Turkey Rape Scandal Sparks Bitter Controversy Between Erdogan and Rival

The case involving alleged multiple rapes at a school has precipitated a nasty war of words between the country's president and opposition leader.

Turkish women protesting after the rape and murder of university student Özgecan Aslan, in February 2015.
Adem Altan, AFP

A case in involving the alleged rape of Turkish children by their teacher has sparked bitter controversy between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his opposition political rival.

The background to the story begins on February 13, 2014, when the burned body of a university psychology student, Ozgecan Aslan, was found next to a highway leading to the southern Turkish town of Mersin. Aslan had been raped and murdered by Ahmet Suphi Altindoken, driver of a minibus that was transporting her home.

Altindoken committed the crime with the assistance of his father and a friend; the killers were caught, tried and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

This month, after just over a year, Altindoken was killed by another convict who had managed to smuggle a gun into prison, apparently with the help of a jailer.

Rape is a particularly serious offense under the Turkish criminal code. However, it is frequently not reported to the police, especially in rural areas, due to concern for the honor of the victim and to law-enforcement officials' apparent disregard for the crime, as attested by many women.

Aslan’s rape and murder shocked Turkey. A large number of women have subsequently participated in protests demanding enforcement of the law and a change in family values such that women will be accorded real social rights rather than what is seen as "equality on paper," including a more serious response to cases of rape.

Last week it looked as if Aslan’s case and the murder of her rapist has permeated the national consciousness. Residents of Altindoken’s village near the southeastern city of Adana locked the gates of the village cemetery to prevent his body from being buried there.

“If they bury him there, I will remove the body with excavating equipment,” the head of the village declared.

In the face of strong opposition of residents, who also claimed Altindoken was not originally from their village, the authorities tried to have him buried in the nearby town of Tarsus. After they encountered opposition there as well, the body has been transferred to a hospital until there is a decision about what to do with it.

In late March, another brutal rape case was disclosed. At a boarding school that is part of the religious Ensar network, closely associated with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), it emerged that for years a teacher had allegedly been raping small children. The indictment in the case charged that he had raped 10 children but there was evidence that the real numbers were much higher. The teacher was arrested and is awaiting trial. If convicted, he could face a prison sentence of 600 years.

This time around, news of the rape case sparked a political battle of unprecedented intensity between Turkish President Erdogan and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the Republican People’s Party and leader of the parliamentary opposition. The spark that ignited the controversy wasn’t the rape, but rather the response of Turkey’s minister of family and social policy, Sema Ramazanoglu, who sought to defend the school, which gets support from AKP, to which she and the president belong.

“The entire institution cannot be smeared, just because the harm that was done on one occasion to children was carried out inside it,” the minister said.

Her comment prompted opposition leader Kilicdaroglu to accuse her of trying to whitewash the case. “No one is talking about the case, not the education minister, not the district governor, and the family minister is lying,” he said.

As expected, Erdogan came out in support of the minister, castigating Kilicdaroglun: “After the deviant who committed rape is behind bars, now we have to think about what to do with political deviants like Kilicdaroglu.”

But Kilicdaroglu then retorted: “The president himself is a political deviant who is distorting the constitution that demands that the president be impartial while he actually comes out all the time on the side of the ruling party.”

On the subject of deviance, Kilicdaroglu then “recalled” that Erdogan had recounted in 2013, when he was still prime minister, how he would "sit in the prime minister’s office in the Dolmabahce palace looking out at the women" in the Kadikoy district of the city, a wealthy neighborhood that is mainly secular. "Isn’t looking at women and girls sexual deviance?" Kilicdaroglu wondered.

The opposition leader later explained his comment, saying that Erdogan was only trying to indicate that the government was not telling the women of Kadikoy how to dress so that Erdogan’s own wife and other traditional women would not be criticized for their attire. The then-prime minister was referring at the time to a different political battle, which Kilicdaroglu brought up again to simply to stick it to Erdogan.

The mutual recriminations constituted yet another step in the deterioration of the political discourse in Turkey, which is nothing new there but is still surprising every time it sinks to new levels, and also because of the rhetoric involved.

In any event it seems Erdogan is permitted to do things that others are not. German satirist Jan Boehmermann is currently facing trial for crudely referring to Erdogan in a poem on television as someone who had intercourse with goats.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel “confirmed” to Erdogan that the statement had been crude, and naively thought he would back down, but he didn’t. As is his habit, the president filed a legal complaint, as he has also done against dozens of journalists and bloggers in Turkey, claiming that he had been insulted.

We will now have to wait for the next installment in the battle between Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu, which will surely come. The sexual overtones are not at the heart of the matter, and nor, it might be cynically argued, is the rape of children. The important question is the politics of rape.