February 1, 2016

A conference under shadow of government scrutiny

Lale Kemal

Close to 100 participants were getting ready last Saturday for a conference in Bolu, a city around two-and-a-half hours away by bus from the Turkish capital city of Ankara, when news came of police raiding the houses and offices of six Turkish academics in the early hours of the same day, a few kilometers away from our hotel venue.

Academics from a Bolu university were detained and interrogated on charges of disseminating terrorist propaganda because they had declared their support for 1,128 academics who had urged the state to end the violence in the country's Kurdish Southeast.

As readers may recall, 1,128 Turkish and foreign academics -- mostly Turks from 89 universities across the country -- signed a petition early last month calling on the state to bring an end to the fighting in the Southeast. Starting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, the academics were not only heavily criticized but were also insulted. Twenty-nine of them have been sacked from their universities, while others were briefly detained. All the academics are now facing interrogation over charges of supporting terrorism by signing the petition. They have come under criticism for not denouncing the violence of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), while putting the blame for the brutal conflict on the state.

Terrorism charges leveled against not only the academics but also many government critics have become a routine practice of the Turkish authorities, who use them to silence free speech.

The conference itself, held in a hotel in Bolu on Jan. 30-31, took place in fear of a police raid as it brought together many select people critical of the government and Erdoğan. Luckily this did not happen, but a participant was awoken in his hotel room by gendarmes. Namık Çınar, a former military officer and one of the participants of the conference, took the floor in the morning session on Jan. 29 to share with the audience that a gendarme had knocked on the door of his hotel room early in the morning as part of an investigation initiated against him over a column he wrote for the Taraf daily. He has been facing an investigation over charges of insulting President Erdoğan. There are over 200 cases in Turkey in which people are standing trial on allegations of insulting Erdoğan. The officers came to the hotel to take him to the Bolu Gendarmerie Command as part of the interrogation. Luckily, Çınar explained, he was carrying a court verdict with him which already acquitted him of the charge and showed it to the gendarmes.

Making the conference itself possible has been a whole different ordeal.

The conference was organized by the Journalists and Writers Foundation (GYV), a civic society organization promoting multiculturalism and dialogue, under the name Abant Platform. After several interruptions in the past two years through implicit government pressure, it managed to hold its 34th meeting, titled “Democracy's Challenge with Turkey,” in the province of Bolu.

The Abant Platform's regular meetings have been interrupted since 2013 after the disclosure of a high-profile corruption and bribery scandal involving the government. This is because Erdoğan accused the AKP's one-time ally-turned-enemy the Hizmet movement, headed by US-based Turkish Islamic cleric Fetullah Gülen, of inventing the graft probe to unseat his government in cooperation with what he called international circles. As the Hizmet movement became an enemy of Erdoğan and the AKP, the meetings of the Abant Platform were also interrupted.

But the platform made the meeting possible this time in Bolu last weekend with the participation of many people from various professions, some of whom had never taken part in GYV-organized events before. Two former ministers from the AKP -- who are no longer the party's favored men, professors from the leftist camp, ex-deputies from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and several deputies from the main Kurdish party, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), were all present at the conference. Journalists critical of the government as well as some representatives of civil society organizations, in addition to a Greek and an Armenian journalist, were also among those attending the conference.

To sum up, this year's Abant Platform conference brought together people from different ideological backgrounds but who have one thing in common: striving to end the ongoing democracy crisis that erupted when the government and President Erdoğan pushed Turkey into authoritarianism.

What risks does Turkey face if authoritarian tendencies do not come to an end?

Reha Çamuroğlu, a former AKP deputy and an Alevi, rightly warned during the conference that Turkey is going through an “extraordinary period” which is not likely to end in an ordinary way. With these remarks Çamuroğlu implicitly warned against the danger of civil war erupting or a military coup taking place.

An academic who chatted with me on the sidelines of the conference ironically stated, “If a military coup takes place, those of us who are critical of Erdoğan may end up defending his rights against the junta!”

Hence, the conference also reflected a danger that a possible military takeover, among others, is looming if the Turkish democracy crisis does not come to an end soon.

Published on Today's Zaman, 1 February 2016, Monday