December 16, 2014

Final act in struggle for democracy

Abdullah Bozkurt

Muzzling the free and independent press with politically orchestrated raids on the offices of Turkey's bestselling newspaper and a leading national TV network is perhaps the final nail in the coffin for this fledgling democracy that has already been battered by relentless attacks on the rule of law and fundamental rights and liberties by a bunch of ideological zealots who dominate the government.

Or it may be the final act of the political Islamists before they disgracefully exit from power and are called to account for their crimes. My bet is on the latter, as I feel the beleaguered President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan must be so desperate that he had to order such a foolish, frontal attack on the media in order to spark a democratic crisis in the country to buy some precious time to prolong what is left of his political career.

Since the corruption scandal incriminated him and his family members, Erdoğan has intensified his efforts to consolidate more power at the expense of independent institutions, including efforts to undermine judicial independence. This has created stronger pushback from the opposition and strengthened the resistance of several key institutions in Turkey, including the judiciary and the military. Erdoğan's greater control over the nation's intelligence service created a growing climate of fear that triggered huge resentment against his rule, even among the ruling party's lawmakers, who were often blackmailed by the case files gathered against them by the National Intelligence Organization (MİT).

His lavish palace that cost the taxpayers well over $2 billion, according to the Turkish Union of Engineers and Architects Chambers (TMMOB), and was built illegally in a protected green zone near the burgeoning new center of the Turkish capital has tarnished Erdoğan's image further, prompting him to engage in a series of ill thought out and futile attempts to change the public debate. The claim of the discovery of the Americas by Muslims, building a monumental mosque on a hilltop in Cuba and resurrecting the Ottoman language were all part of sinister efforts to dictate the terms of the national agenda. They did not work.

On top of that, I believe the high-level exchanges in recent months led Erdoğan to erroneously conclude that international scrutiny of his domestic actions as well as in the region had eased, giving him the false perception that he had a freer hand to squeeze opponents and critics at home. He may have also contemplated that elevating the tension and polarization in the nation would prevent his supporters from defecting and thereby strengthen his hand in the run-up to next summer's parliamentary elections.

I think all these miscalculations point in the direction that the wheels of government are merely spinning in the mud and that Erdoğan's grip on power is slipping fast. Otherwise, why would he go after his critics and opponents with a hollow case of anti-terror charges leveled against prominent media professionals, scriptwriters and even the graphic designers of a popular TV series in Turkey? Erdoğan lost his way and is holding on to whatever he can to make his faltering case in the eyes of Turkish public and the world audience.

While doing so, however, he has further bolstered a perception that Erdoğan is the man who has been investing in proxy battles with the support of radical and extremist groups in Turkey and abroad. According to the charge sheet, Sunday's raids on screenwriters, leading journalists and police investigators were based on an investigation of an al-Qaeda-linked terror group called Tahşiyeciler (roughly translated as Annotators) four years ago.

Turkey learned about Tahşiyeciler on Jan. 22, 2010 when police raided the homes and offices of 112 people across Turkey as part of an anti-al-Qaeda operation. Police discovered a cache of weapons, bombs and other materials that were part of a plot to stage a terror attack in Turkey. Police discovered that the group, led by a radical cleric, Mehmet Doğan, had sent some 100 militants to Afghanistan for armed training.

Among the seized items was homemade video footage that featured Doğan giving instructions to members of the terrorist organization. He was calling for a jihad and instructing the militants to assassinate political and religious leaders in Turkey. “I'm saying, take up your gun and kill them,” he vowed. He was also heard asking his followers to build bombs and mortars in their homes, claiming that religion allows such practices.

It was interesting that Doğan was let go by a court after some months of detention, a move that was claimed to be the result of a political intervention. And instead, Ekrem Dumanlı, the editor-in-chief of Zaman, Turkey's largest national daily, whose paper published reports on the police raids on Tahşiyeciler, and Hidayet Karaca, the general manager of the Samanyolu TV network, which aired a popular TV series that featured al-Qaeda cells in Turkey, were detained on Sunday. Several columnists who wrote about this group as well as a producer, director, screenwriter, graphic designer and even an intern who worked for the popular TV series “Tek Türkiye” (One Turkey), which featured the fight against terror groups in Turkey, including al-Qaeda, were all detained.

