As Turkey con­tin­ues its purges, or­di­nary cit­i­zens are caught up

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Shashank Ben­gali

IS­TAN­BUL, Turkey — They gath­ered, as they have ev­ery few days since Fe­bru­ary, in a con­crete plaza in west­ern Is­tan­bul be­neath a large, rip­pling Turk­ish flag. Some­one passed out snacks and or­ange soda. They donned vests, chanted slo­gans and danced to an old so­cial­ist song blar­ing from a por­ta­ble speaker.

Peo­ple hur­ried past on the way to shops or the train sta­tion, barely glanc­ing in their di­rec­tion. The group dis­persed af­ter three hours, de­posit­ing plas­tic cups in the trash and stash­ing plac­ards in their cars.

The for­lorn protest — by roughly 20 civil ser­vants fired in a mas­sive and continuing purge of gov­ern­ment work­ers that be­gan af­ter last July’s failed coup in Turkey — had been all but in­vis­i­ble.

“We have been speak­ing out week af­ter week,” said Filiz Do­gan, who was sacked

af­ter 23 years in the Fi­nance Min­istry’s tax of­fice, “but they are turn­ing a blind eye to us.”

As Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan con­sol­i­dates his power through a state of emer­gency, he has or­dered the fir­ings of more than 140,000 pub­lic-sec­tor em­ploy­ees, a bu­reau­cratic purge on a scale not seen any­where since Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion in China.

The tar­gets in­clude a broad range of peo­ple whom Er­do­gan’s gov­ern­ment sees as en­e­mies: union mem­bers, left­ists, aca­demics, po­lice and army per­son­nel and sus­pected sup­port­ers of the shad­owy re­li­gious move­ment that au­thor­i­ties blame for the coup at­tempt. Nearly 500 al­leged coup plot­ters went on trial be­gin­ning this week, some fac­ing the prospect of life in prison.

The fir­ings are an­nounced by de­cree, of­ten in batches of thou­sands, rip­pling through a vast pub­lic sec­tor work­force of more than 3 mil­lion peo­ple. Those listed are ac­cused of be­ing con­nected to ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions, with­out any ev­i­dence of­fered.

One year af­ter the dis­missals be­gan, many for­mer em­ploy­ees who had en­joyed sta­ble, mid­dle-class ex­is­tences are strug­gling to make ends meet. Un­able to plead their in­no­cence in court, they’ve been stripped of their pen­sions, had their pass­ports con­fis­cated and found that pri­vate com­pa­nies are un­will­ing to hire them, es­sen­tially be­com­ing out­casts in their own coun­try.

“You have al­most 150,000 purged, and if they all have two de­pen­dents and a spouse, that’s more than half a mil­lion peo­ple who are now un­touch­ables in the Turk­ish con­text,” said Soner Ca­gap­tay, a his­to­rian and au­thor of “The New Sul­tan: Er­do­gan and the Cri­sis of Mod­ern Turkey.”

“They have no pen­sion, no one will hire them — they can’t even take their case to court. It’s cre­at­ing a new un­der­class, in a way.”

The un­cer­tainty has hard­ened into des­per­a­tion for some who have sold their cars or homes, or taken dan­ger­ous jobs in fields such as con­struc­tion, where em­ploy­ers ask fewer ques­tions. Two teach­ers who launched a hunger strike in March to protest their fir­ings have been jailed. Many oth­ers are for­go­ing health­care and bor­row­ing money to cover ex­penses.

“Our friends help us pay our bills,” said Do­gan, 48, whose hus­band, Dur­sum, was fired as a tax col­lec­tor on the same day last Novem­ber. “We don’t buy new clothes; we’ve stopped go­ing out to eat or to the movies. We are sur­viv­ing, but barely.”

“We are pre­vented from ex­ist­ing,” said Onur Pek­sen, a 33-year-old high school lan­guage teacher in Is­tan­bul, who found his name listed among more than 2,500 Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry em­ploy­ees in a de­cree posted on­line late one night in Fe­bru­ary.

Since then, he said, friends of his fam­ily and par­ents of his for­mer stu­dents la­bel him a ter­ror­ist. He ap­plied for three teach­ing jobs at pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions but was re­jected each time, with­out ex­pla­na­tion.

“The mes­sage from the gov­ern­ment is that we are peo­ple to be avoided,” Pek­sen said. “Apart from those who know us closely, peo­ple gen­er­ally stay away from us.”

The fir­ings con­tinue. On the July 15 an­niver­sary of the thwarted coup, Turk­ish au­thor­i­ties sacked an­other 7,400 civil ser­vants, po­lice, Jus­tice Min­istry of­fi­cials and oth­ers.

Hu­man rights groups say most purge vic­tims have lit­tle hope of be­ing re­in­stated be­cause a gov­ern­ment com­mis­sion es­tab­lished to hear ap­peals un­der the state of emer­gency has just seven mem­bers and would have to dis­charge hun­dreds of de­ci­sions daily dur­ing its twoyear man­date.

Amnesty In­ter­na­tional ar­gued in a re­cent re­port that it would be nearly im­pos­si­ble for fired work­ers to de­fend them­selves against ter­ror­ism charges since none have been in­formed of the ev­i­dence against them. And be­cause the Euro­pean Court of Hu­man Rights has said it won’t hear vic­tims’ ap­peals un­til do­mes­tic le­gal av­enues are ex­hausted, the com­mis­sion’s “main con­se­quence … will likely be to de­lay in­di­vid­u­als from ac­cess­ing an ef­fec­tive rem­edy,” the re­port said.

It de­scribed their plight as “civil death.” But Er­do­gan has scoffed at calls for le­niency.

“Why should we care?” he said in a speech on the an­niver­sary of the coup at­tempt. “Will we think about them? Let them work in the pri­vate sec­tor. Will the state look af­ter them? The state looked af­ter them and they be­trayed the state.”

