Erdogan Ramps Up Purge, Hints at Death Penalty

Arrests of Turkish generals and other senior officers continue in aftermath of attempted coup.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wipes his tears during the funeral of Mustafa Cambaz, Erol and Abdullah Olcak in Istanbul, Sunday, July 17, 2016.
Emrah Gurel, AP

ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed on Sunday to eradicate the rebel “virus” and even raised the possibility that the leaders of the weekend’s abortive coup would be sentenced to death, as his government went into high gear to purge the army of suspected insurgents and repress other opponents.

Given the ongoing arrests of generals and other senior officers, it apparently isn’t certain that the revolt is over.

The second day after the failed military coup was filled with arrests and funerals. According to the Turkish government, 290 people were killed during the coup over the weekend, and there were mass funerals on Sunday in Istanbul and Ankara. Erdogan, who attended two of the funerals, appeared overcome with emotion and barely able to speak at the funeral of his longtime communications adviser, Erol Olcak, who was killed with his son in a gunfight around the Parliament building in Ankara on Friday night.

In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that the attempted coup will not affect the reconciliation signed by Israel and Turkey last month.

“Israel and Turkey recently agreed on a reconciliation process. It is our assumption that this process will continue regardless of the dramatic events in Turkey over the weekend,” Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. 

Erdogan said in an earlier speech at the Fatih Mosque, “We will clean all state institutions of the virus,” referring to the supporters of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania and is accused by Erdogan of orchestrating the coup.

In an interview on Saturday, Gulen rejected the allegations and accused Erdogan of staging the revolt for his own purposes. Erdogan’s demand from the Obama administration to extradite Gulen threatens to turn into a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and the United States, after bilateral tensions were already sparked by power cuts to the Incirlik Airbase, where thousands of American soldiers are stationed, during a raid by Turkish intelligence searching for possible collaborators there.

On Sunday night Erdogan also hinted that he would ask Parliament to reinstate the death penalty, which had been canceled in 2002 as part of Turkey’s efforts to implement constitutional reforms to facilitate its acceptance to the European Union. Erdogan referred to calls at the anti-coup demonstrations and on social networks for the planners of the coup to be executed and said, “The people have asked for this, we can’t ignore it.”

More than 3,000 soldiers and officers of all ranks have been arrested on suspicion of involvement in the rebellion, as have over 2,700 judges and prosecutors arrested on Saturday, apparently based on a list of Gulen supporters and Erdogan opponents in the judicial system that had been prepared in advance.

Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag estimated the number of those arrested at 6,000 and said more arrests were expected. Among the senior officers arrested were Gen. Erdal Ozturk, commander of the Third Army, the Turkish military’s largest corps; the commander of the Second Army, Gen. Adem Huduti, who is responsible for the entire eastern sector of the country, including the borders with Iraq, Iran and Syria; and Erdogan’s own military secretary, Ali Yazici.

Also arrested were many senior Turkish air force officers who apparently were involved in the revolt. Senior officers who were arrested were marched past television cameras in handcuffs, as they were led forward in a humiliating fashion.

Meanwhile, there are persistent warnings in Turkey that not all the conspirators have been arrested. This is one of the reasons Erdogan is still in Istanbul and hasn’t returned to the capital Ankara, with security officials fearing a possible attack on his plane en route. Reuters reported on Sunday that fighter jets had “locked in” on Erdogan’s plane when he returned to Istanbul, reportedly from southern Turkey, where he’d been vacationing, but for some reason that isn’t clear the fighter planes did not open fire.

There were additional arrests and confrontations on at least two air force bases on Sunday, and at Istanbul’s second airport, Sabiha Gokcen, Erdogan loyalists fired into the air to force suspects to turn themselves in. Erdogan continued to urge his supporters to take to the streets, warning that the threat to his regime had not yet passed.

Barak Ravid contributed to this report.