Turkey. Tensions between the moderate Islamist government under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the country’s secular forces culminated in June, when police brutally dispersed a total of several million protesters across the country. According to Countryaah, the background was the government’s plans to rebuild the Gezi Park in Istanbul and erect a replica of an Ottoman military pavilion there.
Protesters gathered in the park in May for a sit-down strike against the plans. When the police on May 31 intervened with tear gas and water cannons, the outrage became great over what, especially among the country’s younger middle class, was perceived as a growing power of authority at Erdo˘gan. Protesters streaming to the park. Erdoğan called them “vandals” and “terrorists”. On June 15, police forcibly expelled the protesters and closed the park.
Following a call on social media, an estimated 2.5 million people gathered in over 70 cities. The demonstrations were fought in many places and five people died while 8,000 were injured and thousands were arrested. After a verdict, the redevelopment plans for the park were shredded. Occasional protest demonstrations also occurred during the fall.
A five-year trial of a conspiracy against Erdogan’s government ended on August 5 with harsh judgments against 235 military, civil servants, scientists, journalists, politicians and other influential people, from right to left. Ilker Başbuğ, retired general and commander-in-chief from 2008-10, was sentenced to life imprisonment, as were 18 others involved. Many judges doubted the substance of the judgments and argued that they were a result of Erdoğan’s and his party’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) control over the judicial system.
Secularism, which was no longer state-based in Turkey, was pushed back by several legislative changes. The Supreme Court upheld the ban on wearing a headscarf court buildings and Erdoğan announced that headscarves would also be allowed for many government employees. Parliament also amended the law governing the activities of the armed forces so that its responsibilities were limited from preserving the Turkish Republic to defending the country against threats from abroad. The previous writing had been used to justify several military coups.
Kurdish PKK guerrilla leader Abdullah Öcalan, who since 1999 was imprisoned on the island of Imrali near Istanbul, announced on March 21 a unilateral ceasefire. In May, PKK soldiers began retreating from southeastern Turkey to northern Iraq, but the withdrawal stopped when the PKK believed the government side did not meet them. In September, however, Erdo˘gan announced some minor concessions: the parliamentary blockade would be lowered from the prevailing 10% that prevented Kurdish parties from entering, it would be free for cities to use their Kurdish place names and the nationalist allegiance that schoolchildren were forced to swear would be abolished. The Constitutional Court had also lifted the ban on using languages other than Turkish in politics.
One of PKK’s leadership figures and founder, Sakine Cansız, was murdered at the organization’s office in Paris on January 9 along with two other female PKK activists. PKK sources accused Turkish nationalists of being behind the act, but other judges said the murders were part of a conflict within the PKK.
A government crisis broke out in December after Erdo˘gan closed a large number of religious schools run by the Sufis Hezm movement and its spiritual leader Fethullah G邦len, formerly closely allied with Erdoğan. G邦len, who has great influence over the country’s police and prosecutors, responded by directing that around fifty people in the vicinity of the AKP were arrested on suspicion of involvement in a major corruption legacy with branches to Iran. Erdo˘gan responded by dismissing a number of ministers, but confidence in the government collapsed.
During the year, police arrested at least 250 people accused of conspiring with the outlawed leftist organization DHKP-C. The group carried out an explosive attack on the American embassy in Ankara on February 1, killing a security guard and an assailant. A number of people suspected of being linked to the terror network al-Qaeda were also arrested in different parts of the country.
After more than three years of interruption, the EU resumed membership negotiations with Turkey on 5 November. The focus was on regional policy, gathered in chapter 22 of the 35 chapters.
The war in Syria continued to affect Turkey. Several car bombs exploded on the Turkish side of the border, killing a total of about 80 people. Two Turkish pilots taken hostage in Beirut in August were released in October.
Prison conditions in Turkey, with prison riots and hunger strikes with many dead and wounded have long been the subject of much attention from the press, human rights organizations and the international community. In order to improve conditions, Parliament passed several legislative amendments in 2004 and 2005.
