Turkish Lexicon, By William Armstrong
Observers of Turkey have had a full- time job trying to follow all the twists and turns of the epic corruption probe that has dominated the media since mid- December. The ramifications of the trench warfare between the government and the Hizmet movement are being felt across the board, with the general political atmosphere darkening considerably in the lead- up to the March local elections
CORRUPTION INVESTIGATIONS ROIL COUNTRY
Shockwaves continue to be felt after the initial earthquake of the corruption probes that hit headlines on Dec. 17. The investigations particularly focused on the construction industry and gold trading, and touched on businessmen, relatives and individuals close to figures from the ruling Justice and Development (AK Party). The apparent grinding halt to the investigations was largely due to massive government-led sackings and relocations of thousands of officials at the police department, the judiciary, and across almost all other areas of the state bureaucracy. Zekeriya Öz, the prosecutor who led the first wave of dawn raids on Dec. 17, was quickly removed from his post as İstanbul deputy chief prosecutor. The AK Party’s methods to frustrate the probes have often resembled a scorched earth policy, with each day bringing news of further serial purges.
A second wave of arrests on Dec. 26 -- possibly involving Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s sons, Bilal and Burak, as well as alleged al-Qaeda affiliates from Saudi Arabia such Yasin al-Qadi and Osama Khoutub -- was stymied, and since then new investigations, too, have been mostly frustrated. It was reported that police officers in the İstanbul police force, newly appointed just a few days before Dec. 26, refused to carry out their orders, and that the deputy director of public prosecutions also didn’t approve this new operation. Similar to his predecessor Öz, the prosecutor behind the second investigation, Muammer Akkaş, was dismissed on the same day, and later said he was prevented from performing his duty. By the end of January, three of the four original prosecutors who launched the Dec. 17 investigation had been removed. Such executive interventions in the judicial process have raised serious questions about the separation of powers and the rule of law in Turkey.
The crushing of attempted prosecutions has managed to shape the narrative in the Turkish media. In the mainstream media, highly susceptible to government pressure, there’s now very little addressing of the actual content of the investigation or the accusations. Instead, the coverage has descended almost exclusively into an account of the power struggle over the spoils of the state, between followers of the movement affiliated with
Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen (commonly known as the Hizmet movement) -- now routinely described by government figures as a “parallel state” that has infiltrated government institutions -- and supporters of Erdoğan. Embezzlement claims leveled against Erdoğan’s son Bilal at the end of January, phone tap evidence indicating that Erdoğan directed businessmen to “donate” money to buy a media group, and claims that he owned 12 undeclared mansions, have met with no response from the government.
One less remarked upon example of the government’s successfully managing to shape discourse on the subject is the way the probes are now widely referred to in the media using the word “operation.” “Operation” has also been widely used to refer to previous alleged coup plots, so its use now has the effect of implicitly discrediting the whole probe. Even news outlets that were in the past quite unfriendly to the AK Party now widely use this term.
MINISTERIAL RESIGNATIONS AND RESHUFFLE
Soon after news of the investigations broke, Prime Minister Erdoğan sought to counter them with a major Cabinet reshuffle on Dec. 25. Four of the ministers whose names were involved in the scandal were replaced, while overall 10 new ministers -almost half the Cabinet -- were brought in. Such reshuffles are extremely rare even in Turkey’s roughand-tumble political environment, but this situation was indeed extraordinary.
Environment Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar, Economy Minister Zafer Cağlayan and Interior Minister Muammer Güler -- whose sons were detained in dawn raids on Dec. 17 -- all resigned, while EU Minister Egemen Bağış was removed from office.
Former Erdoğan loyalist Bayraktar did not go down quietly, remarkably urging the prime minister to also resign, insisting that “a great proportion” of construction projects that were under investigation were personally approved by the prime minister himself. Other ministers removed in the reshuffle included those set to run for mayoral positions in the upcoming local elections in March 2014.
RE-TRIAL FOR COUP PLOTTERS?