The pri­mary tar­gets of Er­do­gan’s crack­down — which has also seen tens of thou­sands jailed, in­clud­ing jour­nal­ists, politi­cians and hu­man rights ad­vo­cates — are fol­low­ers of Fethul­lah Gulen, the ex­iled cleric liv­ing in the U.S. who al­legedly or­ches­trated the coup at­tempt.

But ex­perts say that Er­do­gan has used his ex­panded pow­ers — for­ti­fied un­der the state of emer­gency and a ref­er­en­dum he nar­rowly won in April — to at­tack groups that he views as hos­tile to his Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party. Those in­clude left-wing labor unions, eth­nic Kurds, sec­u­lar­ists, a mi­nor­ity Mus­lim sect known as the Ale­vis and oth­ers who have his­tor­i­cally op­posed the party’s con­ser­va­tive Is­lamist agenda.

De­mo­niz­ing those groups is pop­u­lar with Er­do­gan loy­al­ists who credit him with the eco­nomic boom that has lifted much of Turkey out of poverty over the last two decades.

Ca­gap­tay said the coun­try is “split­ting into two halves,” with a vast seg­ment of gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers show­ing lit­tle sym­pa­thy for those harmed in the crack­down.

Hay­dar Po­lat, a fired el­e­men­tary school teacher, sold or­ganic pro­duce for a few months and then bought a liquor store with a friend in east­ern Is­tan­bul. He comes in at 2 p.m. and works be­hind the counter un­til 4 or 5 a.m.

“There are many teach­ers, pub­lic of­fi­cials, jour­nal­ist friends whose TV sta­tions and news­pa­pers have been closed — they come and visit me. It is a great feel­ing,” he said wryly. “At least we can talk about [our sit­u­a­tion].”

Po­lat, 50, was not sur­prised when his name was listed on a de­cree last Oc­to­ber. He is a long­time mem­ber of the Ed­u­ca­tion and Sci­ence Work­ers’ Union, which has op­posed gov­ern­ment poli­cies such as eras­ing evo­lu­tion from high school text­books, and a po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist who worked with the im­pris­oned Kur­dish op­po­si­tion leader Se­la­hat­tin Demir­tas.

Now stripped of health­care and his pen­sion, Po­lat, an asth­matic whose right arm has been crip­pled since birth, wor­ries about med­i­cal bills.

“One can’t even imag­ine what they can do to the oth­ers if they can dis­miss a peace­ful per­son like me,” he said.

Cemile Ko­ca­man, a sta­tis­tics of­fi­cer in the Is­tan­bul mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment, tried to find a job in Bos­ni­aHerze­gov­ina af­ter she was fired but was stopped at the air­port two months ago by au­thor­i­ties who said her pass­port had been can­celed. She has had to post­pone plans to marry her boyfriend, who lives in Kuwait.

Ko­ca­man, 32, said that even in­ter­na­tional agen­cies were un­will­ing to hire her. She was close to a job with a Ja­panese char­ity re­cently un­til they learned she had been part of the purge.

“They said they liked my re­sume, but then they saw my ID,” Ko­ca­man said. “Then it was like, ‘Oh, but it seems you have some prob­lem.’ And they just stopped the whole thing. It’s clear they are afraid of the gov­ern­ment.”

Ko­ca­man is not a typ­i­cal Er­do­gan critic. A self-de­scribed con­ser­va­tive who wears the tra­di­tional Is­lamic head scarf, or hi­jab, she had long faced dis­crim­i­na­tion from sec­u­lar em­ploy­ers. When she was hired at the mu­nic­i­pal­ity in 2011, she clashed with her su­per­vi­sors, whom she sus­pected were Gulen sup­port­ers, fil­ing a law­suit against them for pro­fes­sional mis­con­duct.

When Er­do­gan and Gulen, for­mer al­lies, fell out in 2013, Ko­ca­man wrote posts on so­cial me­dia back­ing the gov­ern­ment, ar­gu­ing that it had been pop­u­larly elected.

But she be­lieves other posts in which she crit­i­cized cor­rup­tion in Er­do­gan’s party, as well as her work for a lo­cal hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tion, made her a tar­get.

Ci­hangir Is­lam, an ortho­pe­dic sur­geon and for­mer mem­ber of two Is­lamist po­lit­i­cal par­ties, was fired from his univer­sity post this year af­ter sign­ing a let­ter crit­i­ciz­ing Turk­ish mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions in Kur­dish ar­eas.

This sum­mer he joined a mas­sive antigov­ern­ment protest march, walk­ing 250 miles from Ankara, the cap­i­tal, to Is­tan­bul, and put his med­i­cal skills to use by serv­ing as the un­of­fi­cial doc­tor to the 68-year-old protest leader, Ke­mal Kil­ic­daroglu.

Er­do­gan’s poli­cies “are killing ca­reers, putting black marks in data­bases, try­ing to de­stroy thou­sands of peo­ple,” Is­lam said. “They are try­ing to kill us elec­tron­i­cally.”

Ali Unal As­so­ci­ated Press

PRES­I­DENT Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan has fired droves of civil ser­vants.

Pho­to­graphs by Shashank Ben­gali Los An­ge­les Times

FIRED pub­lic work­ers stage a protest in Is­tan­bul. More than 140,000 gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees have lost their jobs since the failed coup, ac­cused of be­ing con­nected to ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions with­out any ev­i­dence of­fered.

SUR­GEON Ci­hangir Is­lam lost his univer­sity job af­ter crit­i­ciz­ing Turk­ish mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions.

“THE MES­SAGE ... is that we are peo­ple to be avoided,” said Onur Pek­sen, a fired teacher.

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