February 27, 2015

Feb. 28 spirit makes unwelcome return after 18 years

Despite the fact that Turkey has still not settled accounts with the Feb. 28, 1997 military coup, which dealt a heavy blow to democratic progress and individual freedoms, the country is now undergoing circumstances that many observers consider far worse than the anti-democratic practices of the coup era. Only, this time, the discontent comes at the hands of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and its former leader and current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Saturday marks the 18th anniversary of the Feb. 28 coup, which is popularly known as a postmodern coup as a result of which a coalition government led by a now-defunct conservative party, the Welfare Party (RP), was forced to step down by the military on the grounds of rising religious fundamentalism in Turkey.

The coup not only dealt fatal blows to fundamental rights and freedoms in Turkey, but it also led to the suspension of democracy and the rule of law. The Feb. 28 coup wrought havoc on observant Muslims, in particular, who were subjected to a series of rights violations and profiling efforts by the military and the state. The coup brought a series of severe restrictions on social life, including the expulsion of thousands of officers from the military for no reason at all and an unofficial but widely practiced ban on the wearing of headscarves at university campuses and in positions of public service.

Some members of the current government and President Erdoğan himself, who were in politics in the ranks of the now-defunct Welfare Party (RP) led by late politician Necmettin Erbakan, were the direct victims of the coup.

Despite suffering greatly from the Feb. 28 military coup, some leading AK Party figures and Erdoğan are today accused of staging a “civilian coup” as a result of which they have been following increasingly authoritarian policies, pressing ahead with laws damaging judicial independence, waging a war on critical media and free entrepreneurship; in other words rapidly moving Turkey away from the league of democratic countries governed by law.

“The victims of the Feb. 28 coup are today making the country experience worse times than those in the Feb. 28 era. We have fallen far behind the laws of that time. In the judiciary, laws have never been so ravaged and state power has never collected in the hands of such a fascist mentality,” said Mehmet Altan, a journalist and a professor of economics, as he described the current atmosphere in the country.

He said Turkey has a more despotic climate today thanks to the AK Party mentality, controversial National Security Council (MGK) decisions and laws that the government has passed. “We are undergoing a period worse than the pro-military tutelage regime,” Altan lamented.

Heavy rights violations

The AK Party government's grip on individual rights and freedoms has increased, particularly after news of a far-reaching investigation into corruption and bribery claims broke on Dec. 17, 2013, which implicated some government officials, including Erdoğan and members of his family. In an attempt to bury the claims, the government kicked off a campaign of pressure and intimidation that critics say is tantamount to a suspension of rights and freedoms.

A number of anti-democratic moves that began after the launch of the corruption probe, including the reassignment of thousands of civil servants, including police officers and members of the judiciary, as well as a government crackdown against members of the faith-based Gülen movement -- inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen and also known as the Hizmet (service) movement -- are similar to the events of the Feb. 28 period.

The numbers are significant. Some 2,000 military officers were expelled from the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) during the Feb. 28 period because of alleged involvement in anti-secular activities. Others faced disciplinary measures. Since Dec. 17, 2003, more than 40,000 police officers, civil servants, judges and prosecutors have been reassigned for no official reason other than having suspected links to the Gülen movement. Critics have described the arbitrary reassignments as a “witch hunt.”

In the run-up to the Feb. 28 coup, a large conservative community became the target of pro-coup circles. Former Supreme Court of Appeals Chief Public Prosecutor Vural Savaş referred to religious people as “vampires,” “blood suckers” and “a malignant tumor” in an indictment he prepared to have the conservative Virtue Party (FP), which replaced the RP, shut down by the Constitutional Court on the charge that the party sought to place Turkey under Islamic rule. He also claimed that members of religious fundamentalist movements had infiltrated government institutions just like Erdoğan is saying about Gülen's followers today.

Similarly, a campaign is currently under way against religious citizens. Starting on Dec. 17, 2013, when the corruption investigation became public, President Erdoğan has sought to discredit the investigation by calling it a Gülen movement plot to overthrow the AK Party government. The movement denies these accusations. Erdoğan has, on various occasions, referred to members of the Gülen movement as “cave dwellers,” a “gang,” “criminal group,” “parallel state,” “virus” and “secret organization.” He even likened the movement to the Hashishin, a shadowy group that carried out politically motivated assassinations during the time of the Seljuk Empire.