One of the major potential consequences of the probe is the suggestion made by an increasing number of pro-Erdoğan voices that figures convicted in the
Ergenekon/Balyoz coup plot cases could be retried. These cases are widely perceived as having been pursued by prosecutors aligned with the Hizmet movement, and the idea is that the widespread irregularities in them could be used as a justification for the retrial and release of imprisoned generals. The implication being that this would then secure the military as a new partner for the AK Party -despite the volte-face this would represent.
Erdoğan’s chief political advisor, Yalçın Aydoğan, himself openly floated the possibility of a retrial for convicted generals in his Star column on Dec. 24. “Everybody knows that those who have plotted against their own country’s national army, national intelligence [organization], national bank and the civilian rule that has been enshrined in the nation’s heart could not have dealt for the good of this country,” he wrote, arguing that groups within the judiciary that are now allegedly orchestrating the corruption probe against Erdoğan’s allies framed the hundreds of military officers convicted in the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases.
Writing in the pro-government daily Yeni Şafak, Abdülkadir Selvi also indicated that a new alliance with the military could be sought by the AK Party, and even suggested that this could be tied to the Kurdish peace process. “We are going to fight against the tutelage of the ‘cemaat’ [“community” -- meaning Hizmet] just as we fought against the tutelage of the military [...] In a situation when the very existence of the AK Party is under threat, and when an attempt is made to stop the presidential election, the AK Party is in need of new initiatives and new friends [...] It is not at all difficult to develop a formula that would benefit both the Ergenekon suspects and the peace process [with the Kurds]. Some might call this a general amnesty,” Selvi wrote.
However, in the same paper, columnist Ali Bayramoğlu gave strong warnings about the dangers of bringing the military back into the political equation. “The recent statement in which the General Staff reminded [us] of its sensitivity regarding the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer court cases was the first serious statement of the military after a long period of silence,” Bayramoğlu wrote. “At the very least, it shows that the military is a party to the conflict and that it is making its position publicly known [...] What is important is that the military, on its own and for its own sake, has taken a step of a political nature into the battleground within the state. If the state crisis, the fight between the institutions, turns into a threat to the existence of the state in the eyes of the military, the position they will take is going to represent a risk for democracy.”
THE TURKISH LIRA TOOK A BATTERING THROUGHOUT JANUARY, BECOMING THE WORLD’S WORST-PERFORMING CURRENCY
LIRA CONTINUES NOSEDIVE
The Turkish lira took a battering throughout January, becoming the world’s worst-performing currency and falling to consecutive record lows against the dollar and the euro. At one point, the lira recorded 12 straight daily drops -- a first since Turkey’s financial crisis in 2001. The value of the lira tumbled 12 percent from the beginning of December to the end of January. The fall was mostly down to the opening of the graft probe and the beginning of the US Federal Reserve’s tapering of stimulus measures, which had spurred demand for higher-yielding assets, including in Turkey. Many economists had long suggested that the necessary countermeasure to these developments was a rise in interest rates, but Turkish Central Bank Governor Erdem Başçı again kept rates unchanged in a much anticipated Jan. 21 announcement. The decision was seen as an acid test for the independence of the Turkish Central Bank, but ultimately was in keeping with demands by government officials to keep interest rates down to boost the economy. The bank had instead been trying to limit the lira’s slide through a number of unorthodox operations, but most
analysts were skeptical about their effectiveness. Prime Minister Erdoğan has repeatedly voiced his opposition to high interest rates, condemning them as demanded by an “interest-rate lobby” of foreign investors, economists and journalists seeking to drive up borrowing costs in Turkey for their own profit.
Pro-government media maintained a strong chorus against monetary policy tightening, with Yeni Şafak adapting Erdoğan supporters’ popular chant, “Stand straight, don’t bend,” showing a picture of Başçı under the headline, “Stand straight, don’t raise rates.” However, on Jan. 27, after a morning on which the lira dropped to a new record low of 2.39 per dollar, the central bank announced that it would convene an extraordinary meeting at midnight. An interest rate rise (albeit late) was widely expected by economists, and the bank finally did decide to raise its overnight lending rate to 12 percent from 7.75 percent, its one-week repo rate to 10 percent from 4.5 percent, and its overnight borrowing rate to 8 percent from 3.5 percent -- all much sharper raises than economists had forecast.
