A new new low for rights and freedoms in Turkey

According to a wide range of opinion within the country and internationally, Turkey has reached a ‘new low’, its civil society has been ‘officially and completely silenced’, through the detention of Osman Kavala, the police’s search of his foundation, Anadolu Kültür (Anatolian Culture), and the police’s seizure of his and his secretary’s computers. I met him a few times when I was last in Turkey and he was always friendly, thoughtful, diligent, keen for socially beneficial work.

Kavala is an activist for human rights, notably children’s rights, women’s rights and LGBT+ rights; a supporter of refugee aid; and a facilitator of peace, truth and reconciliation between Turks and Kurds, Turkey and Greece and Turkey and Armenia, with a particular concern for the protection of minority religious heritage. Amongst other international institutions, Kavala is a frequent interlocutor for the French Embassy in Turkey.

Notably, he was detained in Istanbul on his return from Gaziantep, where he had been discussing a project with the German Goethe Institute. On 18th October, he was detained at Ataturk International Airport and held in custody at the police station on Vatan Street. He was interrogated for one week, then another.

[On 1st November, he was arrested. Since his arrest, he has been on remand in first Metris Prison, then Silivri Prison. As of 30th December, he has been on remand for two months, and he may be on remand for another two months, without even knowing the date of his trial.]

A campaign of demonisation

Journalist Amberin Zaman, who has been called a ‘shameless militant woman’ and told to ‘know [her] place’ by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has relayed suspicions that the action was triggered by ‘a mix of nationalists and pro-Russian “Eurasianists” in the judiciary and the security services’, who are trying to break the links between Turkey and the West.

It raises the question that is asked by the former managing editor of Today’s Zaman, Celil Sağır (on, he says, the first journalist’s Twitter account to be blocked by the Erdoğan family): ‘who is next?’

AKP government-aligned media have targeted Kavala for years, as photographer Has Avrat noted. Yet, as Wall Street Journal reporter Emre Peker observed, they launched an intensive ‘lynching campaign’ last month, which suggested treacherous or criminal activity. Since Kavala’s detention, the ‘smear campaign’ or ‘demonization campaign’ has continued.

Curious implications

Some smears avoid straightforward defamation. For example, Daily Sabah’s Hilal Kaplan has made an implication-laden comment about ‘the curious case of Osman Kavala’. Yek Vücut has published a conspiratorially-minded, two-part review of ‘Osman Kavala’s curiosity-arousing story (Osman Kavala’nın merak uyandıran hikayesi)’ and ‘Osman Kavala’s civil network (Osman Kavala’nın sivil şebekesi]’. (fn1)

Yek Vücut uses a join-the-dots style of negative implication, where a particular word may not be used and a particular implication may not be stated, but readers are led towards a particular conclusion. After all, would a positive report about a prominent figure state that their story aroused curiosity? Would Emre Peker have been making a positive comment, if he had said that the targeting of Kavala itself aroused curiosity? The common language of innuendo is itself instructive.

The targeting of symbols and the expression of power

Other smears do not make such an effort to obscure their intention. For instance, Yeni Şafak has accused Kavala of being a ‘key figure of the terror fund [terör fonunun kilit ismi]’ in a front page spread. Aydın Ünal has published a hit piece in Yeni Şafak, which warps and worsens existing insults, such as the anti-egalitarian, anti-Semitic argument that Osman Kavala is a left-wing George Soros or ‘Red Soros [kızıl Soros]’ (as he was called by Hilal Kaplan, yet again in Yeni Şafak, in 2015).

In its own perverse way, Ünal’s piece acknowledges the not only political, but also (perhaps primarily) symbolic targeting. Kavala is presented as someone who was previously untouchable, untouchably powerful, as ‘touching, being able to touch’ him is supposedly a ‘revolution’ in society.

Ünal’s screed, which is unworthy of line-by-line analysis, switches between bigoted insinuation, nationalist conspiracy-theorising and shameless defamation. ‘As far as we know, Kavala is not Kurdish, Alevi, Armenian or Greek’, Ünal says, suggesting that Kavala might be a member of an ethnic and/or religious minority group and that it would be significant if he were.

We do not know yet whether Kavala funded the Gezi Park incidents’, Ünal says, recasting a civilian uprising for real democracy and human rights as a terrorist attack, before he notes (in a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy) that the wealthy arts and media mogul’s name has been associated with those ‘incidents’, which were supposedly ‘carried out with good advertising and financial support’. ‘What we know is that the Gezi Park incidents were…. planned, produced and steered directly by the FETÖ gang that were provoked by FETÖ members of the police and judiciary as much as by some other groups.’

Even less subtly, Ünal alleges that Kavala is one of the West’s ‘agents’, who finances the West’s ‘destabilization operations’ against Turkey; he ‘cooperates with the mafia…. is quite involved in separatist/fascist Kurdist attempts,… Armenian theories and activities that provoke minorities’ – ‘the Kurds, Alevis, Armenians and Greeks’.

