In Turkey, the crackdown on anti-government protesters has begun

The Turkish government’s spin doctors have linked the recent protests to cyber attacks and historical cases of secular dissent to silence anti-government demonstrators.

The latest joke among members of the Turkish protest movement is that they are “soldiers of the intergalactic coup lobby”. But it’s not just for fun; their humour is a response to what the Turkish government’s spin doctors are saying about the protesters, whose camps in Istanbul and elsewhere have been cleared forcibly by police in the past few weeks.

When the spin doctors claimed that Turkey was about to face a cyber attack, and that the anti-government demonstrations were linked to it, the protesters had no option but to mock their reasoning. But the government’s response is becoming increasingly sophisticated – and it’s not all so easy to laugh off.

“There are the names of nine illegal organisations in my criminal charge, Your Honour. Are you going to pick one for me or am I supposed to choose?” Those were the words of one young protester hauled before a court last month. Since protests began at the end of May – initially over the destruction of Gezi Park in Taksim Square but soon spreading from Istanbul to the rest of the country – thousands of people have been arrested. The charges vary from “joining illegal demonstrations” to “being a member of a terrorist organisation”. The justice system, which in Turkey is politicised, has increased the pressure on demonstrators.

On 22 June the government announced that prosecutors will link the protests to “Sledgehammer”, an alleged secularist coup plot that dates back to 2003 and has led since then to the prosecution of thousands of army personnel. Linking the 2013 protests to this case – even though both secularists and islamists were on the streets to voice their discontent with the Erdogan government – is a way to discredit the movement. Similarly politicised cases have been used to silence secular politicians and Kurdish activists over the past ten years.

While some protesters are brought before judges, others face physical violence. Since the protest camps were cleared, activists have been meeting in public parks in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir in the evenings to discuss what they have been through and how the action should continue.

Recently three of these forums have been attacked by young, government-supporting thugs who then took to Twitter to declare that they were proud of what they had done. They operate with sticks and knives, and preferably in dark alleys. Somehow, the police seem unable to stop them. Elsewhere, vocal critics of the government, including myself, have been singled out by establishment newspapers, or by supporters of the governing Justice and Development (AK) Party, as “provocateurs”.

Clumsy indictments and the intergalactic coup lobby can be regarded as a joke. But as the days pass, we’re not sure how much longer we’ll be able to carry on laughing.

Ece Temelkuran is a novelist and political commentator based in Istanbul

Demonstrators with flares in the port city of Izmir, western Turkey. Photograph: Reuters

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

Show Hide image

What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”