The Feb. 28 coup dealt a severe blow to the country's education system. The religious imam-hatip middle schools were closed down, and a lower coefficient system was put into practice for vocational schools, including imam-hatip high schools, in an attempt to keep graduates of those schools out of the higher education system. The AK Party government recently shut down private test preparation institutions called dershanes, which many say will damage the education system. Despite the public outcry, the government pressed ahead with its plans and if the Constitutional Court does not annul it, the prep schools will close later this year. Many think Erdoğan took the step to close down prep schools against the Gülen movement because many such schools in Turkey are affiliated with the movement.

Economic sanctions and profiling

In the period leading to and after the Feb. 28 coup, many conservative businessmen faced economic sanctions and boycotts. State banks refused to give loans to those businessmen's companies, which they described as “green capital” or “Islamic capital.” Some of them went bankrupt. After Dec. 17, 2013, the government declared a “war” on some companies belonging to businessmen close to the Gülen movement. The most concrete example is Bank Asya. In a move that confirmed claims about government plans to sink Bank Asya, the Turkish banking watchdog in early February handed management control of 63 percent of the privileged shares of the bank to state savings funds, citing insufficient transparency to allow for proper regulation. Bank Asya management and shareholders, however, denied the existence of transparency flaws and said the decision was a government-orchestrated bid to sink the lender.

In addition, following the corruption operation, the government targeted the companies of Akın İpek, a businessman known for supporting the Gülen movement. The activities of gold mining company Koza Altın A.Ş., owned by İpek, were halted in late December 2013.

Thousands of people, including politicians, intellectuals, soldiers and bureaucrats, were profiled on the basis of their religious and ideological backgrounds during the Feb. 28 coup era. Many people lost their jobs because of this profiling. The military established the West Study Group (BÇG) to carry out the profiling. In November 2014, claims emerged that the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) had profiled thousands of people according to their ideological and religious leanings and shared this information with government agencies, including the Prime Ministry. The targets of profiling were reportedly members of the Gülen movement as well as members of other religious groups that had voiced criticism or disapproval of the government's activities.

According to Oktay Vural, deputy chairman of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the AK Party government has a mentality that is no different than from the mentality of the masterminds of the Feb. 28 coup and other previous coups in the country.

“The AK Party, which took Feb. 28 as an example to itself and went beyond, it is targeting democracy, the state of law and freedoms, and wants to silence the society through every kind of conspiracy and deception. It otherizes its opponents, defames them, profiles them and presents them as enemies,” Vural said.

He added that the AK Party, having been brought to power by the nation, has not eliminated its pro-coup mentality. “A difference between the AK Party government and the masterminds of Feb. 28 is that the government staged a coup against those who voted for it.”

The General Staff briefed members of the judiciary during the Feb. 28 process. Those refusing to attend the briefings were removed from their posts. For example, Hüseyin Altın, a State Security Court (DGM) prosecutor, was sacked after he refused to attend the briefings. Similarly, Reşat Petek, a former public prosecutor, resigned in protest at the briefings.

Since the launch of the corruption investigation, there has been growing pressure on members of the judiciary. The Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) has initiated investigations into prosecutors involved in the corruption probe and suspended them from their posts.

Blow to press freedom

Last but not least, just like the military took some media outlets under its control and even decided on the headlines of their stories during the Feb. 28 era, the AK Party government has not refrained from exerting direct pressure on certain media outlets by instructing the owners of newspapers to fire journalists and by imposing accreditation bans.

It has resorted to a number of unlawful methods to silence those who disagree with its policies in order to evade corruption accusations and engaged in revenge operations against members of critical media outlets including those affiliated with the Gülen movement.

The pro-government media is used as a mouthpiece to defame media outlets that are critical of government policies, including the Zaman, Today's Zaman, Taraf, Cumhuriyet, Hürriyet, Evrensel and BirGün newspapers.

The government pressure on critical media culminated in a police operation on Dec. 14, 2014, as a result of which offices of Turkey's biggest-selling daily Zaman were raided and the daily's editor-in-chief, Ekrem Dumanlı, was detained. Samanyolu Broadcasting Group General Manager Hidayet Karaca, who was detained in the same operation along with many other media employees, is still under arrest despite a lack of any evidence justifying his incarceration.

Published on Cihan, 27 February 2015, Friday