The Mass Jailing of Turkish Secularists

Why protesters fear they are losing the battle against Islamism.

Monday, August the 4th, was one of the most important days in modern Turkish history. Two hundred seventy-five (275) individuals known to be secularists stood trial for supposedly planning a military coup. In the end, some 200 of them were convicted, with many receiving lifelong sentences.

The government had vilified the suspects from day one. Without further ado, they were thrown in jail, where they received worse treatment than the convicted terrorist and PKK-leader Abdullah Öcalan.

Their crime? According to the prosecutors and AKP officials the suspects planned to wreak so much havoc in Turkey - by carrying out (fake) terrorist attacks and generally polarizing society - that the Turkish people would eventually support a military coup just so order could be restored again.

Among the suspects were many officers. One of them was General Ilker Basbug, who served as the army’s chief-of-staff until he retired in 2010. Once enjoying the quiet life of a retiree, Basbug was arrested. According to the charges, he was the "terrorist" group’s leader. Yesterday, Basbug was sentenced to life in jail.

Other suspects included journalists and even writers. Apparently, such "subversive" individuals pose a significant threat to democracy by writing down their opinions and analyses. Like General Basbug, several of them were convicted on Monday. One of them, Tuncay Özkan, received an aggravated life sentence as well. Journalist Adnan Bulut was sentenced to six years, while former journalist-turned-politician for the main opposition party (the CHP), Mustafa Balbay, was sentenced to 34 years and eight months in prison.

Before the verdict was announced, the latter made clear what he thought of the allegations against him. “A warm autumn is coming,” he said. “They want to take over this case. We will not let it happen. This case is political. They want to hide away the case from the public.”

Yet another journalist who was convicted for being part of this conspiracy is Gülen Kömürcü, who worked for the Aksam ("Evening") newspaper when she was arrested. This "dangerous terrorist" was sentenced to seven years and six months. After her conviction Kömürcü received dozens of friendly well-wishes from Turks who, like the suspects, believe the case to be political in nature.

And there certainly is something to say for that.  AKP-leaders have for years publicly commented on the case. Even Erdogan himself has made several statements about it, going so far as to accuse his political opposition of defending -- in the words of the Erdogan-friendly Today’s Zaman -- the “Ergenekon terrorist organization.” Note that this was before anyone had been convicted of any wrongdoing. In no other country would political leaders have spoken about an ongoing investigation in such a polarizing manner.

Such details do not seem to bother Erdogan. He even made clear that this was a highly personal case to him, since he had received "personal threats" from the plotters. He made no secret of his view that the suspects -- all of them -- were clearly guilty and deserving of the most severe possible punishment. Again, he did so before any conviction had been handed out. Worse still, he even had the gall to lambast the Istanbul Bar Association when it criticized the case’s chief prosecutor for using Ergenekon as a means to retaliate against the government’s rivals; a statement that was not exactly controversial, since just about the entire opposition felt the same.

After the announcement of the verdicts, secular Turks responded with disbelief and outrage. On Twitter and Facebook many have replaced their usual avatars with a solid black image. The reason? They mourn what they consider to be the death of Turkey’s secular system.

Perhaps that requires an explanation: Until a few years ago many people still had faith in the judiciary and in the military, both of which were considered bulwarks of secularism. Whenever a government wanted to mix politics with religion, one of the bulwarks intervened and set matters straight.

Sadly, secularists now conclude, those days are no more. They see the verdicts in the Ergenekon case as the ultimate proof that these "bulwarks" of secularism no longer exist. To them, the trial’s outcome is the final nail in the coffin of laïcité in Turkey. Not only, they say, has the military become powerless, but the AK Parti now also controls the country’s judges, which is why they are actively cooperating with political (show) trials.

One of the most worrying aspects of the case is the fact that not only military officers and (former) politicians have been convicted, but journalists as well. Members of the Turkish opposition understand that this is a very dangerous development since it touches on the very foundation of democracy: No democracy can survive without a free and independent press. Besides, what do the government and the judges in this case believe "writers and journalists" will do during a coup? Throw pencils at AKP-officials?

The answer is, critics say, that the government fears journalists’ ability to shape public opinion. Every single one of the arrested and convicted journalists is an ideological secularist, with a long history of criticism aimed at the ruling AK Parti. These professionals now have to pay for their outspokenness by spending many years, if not the rest of their lives, in jail. One of them, the aforementioned Tuncay Özkan, was even sentenced to life in solitary confinement. How were the prosecutors able to do that? Simple: they accused all the suspects of being members (or at least supportive) of a terrorist organization. That way, the judges could carry out higher sentences than would normally be the case. As a result, journalists will be imprisoned for many years, even decades, rather than months (or not at all).

Not only secular Turks, but foreigners too have responded with outrage to such severe punishments. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) made clear that locking up journalists is always unacceptable. “I am deeply alarmed by today’s convictions and harsh sentences that are of unprecedented length and severity in the entire OSCE region,” OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic said. “Criminal prosecution of those with dissenting views violates the fundamental right to free expression and the country’s OSCE commitments to develop and protect free media.”

She continued: “The damage of today’s verdicts on free expression and media freedom in Turkey is immeasurable. I reiterate my call to the authorities for urgent and fundamental legislative reforms to improve media freedom, as well as the transparent and swift trial of all imprisoned journalists.”

The European Union agrees with that sentiment, saying that it has serious concerns "over the rights of the defense, the lengthy pre-trial detention and the excessively long and 'catch-all' indictments" that are too general.

Be that as it may, for now, the convictions stand. It will take some time for the convicts to appeal to higher courts, especially on a European level. In the meantime, we can only conclude  that the polarization of Turkish society continues unabated and that the freedom of speech finds itself in an increasingly more perilous state. After all, these convictions will cause editors, newspaper owners and journalists to censure themselves even more than they have been doing for the last few years.

As I wrote last week: “That’s why the freedom of speech may not only be on trial in Turkey, but may very well have already been sentenced to death. The prosecution and the judge want to end its life, and dissenting jurors, who understand what is at stake, are too afraid to intervene on the defendant’s behalf.”

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