The 2005 criminal case against well-known author Orhan Pamuk, who was accused of insulting the Turkish identity, was seen by many as a major setback to freedom of expression in Turkey. The case is seen as an example of the fact that certain forces within the judiciary, bureaucracy and the rule of law counteract a reform process and societal changes, which are implemented, among other things, according to demands from the EU. The charges against Pamuk were raised by an ultra-nationalist lawyer in a lower-level prosecutor’s office. Turkey’s prosecuting authority is decentralized, so an indictment does not represent the entire state, but must be approved by the Justice Department. The charges against Pamuk were rejected by the Justice Department.
Freedom of speech has long been a key issue for opposition and human rights activists. The military coup makers established state security courts in 1982, and these were to handle matters relating to state security and organized crime. In these courts, one of three judges was military, and this was criticized by the European Court of Human Rights. In 1991, a new law made terrorism come under crimes against the state. Thus, statements about Kurdish independence or relations with the PKK were punishable and considered crimes against the state. In 1999, the military judge was removed from the courts, and in 2004, this type of court was abolished and replaced with “criminal courts for serious crime”. Most cases in these courts are about statements.
In 2003, Turkey was subjected to two serious terrorist attacks. 23 people were killed and 300 wounded by car bombs against two synagogues in Istanbul. Five days later, two suicides resulted in 25 deaths and nearly 400 injuries; the action hit the British Consulate General and the bank HSBC. Among those killed was the British Governor-General. According to Turkish authorities, the terrorist attacks could be traced back to al Qaeda; both the scope, professionalism and goals (Jewish and British interests) indicated this. In a larger perspective, the terrorist attacks were seen as an attempt to undermine confidence in the political project in Turkey: a moderate, Islamic and at the same time secular government.
In 2005, a markedly high-nationalist mobilization took place, particularly aimed at the demands of the EU and the concessions this entailed for Turkey. Parts of the population and the opposition criticized the reforms, which are considered to weaken the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the principles and ideas on which the Turkish Republic is founded. It reflected, on the one hand, a large part of the population’s deep skepticism about the intentions of European great powers, and, on the other, a fear among secularists that the AK Party was using the EU adaptation to weaken the protection of secularism in the republic.
Erdoğan has increasingly been accused by the opposition of being an authoritarian figure, and has increasingly used terrorism clauses in the law to imprison journalists, politicians and writers accused of supporting the PKK or separatism. He has also used injury lawsuits against journalists to silence political criticism.
In addition to the restrictions on freedom of expression, the informal control the AK party has had over the media through its informal links to large corporations. Most media is owned by such large companies that rely on good relations with the government to obtain government contracts and assignments. This has led editors or media owners to dismiss critical journalists. This has also led to the asphyxiation of trade unions among journalists. Only five percent are unionized today, which means that they stand completely unsupported in a conflict with the employer. Erdoğan had long received close servile coverage in all the media associated with the Gülen movement, but after an open split between the AKP and the movement happened in 2013, these media turned against Erdoğan, becoming very critical of government policy.
The AK party’s governments are also criticized for weakening women’s rights through their religious-conservative policies. The AK party’s repeal of the ban on headscarts in universities, schools and in parliament was received by conservative religious women as a liberating right, while secularists portrayed it as a step towards women’s oppression. The secularists often object to the rhetoric and attitudes of leading AK politicians, and not so much to concrete political changes. They believe this rhetoric leads to increased violence against women, and that women’s rights will be weakened through new social norms and any future legislative changes. Erdoğan has on several occasions stated that he does not regard men and women as equal, and that women do not fit in male professions, but primarily have a role as mothers. He stands for a conservative-religious view of men and women as complementary. However, he has stated that women and men must have equal legal rights.
Turkey is also being criticized for workers’ rights. There are still restrictions on freedom of organization, collective bargaining and strike rights. Public employees do not have the right to strike. The reforms of the Trade Unions Act in 2012 did not remove these restrictions, and the AK party is also accused of favoring conservative and party unions, in a rhetoric that unions must be based on “moral and national values”. Trade unions on the left have been labeled as terrorists and marginalized. The government also has the right to end strikes with reference to “national security”, and this opportunity has been used many times since 2003.