted messaging app favored by the Gülen movement. Kılıç, who is a human rights professional but a technology novice, had never heard of the app, let alone used it.
This week, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned that the state of emergency could last “several years.” “First, we will chop off the heads of those traitors,” he said, in a menacing tirade. “When they appear in court, let’s make them appear in orange suits like in Guantanamo Bay.”
Ruling by executive decree, eluding the scrutiny of parliament and even the increasingly cowed courts, the government has crippled state institutions and civil society with a ferocity that rivals that of the 1980s military junta.
Those responsible for the violence that killed and injured people in in last year’s attempted coup surely must be brought to justice. But those crimes cannot serve as a justification for a wave of repression that shows no signs of relenting. Erdoğan came to power on a promise to break with Turkey’s ugly past. But the more powerful he has become, the more closely he has come to emulate the repressive practices of those who came before him.
With some exceptions, the international community has studiously maintained a silence on what is happening in Turkey.
For many countries, Ankara is too important a political ally for human rights to matter. They need the country to stave off waves of migrants and refugees, to be an ally in Syria, and to halt the spread of the Islamic State. Erdoğan knows this — and he uses it to his advantage. He knows it blinds foreign leaders to the human rights violations taking place in plain sight.
Members of my staff are on the ground in Turkey. Some had waited outside the courthouse until the early hours when the sentences were delivered and, when I spoke to them, their voices were thick with emotion. They are sad not just for their friends, but for their country. What will it take for the world to break its silence? As foreign leaders wordlessly look on, people fighting for basic human rights in Turkey are being imprisoned one by one. Soon, there will be no one left.
Author: John Dalhuisen