Oray Egin reports on Turkey’s ‘dissident witch hunt’.

On Monday 5th August 2013, Turkish courts finally reached a decision on the most controversial trial to date. The Ergenekon investigation, which was launched in 2007, initially aimed to disclose an alleged clandestine organization that plots to overthrow the government. But over time, the investigation widened to include many opponents of Turkey’s pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party government including prominent university professors, party leaders, well-known journalists, ex-military personnel and a former chief of staff. They were all sentenced to life in prison.

Most of the Ergenekon suspects were already behind bars. But the court also issued an arrest for Merdan Yanardag, the editor-in-chief of a small independent daily Yurt that strongly criticizes the Ergenkon investigation, linking him to the case. The same day, Turkish police also launched a drug investigation that ended up with the arrests of some of Turkey’s most famous actors.

Coincidence? Some seem to think not. “It’s become a dissident witch hunt,” says Aysenur Arslan, a veteran journalist and a writer for Yurt, on the phone. “I fear this won’t stop. It may lead to ongoing trials concerning journalists. Even the drug raid raises questions in my head. Most of these actors were supporters of the Gezi Protests.”

As is now well known, the Gezi Park protests started out of environmental consciousness, to save the park from becoming a shopping mall, but quickly evolved into  massive anti-government protests. The police attacked the protesters with tear gas and water cannons, left five people dead, 11 blinded and many wounded.

Since the protests erupted Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party administration has been mostly focusing on conspiracy theories about the perpetrators of the ‘Occupy Gezi’ movement. At first, Erdogan blamed the ‘global interest rate lobby’ committed to raising Turkey’s borrowing costs for profit. At one point, Turkey’s deputy prime minister said that the Jewish Diaspora were creating unrest in the country. Melih Gökçek, the mayor of Ankara from Erdoğan’s party, went on TV and declared Otpor!, a former youth movement from Serbia, to be behind the uprisings. Gökçek also mentioned Gene Sharp, an expert on non-violent action, as providing the theoretical framework for overthrowing Turkey’s government.

 “I had never heard of Gene Sharp or Otpor! before,” wrote Memet Ali Alabora, a star actor who was at the forefront of the Gezi Park protests, in a statement. On June 10, he had tweeted “It’s not only about Gezi Park, didn’t you still get it, come join us.” This single tweet, and his YouTube video shot in the same park from 2011 explaining Occupy Wall Street to Turkish followers, was enough to put him on the spotlight. Most recently, a Turkish prosecutor demands that Alabora be tried and charged with 20 years for allegedly provoking the protests.

“I am an actor who is anti-war, an environmentalist, and a believer of freedom of speech and democracy,” he followed in the same statement. “My tweet only reflected my feelings that night and had no political motives.”

Even Oscar winners like Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn were recently targeted by Turkey’s hotheaded Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan because of their support for Gezi in an ad in the The Times. They co-signed a declaration among a group of intellectuals from PEN’s Vice President Moris Farhi, to Andrew Mango, David Lynch, Tom Stoppard and many more condemning Turkish authorities’ crackdown on Gezi Park protests.

Erdogan is now planning to sue the Murdoch-owned daily. “The press wants to throw mud to see if it sticks. The Times is renting out its own pages for money,” he recently said. “This is The Times‘ failing. We will pursue legal channels regarding the Times.”

What the Turkish government fails to understand is that the Gezi Park protests broke out organically, and, indeed, had no political motive from the beginning. As Turkey’s Nobel laureate author Orhan Pamuk puts it, in a recent interview, “it was not organized [and] political parties were not capable of managing it.”

To his credit, Turkey went under a rapid democratization process under Erdogan’s decade long reign. He upended the influence of the military over politics, implemented a set of reforms for the country’s Kurdish minority, improved healthcare and boosted the economy. Yet, at the same time he has become increasingly authoritarian and created a country of fear. Not a day goes by without a pro-government media outlet publishing lists of journalists and accusing them of trying to overthrow the government. Turkey is already the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, according to the latest CPJ report. Recently, the Turkish Journalists’ Union announced that at least 72 journalists were fired or forced to leave in the six weeks since the Gezi protests started.

“I fear the government has totally lost control and is driving the country to a dead end,” Arslan adds. “I only wish that we don’t hit a wall in the end.”

About the Author

Oray Egin is a journalist and a writer based in Istanbul and New York. You can follow him on Twitter @orayinenglish