SEVENTH ANNIVERSARY OF DINK ASSASSINATION
The annual march commemorating the assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was held in İstanbul on Jan. 19. Demonstrators gathered near the central Taksim Square to walk to the site where Dink was shot dead in front of the office of the Agos newspaper, where he was editor-in-chief, in 2007. Some consternation was caused this year by the presence of a number of police officers guarding the protests wearing thick white hats, despite the unseasonably warm January weather. A similar hat was worn by Dink’s killer, Ogün Samast, and became an iconic symbol for some extreme nationalists after the killing. On a day of high emotion for the demonstrators, photos of the police officers caused quite a stir and circulated rapidly on social media. In a column in Radikal headlined “White Hat State,” Orhan Kemal Cengiz wrote that white hats were in fact a useful metaphor for the Turkish state’s repressive practices toward religious minorities since 1915, the year of the massacres of Ottoman Armenians.
The Dink case remains unsolved seven years after his murder. The lawyers for his family maintain that Samast did not act alone, and that the killing was organized and assisted by groups within the state.
İHH TRUCKS TO SYRIA
On Jan. 1, a truck supposedly carrying aid to Syria was stopped in the Turkish border province of Hatay, following a tip that it was in fact transporting weapons. However, the security forces and the prosecutor were barred from searching the vehicle, and the suspicious truck was whisked away from the prosecutor, the gendarmerie forces and the police, on the grounds that it constituted a “state secret.” The prosecutor who led the search, the police officers who stopped the trucks, and several chiefs and deputy chiefs from Hatay’s Terrorism and Organized Crime Department, were all relocated after the incident.
The scandal first broke in daily Radikal, which also claimed a National Intelligence Organization (MİT) official and a regional officer of the Humanitarian Aid Foundation (İHH), which has close links with the government, were aboard the truck. The İHH, known for its relief work in conflict zones, has long been the subject of speculation that its work in Syria goes beyond humanitarian missions. However, it denied any involvement in the incident and described the
A BILL WAS PASSED IN JANUARY BANNING THE PROVISION OF ‘UNAUTHORIZED’ MEDICAL ATTENTION
allegations as a “smear conspiracy.”
Soon after the incident, new Interior Minister Efkan Ala scolded the prosecutors, the gendarmerie and the police, saying “Everybody should mind their own business.” Ala claimed that the truck was carrying aid to Syrian Turkmen, despite the fact that no Turkmen settlement existed on the vehicle’s route. Two deputy chairs of the Syrian Turkmen Assembly quickly refuted Ala’s explanation.
Radikal’s Fehim Taştekin wrote in Al-Monitor that the government and MİT had been caught “red handed” this time: “The government had previously managed to censor footage from security cameras after the Feb. 11 explosion at the Cilvegözü border crossing, manipulated the May 11 bombing in Reyhanlı although prior intelligence was available and al-Qaeda claimed responsibility, protracted the court case over the chemicals seized in Adana on May 27 and sought to cover up the court case over the truck loaded with weapons seized again in Adana on Nov. 7. To conceal something whose exposure it fears, the government has now resorted to the ‘state secret’ cover.”
Security forces also launched a search of a number of trucks in an operation on Jan. 19, after receiving a tip. However, after getting wind of the searches, the local governor again refused to allow a detailed search on “state secret” grounds, and the trucks were released.
The incidents were soon interpreted as being simply another front in the tug-of-war between the government and the Hizmet movement. The day after the news broke, the front page of daily Star echoed the government’s line, quoting Ala, who didn’t respond to the accusations, but said the move was an “operation to target Turkey’s image” and claimed that “Israel was behind it.” Leftist daily BirGün was less accommodating, suggesting that the truck brought to mind the trucks in the Susurluk scandal of 1996, which exposed links between the government, the armed forces, and organized crime.
GOOGLE TRANSPARENCY REPORT RANKS TURKEY NO. 1 FOR REMOVAL OF SEARCH CONTENT
Turkey topped the list of government requests to remove content from Google in 2013, according to the company’s “Transparency Report” released in December. Requests from the Turkish government saw an almost 10-fold increase over the second half of the year, according to the report. A total of 1,673 requests were made by Turkey to Google for the removal of over 12,000 items, including search links relating to political officials and sex scandals, which the company said it refused to remove.
