December 21, 2015

Persecuting lawmakers in Turkey: İlhan İşbilen case

Abdullah Bozkurt

The unwarranted arrest of former legislator and well-respected businessman İlhan İşbilen on farcical charges indicates a new peak in the persecution and intimidation campaign against critics and opponents in Turkey by the Islamist ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) with lawsuits lacking any legal basis.

For the first time, the AKP government has put a former lawmaker from its own ranks behind bars with no evidence to support the charges leveled against him, confirming the widely held belief that his imprisonment is politically motivated, just like many similar cases that have targeted media professionals, civil society activists and business leaders. İşbilen resigned from the AKP last year in protest of the government's relentless hate campaign against critics and apparent indifference to the massive corruption claims that implicated senior officials in the party.

While the AKP leadership saved senior lawmakers who were incriminated in the most unprecedented corruption investigations in the nation's history, those who voiced their opposition against the impunity and lack of accountability are now being harassed and punished. The former deputy's incarceration on trumped up charges is meant to send a chilling message to those who exercise their right to dissent, contemplate resignation from the party and challenge President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is effectively calling the shots in the AKP.

İşbilen was charged under Article 309 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) which states that “any person who attempts to dissolve the Turkish Parliament by using force or threat is punished with heavy life imprisonment,” under Article 312 which states “any person who commands an armed revolt against the government is punished with heavy life imprisonment,” and under Article 314 for “establishing and administrating an armed organization,” which is punishable by a prison sentence of between 10 to 15 years. Hence, he is looking at two consecutive life sentences plus 15 years if he is convicted. When his attorneys asked for any evidence, nothing was presented that may have constituted the basis for laying these charges against İşbilen except anonymous complaint letters.

From his jail cell in Ankara's Sincan Prison, İşbilen wrote a letter explaining why he thought he had been arrested, despite the fact that there was no single piece of evidence to support the serious charges against him. He said his arrest was a warning message to those who think differently in the AKP, including former Deputy Prime Minister and former government spokesman Bülent Arınç and former Deputy Chairman and former Education Minister Hüseyin Çelik, two heavyweight politicians who at times displayed their rift with Erdoğan. In fact, İşbilen's prognosis was proven within a day, when Arınç came out by saying he would not utter words against the AKP from now on.

One of the targeted names also includes center-left politician Ertuğrul Günay, a former tourism and culture minister in previous AKP governments who resigned from the party to protest the plundering of the nation's heritage by corporate interests of the construction industry, which is protected by Erdoğan. He has been a vocal voice in lambasting government policies since then, criticizing what his says is insensitivity and gross negligence in protecting the heritage of the country. A politically motivated investigation into Günay was recently launched based on alleged irregularities in an overseas business deal. The government seeks to have his immunity, in place at the time of the alleged crime, removed when only a prosecutor can ask Parliament to do so. In a bizarre twist, during the interrogation last week, the prosecutor also asked İşbilen about his friendship with Günay.

The imprisonment of İşbilen and the persecution of Günay opened a new chapter in the terrible saga of pervasive oppression under the current authoritarian Turkish regime, one that will soon engulf not only dissenters within the AKP but also target opposition lawmakers. The piling up of criminal complaints and investigation files against opposition lawmakers, which were summarily filed by prosecutors and judges loyal to the AKP regime, suggests the threat is real and already in the works. The new legislative session will likely see the weakening of the immunities provided to lawmakers in exercising their freedom of speech.

Dozens of investigations have already been pending against opposition lawmakers on charges ranging from defamation of the president to treason and terrorist propaganda. Pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) Co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş is already facing several investigations by the Diyarbakır Public Prosecutor's Office over his critical public remarks about the government that were made in press briefings. The prosecutor requested that the Justice Ministry ask Parliament to waive Demirtaş's immunity so he could stand trial. Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli was also charged in October by the Ankara prosecutor for allegedly insulting a public official in a speech that criticized a government action in the Southeast of Turkey.

The main opposition Republican People's Party's (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was charged with violating the secrecy of investigations into the corruption case that incriminated senior AKP officials. The Ankara prosecutor asked in June to strip Kılıçdaroğlu of his immunity because of his revealing corruption evidence from the parliamentary podium. The CHP leader was also named as a suspect in the Gezi Park protest case in which a public prosecutor charged the fan group of the Beşiktaş sports club for attempting to topple the government because of their participation in anti-government protests in the summer of 2013. Almost all deputy chairmen of the CHP have been facing investigations on different charges launched by loyalist prosecutors.

That shows no one is safe from the witch-hunt campaign of Erdoğan and his political Islamist associates in cracking down on the opposition. The specter of persecution and imprisonment in the shadow of İşbilen's case is hanging like a sword of Damocles over the heads of the opposition. The criminal investigations against opposition leaders and lawmakers aim to discredit them by portraying them as culprits in the public eye. The way İşbilen was detained, by anti-terror police teams brandishing assault rifles, was designed to present the former lawmaker as dangerous criminal. He was processed by a prosecutor and a judge who have shown themselves to be pliant to political pressure.

The ultimate goal behind this vicious campaign to persecute İşbilen lies in the motivation on the part of Erdoğan and his associates in the government to derail political challenges, frustrate opposition and force them to yield in despair. İşbilen's case demonstrates the pattern by which opponents and critics who dare to stand in the way of the AKP are systematically intimidated and persecuted. Through the exercise of undue control over law enforcement, the judiciary and other levers of power, the political Islamist elite are sending a stern message that the AKP leadership is poised to do whatever it takes to stop all political challenges and stifle dissent at any cost in Turkey.

Published on Today's Zaman, 21 December 2015, Monday