Victim after victim

Seemingly, Kavala, an assistant professor of international relations at the TOBB University of Economics and Technology and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), Şaban Kardaş, and a U.S. Consulate liaison officer, Metin Topuz, are all ‘part of the same investigation’. They are all being investigated for being behind ‘the 2013 Gezi protests, [anti-]corruption operations in December 2013 and a failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016’.

[Specifically, Kavala has been charged with “attempting to abolish the constitutional order” and “attempting to remove the government of the Turkish Republic”, as the supposed ‘leader and organizer’ of the Gezi uprising and an associate of supposed organisers of the coup attempt, including a professor of international relations at LeHigh University and then Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Henri Barkey.]

Topuz is being investigated for links to 121 people. In Daily Sabah’s characterisation, these include ‘Bayram Andaç and Muharrem Gözüküçük, two FETÖ figures who are accused of plotting a notorious raid on trucks belonging to [the] National Intelligence Organization (MİT)’. Outside (pro-)government circles, it was a notorious raid because one state agency confronted another over its arming of jihadists. The Gendarmerie General Command (JGK) proved that the National Intelligence Organisation (MİT) was smuggling weapons to al-Qaeda/Jabhat al-Nusra and/or Ahrar al-Sham in Syria.

President Erdoğan has prejudged Kavala’s case: ‘The facts of Turkey’s Soros have been revealed. His connections have been exposed…. The same person is behind the Taksim events’, the Gezi Park protests, as is behind the coup attempt. Erdoğan has also stated that Turkey ‘will bring [Kavala] to account [hesabı soracağız]’.

A new new low

Human rights workers

Kavala’s investigation set a new ‘new low’, mere months after another supposed investigation had set a ‘repressive new low’, when it targeted members of Amnesty International (İdil Eser), the (formerly Helsinki) Citizens’ Assembly (Özlem Dalkıran and Nalan Erkem), the Equal Rights Watch Association/Association for Monitoring Equal Rights (Nejat Taştan), the Human Rights Agenda Association (Veli Acu, Günal Kurşun and Şeyhmus Özbekli/Şeymus Özbekli) and the Women’s Coalition (İlknur Üstün), plus an information security consultant (Ali Gharavi/Ali Garawi from Sweden) and a holistic security consultant (Peter Steudtner from Germany), who had met for a training workshop on digital security and information management, at the annual meeting of the Human Rights Joint Platform (İnsan Hakları Ortak Platformu (İHOP)).

The human rights workers were indicted for ‘aiding an armed terrorist organisation’, accused of trying to create ‘chaos in society’ in association with a range of illegal organisations, including the socialist Kurdish autonomist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the communist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) and, inevitably, Fethullah Gülen’s mystical Islamist cult network. Foreshadowing the treatment of Kavala, AKP government-aligned media insinuated that the targeted human rights workers were actually spies, ‘[intelligence] agent[s] [ajan]’ of foreign powers.

Lawyers

That supposed investigation followed yet another, the arrest of 23 lawyers, including the Chair of Amnesty International Turkey, Taner Kılıç, for association with the Fethullah Gülen movement or, as the government now says, “the Gülenist Terror Organisation” (Fethullahçı Terör Örgütü (FETÖ)).

Although another person, who owns the hotel where the workshop was held, was initially detained too, he was released. The participants in the workshop, plus Kılıç, who was added to that case while under investigation for the other, comprise the “eleven human rights defenders” on trial (in that trial). Now, all of the workshop participants have been (albeit conditionally) released. Kılıç is being kept in prison. Hopefully, he and the other lawyers in the other case will be released soon.

Journalists

It is difficult to keep track of the shifting waves of investigations (particularly as some targets, such as Taner Kılıç, are subjected to more than one case at a time). Just last week, numerous socialist journalists and lawyers were detained. Demonstrating the situation in the country, Turkish police officers graffitied detained journalist Havva Cuştan’s home, declaring that a Turkish ultranationalist paramilitary had visited (‘Grey Wolves came [Bozkurtlar geldi]’).

At the same time as the human rights defenders were released, yet another journalist, left-wing BirGün’s Zeynep Kuray, was detained. She has since been released. There is no need to feverishly imagine the connections between state actors and government-aligned actors in the demonisation campaign. Two days before Kuray was detained, Ünal had “informed” the public that ‘capitalist Osman Kavala’ was ‘the financier of… Birikim magazine, the backer of Birgün newspaper‘; and that, since the Gezi ‘incidents’, the ‘pro-Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) newspaper’ had taken a ‘pro-Fetullah Terror Organization (FETÖ) stance’.

Erdoğanist purges

Detentions are often worsened by police brutality and even torture. Even when the targets are acquitted rather than convicted, these rolling detentions and prosecutions are intimidating. They are ‘another kind of threat’ and a means of isolation. They are also simply disruptive. They interrupt the activities of the targeted human rights workers, trade unionists, journalists, lawyers, academics… They consume the time and energy of others, who have to help the immediate targets get back to work, instead of help the people whom they and the targets had been helping before (and are still helping during) the investigation(s).