A report released in January by Washington-based think tank Freedom House was also damning of the Turkish authorities. The “Freedom in the World” report stated that Turkey’s “freedom rating” had declined alarmingly in 2013, mostly due to the harsh government crackdown on the Gezi Park protests and a campaign against the expression of critical views in the media. Turkey’s decline came amid a wider global drop, with Freedom House reporting that civil rights and liberties around the world had declined overall for an eighth straight year.
TURKEY AGAIN NAMED NO. 1 JAILER OF JOURNALISTS
In another unfortunate distinction, Turkey was named the world’s number one jailer of journalists by the non-profit organization the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), for the second year running. The number of Turkish journalists behind bars for their work was calculated at 40, down from previous CPJ reports. However, Turkey still holds more journalists in custody than Iran, China and Eritrea.
“As a NATO member and a regional leader, Turkey should not belong in the list of top press jailers. But from the failure to reform its legislation in a meaningful way to the crackdown on its journalists in the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests, Turkey has grown increasingly repressive despite the modest decline in the number of media workers behind bars,” the report stated.
It also made particular reference to respected investigative journalist Nedim Şener, the recipient of the CPJ’s 2013 International Press Freedom Award, who faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted on controversial charges of supporting the alleged Ergenekon plot. In his acceptance speech, Şener referred to Dink, claiming that the officials who arrested him were part of the same apparatus complicit in Dink’s
murder. “The government has protected those officials. Because I exposed their complicity and named the police and intelligence officers responsible for Hrant’s killing, I was tried as a terrorist,” he said.
APOLLINAIRE PUBLISHER TRAIL
The Turkish publisher and translator of French surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Les Exploits d’un Jeune Don Juan” (The Exploits of a Young Don Juan) went on trial in İstanbul for corrupting public morality. Sel Publishing House owner İrfan Sancı and translator İsmail Yerguz were facing six to 10 years in jail for releasing the book, first published in France over 100 years ago.
Prosecutors had condemned the work for giving detailed accounts of “unnatural sexual relationships” with “no plot whatsoever,” also claiming that it constituted “child abuse” and could therefore not fall within the limits of freedom of speech. Despite the postponement of the decision, the court didn’t acquit the translator and the publisher of all charges. Instead, prosecution was suspended for three years, and the case will only be dropped if no similar charges are filed against either of them in the next three years.
Speaking to the Hürriyet Daily News, Sancı expressed his dissatisfaction with the verdict, saying he would “not hold back” despite the ruling. “As a publisher, I’ll continue to commit this crime. [The ruling] will not change anything,” he said.
HIPPOCRATIC OATH UNDER THREAT WITH NEW LAW
A highly controversial bill was passed in January, banning the provision of “unauthorized” medical attention and compelling doctors and health professionals to apply for government permission before administering emergency first aid. Medical personnel could face jail terms of three years and fines of up to TL 2.25 million for breaking the new law. The move has been seen by many as the latest in a long line of repressive measures passed since Turkey was hit by the Gezi Park protests last summer. Some had hoped the draft would be sent back by President Abdullah Gül, who is widely seen as a more moderate and consensual figure than the prime minister, but were ultimately disappointed.
Human rights and professional groups condemned the law, and accused the government of intimidation and seeking to criminalize urgent assistance to street protesters. Dr. Hande Arpat, of the Ankara Chamber of Medical Doctors, who volunteered during last summer’s protests, was quoted in the Guardian as saying that the government had “written medical history” by passing a law that runs counter to all principles of medical care. “Not only does the law go against all of our professional and ethical duties, [and] international human rights agreements that Turkey is party to, but it also contradicts the Turkish criminal code that obliges all medical professionals to provide medical aid to those who need it,” said Dr. Arpat.
Crowds commemorate the seventh anniversary of the assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink outside his newspaper, Agos.
The Turkish lira took a battering throughout January, becoming the world’s
worst-performing currency and falling to consecutive
Turkey was named the world’s number one jailer of journalists for the second year running by CPJ.