Last week, newspapers in Turkey proudly reported that the country has become the world's fourth largest humanitarian aid donor, according to new rankings. However, for the last two months, there have been brutal police attacks and a large number of arrests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Perhaps, before celebrating its humanitarian aid ranking, Turkey needs to take a good look at its own level of humanitarian development.
Although Turkey has been a democracy for almost 100 years, Turkish people today enjoy a decidedly low level of freedom, not to mention security. One indicator of this lack of freedom, among many others, is the way the police forces operate in Turkey, as was made apparent by the recent unrest in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. For many residents of Istanbul today, the police are not a government body that provides security, but a force to be feared. Individuals are not detained for breaking the law, but arrested without reason, and prevented from receiving due process.
Last Tuesday, after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he had expanded police powers, the Turkish police raided several student dormitories and private homes in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Bursa, and Manisa, and arrested those suspected of organizing last month’s nationwide protests. A total of 30 protesters were arrested, and over 1,000 people were detained. The release of most of the detainees — whose ranks include individuals from trade bodies, NGOs, and political parties, as well as Mucella Yazici, the secretary general of the Chamber of Turkish Architects and Engineers — was rejected.
According to the Istanbul Bar Association, the police have issued an order to withhold legal assistance from detainees, and have prohibited detainees from contacting their families. The same order allows the police forgo identifying the detainees or disclosing the charges they're facing. Berna Bakir, the sister of detainee Ismail Cem Bakir, a 23-year-old computer engineering student at Istanbul Technical University, described the raid of their private home to the New York Times. During the raid, police confiscated computers, books, and magazines, and threatened to charge her brother's lawyer, who had offered his assistance.
Erdogan’s heavy response to the nationwide movement continues. The government's crackdown has not only targeted protesters, including high school and college students, but also all those who aided protesters during the police violence, such as doctors and nurses who treated injuries, and business owners who are suspected of having sheltered demonstrators. The government has even targeted members of the foreign press who covered the violence.
Many in Turkey, including lawyers and journalists, consider the situation to be a government witch hunt. Videos spreading via social media contain accounts by witnesses that suggest that some arrests were made without explanation, and were not based on any evidence. Images of people being picked up from their homes or from the streets also show the unprofessional manner in which the raids have occurred. The Turkish news channel NTV has said that arrests in Istanbul and Ankara targeted left-wing groups. In contrast, the police have said that the raid was against violent protesters. Why then, did they arrest a dozen people in Taksim Square who were standing still, imitating the passive "standing man" protest of choreographer Erdem Gunduz?
Nothing is currently known about the physical treatment of detainees by officials, but Turkey's history of such witch hunts isn't encouraging. Considering the heavy physical assaults of detainees in the 70s and 80s, one can only hope that conditions have improved — though hope seems to have left the hearts of many in Turkey who have been following the events this summer.
The concept of a “government witch hunt” is familiar to Turks, as this is not the only time the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has been associated with such an exercise. In fact, in talking about recent events, many have cited the Ergenekon case.
The Ergenekon case began in 2007, when 27 hand grenades were found hidden in an old army general’s house in Istanbul. The investigation focused on exposing illegal activity against the government, and quickly turned into a series of arrests and detentions of individuals suspected of planning civil chaos and a coup. The AKP government began to wiretap phones all over the country. The problem was, most of the detainees were captured and arrested without any actual proof of involvement in such a plot. In fact, the individuals in custody seemed to have nothing in common with each other, other than being politically and ideologically opposed to the AKP regime. Most of the people who were detained were renowned journalists, artists, and liberal women working for NGOs. The arrests were carried out in a similar if not worse fashion as those that are occurring today in Gezi Park.
Turkish people are struggling to exercise the basic freedoms of opinion, expression, and peaceful assembly. As such, the fact that Turkey has ranked as the fourth largest donor in humanitarian aid will remain trivial to most Turks, and will not be considered as an accomplishment to be celebrated. In a country where those who oppose the current government are deemed “terrorists,” and fear detention without any legal assistance or due process, other news stories are more important.
Many supporters of the current regime have accused the protesters and their supporters of being against democracy, arguing that calling for an elected prime minister to step down is antidemocratic. Last week, Istanbul Bar Association board member Hasan Kilic said, “If you are a government opponent and do things differently than dictated, you are no longer safe in Turkey”. Is this the democracy that regime supporters are trying to protect? Erdogan wonders why protesters have been calling him authoritarian in Gezi Park; he might want to have a look what has been going on in the streets of Turkey.