Such malicious investigations were a feature of life in Turkey before last year’s attempted coup. Turkey had the depressing distinction of imprisoning the most journalists in the world long before the coup attempt, in 2012 and 2013. In 2014, it freed many. Then, in 2015, it began to ‘dramatically’ increase its suppression of free speech again, notably through its persecution of journalists Mehmet Baransu, Can Dündar, Erdem Gül and Mohammed Rasool. Dündar and Gül were imprisoned for publishing evidence of the “notorious raid” on the National Intelligence Organisation trucks that were smuggling arms to jihadists.

As the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) observed, in 2016, an ‘unprecedented rate of press freedom violations’ put the media ‘under siege’ before the coup. So, the authorities were already ‘arresting, harassing, and expelling journalists and shutting down or taking over news outlets’ before the purges.

Nonetheless, as the numbers demonstrate, the attacks have exploded to become a pervasive feature of life in Turkey through the purges. Now, Turkey is also persecuting the highest number of academics in the world. Overall, at least 146,713 people have been dismissed, including 8,693 academics across 110 universities, 400 staff at the Council of Higher Education and 63 staff at the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey, as well as 4,463 judges and prosecutors, who might otherwise have tried to uphold the rule of law. (fn2)

At least 127,794 people have been detained; 60,002 people have been arrested, including 302 journalists; 3,520 entities have been shut down, including universities, media, cultural and environmental associations and foundations… This witch hunt is killing people, whether by driving them to suicide or depriving them of healthcare.

Cultural heritage workers and cultural heritage work

Cultural heritage workers

Victim after victim, targeted in one way or another… For one fabricated or otherwise unjust reason or another, at least 227 staff of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism have been dismissed. While job titles are commonly unpublished, these seemingly include at least ten archaeologists, nine museum workers and one conservator-restorer in early purges; at least one more archaeologist in later purges; and at least one more in recent purges, while at least one has been returned to work.

The purges have struck cultural heritage workers in academia, too. Archaeologist Heval Bozbay has been ‘dismissed [ihraç edilmiştir]’ from his research assistantship at Nevşehir Hacı Bektaş Veli University, for signing the petition of Academics for Peace (Barış İçin Akademisyenler). As they harm citizens and society in many other ways, so these purges are also hampering Turkey’s ability to protect its cultural property, to preserve its sustainable cultural heritage economy and to assist in the protection of other countries’ cultural property.

Like the other targets of persecution, the targeting of cultural heritage workers builds on existing perceptions. As I have noted elsewhere, during the Gezi uprising, Fatih University lecturer Kadir Tufan said to Ankara Strategy Institute president Mehmet Özcan (who agreed) that ‘[foreign] journalists and archaeologists are the most likely [intelligence] agents [gazeteci ve arkeologlar en potansiyel ajanlardır]’.

Cultural heritage work

There may not be meaningful connections between the targets of actions. However, there are practical connections between the actions against targets – people who struggle for peace, people who defend human rights, people who investigate wrongdoing (whether in law enforcement or journalism) and, indeed, people who preserve cultural heritage.

For instance, as a leaked prosecutor’s indictment recorded, the National Intelligence Organisation (MİT) was not only smuggling arms from Turkey to al-Qaeda/Jabhat al-Nusra and/or Ahrar al-Sham. MİT agent Heysem Topalca was then smuggling antiquities from aQ/JaN/AaS-occupied territory to Turkey.

As with the persecution of others, the persecution of Osman Kavala can only further weaken the social and cultural links between dominant society and minority communities in Turkey and between Turkey and the international community, which are key to peace, reconciliation and development.

Notes

fn1 It has been argued that Yek Vücut‘s curious review included neither the word “crime” nor any implication of crime.

Alongside everything else that has been discussed, Yek Vücut uses a potentially morally weighted form of the term “network”, şebeke, which can be used to mean a criminal gang (as in anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist Yalçın Küçük’s Network, the cover of which is a Star of David in matches that are bursting into flame), rather than a typically neutral form, , which uses the same noun as is found in “social network (sosyal ağı)”.

To be clear, both words can be used in both ways. There is discussion of “coup network(s)” as darbe ağı as well as darbe şebekesi, “the Gülen network” as Gülen ağı as well as Gülen şebekesi. Nevertheless, it appears that this form of the term “civil network” has only ever been used in one other case, a report on a military-civilian network of traffickers of children for sexual abuse.

Compare the growing hundreds and hundreds of results for the phrase in total, though they include some automatically-generated links, and the unchanging 5 results for the phrase that are not about Kavala, which comprise the original report on the trafficking investigation, a republished copy and three links (which will become 6, after the publication of this post).

The other form of the term “civil network”, sivil ağı, has been used less often, yet in a greater variety of ways by a greater variety of users. So, it does appear that the wording or tone as well as the style imply wrongdoing.

fn2: Turkey Purges collate data from government decrees, PEN International, the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24), the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF), the Journalists’ Union of Turkey (TGS), the Progressive Journalists Association (ÇGD) and Bianet; these numbers represent the purges between the 15th of July 2016 and the 8th of October 2017.

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