Aisha Umar Yusuf
Twice before, in this newspaper, I had written about Turkish president, Recep Tayyib Erdogan. The last time was on April 25th 2015 when I wrote to commend him on his firm and principled stand with regards to Egypt’s current president and reigning pharoah, Abdelfattah Al-Sisi. In a piece I called ‘Time to look up to Erdogan’ I was full of praises for the Turkish president because of his insistence that Al-Sisi must release democratically elected Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi from prison or else Turkey will not normalise relations with Egypt.
So impressed was I by Mr Erdogan’s position that I remember calling him ‘a lone voice of conscience’ in that article. But recent events in Turkey are making me wonder whether he still deserves this compliment. Since the attempted coup of July 15th this year, the Turkish president has embarked on such controversial actions and policies that one is left to wonder what happened to that incredible man of conscience.
Granted, a coup is the nightmare of any leader, both today and in ancient times. But a coup attempt that failed can’t be the justification for the widespread arrest and crackdown on thousands of civil servants and other professionals that’s been going on in Turkey. For a coup that was staged on a Friday I was amazed to hear in the news that over 2000 judges had been sacked before Monday. It was almost as if a list had been prepared before hand and all that was needed was an excuse to use it.
Then the mass purges in the ministries followed. The ministry of education alone lost 15,200 employees in a day, that week. If these were military men, it will be understandable because they are usually the coup plotters and executors but for so many civilians to be part of a single coup plot is truly unheard of.
But that was apparently only the taste of things to come. Today businesses and schools belonging to anyone who has anything to do with exiled Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen have been targeted by Erdogan’s government and are either closed or about to be closed, and their owners arrested.
We all know that President Erdogan believes the American-based scholar was the mastermind of the coup, and that he had made several demands on the US government to repatriate Mr Gülen so he can face charges in Turkey. But labelling his organisation a terrorist group and arbitrarily arresting its members is visiting collective punishment on numerous innocent people. It is also at variance with the image I had of Erdogan as a man of justice who stood for the underdog.
On a recent trip to Spain, I picked a copy of the International New York Times, at my Granada hotel lobby, and saw a story that shocked me greatly. It said Mr Erdogan had ordered the release of 38,000 prisoners serving various jail terms, for different offences, in order to make space for the so-called coup plotters who had no space in Turkey’s overflowing prison. I was totally shocked by the news because i can’t imagine a situation where convicted criminals are being set free just so political opponents can be locked up.
The International New York Times quoted Ozturk Turkdogan, the President of Human Rights Associations in Turkey saying that prisons are filled to capacity and many detainees sleep in communal spaces of jails, often without any beddings. Some of them are also being detained in Sports arenas due to lack of prison space.
So to address this, the Turkish president stumbled on the clever idea of setting free criminals to make way for alleged coup plotters. Reacting to Erdogan’s decision, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a columnist and human rights lawyer said ‘It is very unfortunate, that the government would release thieves and criminals to fill the prison with intellectuals, writers, human rights activists and others, as well as the coup people.’
On the Turkish Airlines flight we took back to Nigeria, I read some Turkish dailies and discovered that all people affiliated in any way with Fethullah Gülen’s organisation are now called FETO terrorists, a reason that leads to their arrests and detention. I immediately recalled the first time I wrote about Recep Erdogan, it was after my first trip to Turkey in May 2007.
I had accompanied my husband to the 56th session of the IPI congress which took place in Istanbul. It took place just days after two major anti-hijab demonstrations had taken place there. In a piece I called ‘On Turkey’s strange freedom’ I had reported that though the elite secularists were strong and making much noise over Erdogan’s Islamisation of their landscape, the ordinary people were happy with the move to allow hijab in schools and in offices. In particular, they were happy with his expert handling of their economy.
That was nine years ago. Alas, today Mr Erdogan is busy reversing all the economic gains of the last one decade by making paupers out of many prosperous Turkish businessmen; with so many businesses closed and their owners in jails. One wonders at the poverty being created on this fertile land.
I’ve since learnt that even some Nigerians are affected by Erdogan’s crackdown on his opponents. Parents with children in schools in Turkey have since had their wards returned to them because the schools were closed. And all this collective punishment from a man I thought was a strong advocate for justice.
Can it be that Recep Tayyip Erdogan is only a saint elsewhere, outside Turkey’s shores?
Published on Daily Trust, 17 September 2016, Saturday