I suppose in the next round, the executives and staff members of CNNTürk, a local affiliate of CNN International, will be rounded up as well, because it aired the seized video footage of Doğan instructing his followers to take up arms against the government in a jihadist fight. This is hardly surprising, given the track record of President Erdoğan and his caretaker prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who have both vehemently defended arms transfers to groups in Syria. Even after the raids on media outlets on Sunday, Davutoğlu was lashing out at the prosecutors, police and military investigators who stopped trucks carrying illegal arms to Syria earlier this year, saying that those who did this are now paying the price for it.

The pattern of how Islamists have been providing assistance to radical groups has become clearer now. This also explains why a key al-Qaeda suspect known as Abu Hanzala, who was detained during raids in January in the eastern city of Van along with dozens of others, was released in October. Halis Bayancuk, also known as Abu Hanzala, was in charge of the al-Qaeda network in Turkey, but the government is alleged to have prevented an indictment from being filed against him. It was also interesting to note that the court that released him is part of a controversial system of criminal courts of peace introduced following corruption investigations that went public on Dec. 17 and 25, 2013 and implicated senior government officials.

It appears that a secret hand in Turkey has been providing protection and shelter to these radicals while punishing the investigators who discovered these cells, the media professionals who covered these networks and even scriptwriters who wrote a screenplay for a fictional TV series that was partially inspired by law enforcement agencies' battle with terror groups in Turkey. After the raids on al-Qaeda cells by the police and gendarmerie units in six provinces across Turkey on Jan. 14, the government rushed to remove the police chiefs from the investigation and reassign the prosecutor who handled the case and the judge who authorized the raids.

The suspects -- among them, İbrahim Şen, who is allegedly a top al-Qaeda leader in the Middle East -- are allegedly involved in the transfer of foreign fighters into Syria and facilitating the entry of al-Qaeda fighters from countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan into Syrian territory. They are also suspected of collecting donations from locals in Turkey and transferring them to al-Qaeda fighters in Syria. Şen, who was detained and taken to Guantanamo Bay by US authorities in 2006, was handed over to Turkish officials in 2008. He was later sentenced to six years, three months by a Turkish court on terrorism charges, news reports said. However, the case has yet to be finalized by the Supreme Court of Appeals.

Now, Erdoğan has decided to add the name of moderate Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who has been harshly critical of terrorist groups waging war in the name of Islam, including al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Tahşiyeciler, which branched out from al-Qaeda ideology, to the list of suspects. The prosecutor, based on testimony given by an al-Qaeda suspect with the initials M.N.T., claims that Gülen highlighted the dangers Tahşiyeciler presents in a speech posted on his website in 2009, setting the stage for the investigation. The timeline conflicts with this account, however, as the police intelligence unit has been keeping tabs on Tahşiyeciler leader Doğan since 2000. The investigation of the group started on Dec. 3, 2008, when an intelligence operative provided a report on the activities of the group, raising red flags in the law enforcement community.

It is not surprising that al-Qaeda, ISIL and Tahşiyeciler all target Gülen for his unwavering stand against terror waged in the name of Islam. Perhaps that is not to the liking of the political Islamist leaders of Turkey who have been investing in proxies in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia to advance their ideological vision, just as Iran has been doing for decades. Perhaps the Turkish Islamists, many of whom are pro-Iran, learned from their masters in Iran. Turks have started to wake up to the dangers posed to Turkey's national security by this stealthy group of Iranian operatives and sympathizers who disguise themselves as Islamists.

This grave conspiracy against the nation will eventually backfire on those who aid and abet the enemy. No matter how hard they come down on critical and independent media in Turkey, the truth will prevail, the facts will emerge and the notion of democracy will resurge.

Published on Today's Zaman, 15 November 2014, Monday