Regime Repression on the Rise in Turkey

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin speak to each other at a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, Dec. 3, 2012.Credit: AP

An unexpected defender came to the aid of Ekrem Dumanli, editor in chief of Turkey’s most popular newspaper, Zaman, and Hidayet Karaca, CEO of the Samanyolu television network, who were arrested on suspicion of establishing a terrorist organization.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said last week that “it was not appropriate to deprive them of their liberty for a single day. ... It would have been better to try them without arresting them. A trial without arrest would suit the principles of Turkish justice and assuage the citizens’ consciences.”

Arinc, who confessed that he was not versed in the details of the charges against Dumanli and Karaca, made no mention of the possibility that the very fact of their arrest - over articles that they published five years ago - does not match the democratic image that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hoping for.

The charges against Dumanli and Karaca, and against 14 other journalists awaiting trial after police raided the newspaper and the TV station, are linked to an incident that caused an uproar in Turkey in 2010. Then, the Turkish police trumpeted the discovery of a terrorist group called Tahşiyeciler (roughly translated as “Annotators”), claiming that it was affiliated with Al-Qaida.

Tahşiyeciler, which has 5,000 members, is led by Mehmet Dogan, who calls himself Mullah Mohammed. Dogan was arrested in the same raid that was reported by most media outlets in Turkey.

Dogan is one of the harshest opponents of Fethullah Gulen, a preacher living in exile in the U.S., against whom Erdogan is waging all-out war.

It became clear later on that Dogan and the group he heads were not affiliated with Al-Qaida, as American intelligence and the U.S. ambassador to Turkey had thought.

But the arrest of Dogan seems to be serving another goal as well. Erdogan and Gulen had an excellent relationship at the time. It became troubled only five months after Dogan’s arrest, when Gulen harshly criticized Erdogan’s actions in the Marmara affair in May 2010.

Now Dogan has been recruited for the fight against Gulen. Dogan is the one who filed the lawsuit against the journalists, according to which they caused his arrest by publishing false information about his activities.

The lawsuit, which is directed only against the media that are linked to Gulen’s movement, was the reason for the raid on the newspaper offices and the journalists’ arrests.

President Erdogan naturally jumped on that bandwagon, and last week he told the people attending a ceremony at the Scientific and Technological Research Council that Mullah Mohammed - Dogan - had lost 90 percent of his sight during his 17 years of imprisonment. Why did he get to such a point? Because “he disagreed with Pennsylvania’s opinion.” (Erdogan gave Gulen the nickname “Pennsylvania” after Gulen’s place of exile.)

By way of comparison, Erdogan affectionately calls Dogan “Mullah Mohammed” even though Dogan criticized him in the past and called him a heretic. It seems that Dogan’s extreme articles, including his book “Jihad-Nama,” in which he preaches Al-Qaida-style ideology, no longer disturb Erdogan. The war against Gulen and his loyalists in Turkey is more important.

The journalists are being prosecuted under one of the strictest statutes in Turkish law, “Establishing and running a terrorist organization,” which carries a penalty of 15 years’ imprisonment.

“I do not believe that those two journalists are linked to terrorism,” said Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. “The prosecution sometimes relies on an obscure relationship to the law to build a case,” said adviser Etyen Mahcupyan, who was a journalist at Zaman until recently.

They are not the only ones who feel uncomfortable with the arrest of the journalists. The European states also took pains to express their revulsion at the arrests and at the persecution of journalists in Turkey in general.

But such pressure does not have much effect on Erdogan, who sees it as interference in Turkey’s internal affairs. “We do not care whether the European Union accepts us into its ranks or not. We are dealing now with protecting our national security,” he said.

Erdogan is also not upset that recent opinion polls are showing a 10 percent decline in support for the government. After all, even if that statistic is accurate, the Justice and Development Party still has 37 percent support, leaving its political rivals far behind.

The incidents of corruption in which he is allegedly involved, the investigation of ministers of the government he headed for alleged corruption, or the arrest of journalists on apparently trumped-up charges roll off Erdogan’s back without leaving a trace.

While a few journalistic spots in Turkey are not yet under the threat of Erdogan’s stranglehold, one Turkish journalist told Haaretz: “We feel the pressure every day. We go over our articles with extreme care and remove anything that could give Erdogan’s dogs a pretext for going after us. This is not just about our own freedom of expression. We must also worry about the owners of the media outlets that we work for, who could pay dearly for the positions that they still allow us to express.”

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