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A year after the failed coup in Turkey, the purge goes on

The families of the almost 250 people killed in July 2016 may never see justice.

On the evening of 15 July last year, Mehmet*, a young recruit to the Turkish air force academy in Istanbul, was ordered to board a bus. Senior officers told him and his colleagues that they were going on a counterterrorism operation. Instead, they found themselves part of an attempted coup in which rogue fighter jets strafed the national parliament and tanks ploughed through crowds of protesting civilians.

By the following morning, the government had thwarted the plot and reasserted control. Mehmet, a trainee pilot, was crammed into an overcrowded police cell.

Mehmet’s father had been an ardent supporter of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for 14 years, first as prime minister and, since 2014, as president. But in June, I met Mehmet’s father at a “justice march” led by the opposition Republican People’s Party.

The march – a 265-mile, 25-day walk from the capital, Ankara, to Istanbul – was inspired by the jailing of one of the party’s MPs. But it became a vessel for the many grievances that have arisen since the failed coup. On 9 July, hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out for a rally to mark the end of the march. Mehmet’s father was marching for his son, who is now 22 and remains imprisoned in Istanbul. He has yet to see an indictment.

Standing up for the rights of alleged putschists is not a popular cause in Turkey. Mehmet’s father wiped away his tears as he described how painful it was to hear his son described as a traitor. “My boy was just a student,” he told me. “He was under orders. He is not a coup plotter.”

Mehmet’s father is not asking for his son’s swift exoneration – only a fair trial. He holds on to the hope that his son will be acquitted but, in truth, he has little trust in the system. The first anniversary of the failed coup will be marked with great pomp, with at least five days of rallies and commemorations. Erdogan will celebrate the triumph of “democracy” and the “national will” over those seeking violent insurrection. Millions of his supporters will cheer him on. But for millions of others in this divided country, those words will ring hollow.

Using a state of emergency imposed after the rebellion – still in place a year later – the Turkish president embarked on a purge of the public sector and began reshaping the state. Some of the changes have been surreal. One morning last September, Turks awoke to the news that they now lived in a different time zone. Another executive decree sounded the death knell for TV dating shows.

But these are small pockets of levity in a period that has, for many, felt unrelentingly dark. Over the past year, 150,000 public servants have been summarily sacked, their names published on a list of terrorism supporters in the government’s official gazette. I have met around two dozen of them. Sitting discreetly in the corners of coffee shops or sipping tea in their front rooms, former teachers, diplomats and university professors described to me how their lives had been turned upside down by a blacklisting they never had the chance to challenge.

The country’s prisons are not only full with soldiers, such as Mehmet, but also with journalists, high court judges, businessmen and intellectuals. The prisoners include thousands of people with alleged ties to the Gülen movement, the shadowy Islamic fraternity accused of masterminding the coup attempt, but also others with no apparent link to the plotters. Among those who have spent time in jail since the coup are leaders of the largest Kurdish opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the novelist Asli Erdogan and the veteran cartoonist Musa Kart.

Perhaps the most bizarre case is that of Ahmet Sik, an investigative journalist who was jailed in 2011 for warning about the dangers of the Gülen movement at a time when the group was in a close political alliance with the government. In December, Sik was detained again, accused of supporting the Gülen movement. At a hearing in April, he said the courts had become “the graveyard of justice”.

Critics fear that things may yet get worse. Erdogan’s narrow and disputed victory in April’s constitutional referendum will strengthen the role of the president. New powers include even tighter control over judicial appointments and dismissals. The Venice Commission, an arm of the Council of Europe, described the changes as “a dangerous step backwards”.

Anyone who had hoped that such words would be followed by international action was disappointed. Turkey is one of the five official candidates for future EU membership, but EU leaders dare not push back hard because the country hosts three million refugees and acts as a buffer with Syria and Iraq.

The Turkish government rejects all criticism of its response to the coup attempt. Officials maintain that the purges and prosecutions are a painful but necessary process to restore order, and that the families of the almost 250 people killed in July 2016 want justice – as does the wider public.

It is not clear, however, that they will ever get justice, in a meaningful sense. A parliamentary commission into the coup attempt failed to call key witnesses and avoided probing the close ties between the Gülen movement and prominent ruling party figures. In the ongoing trials, judges and prosecutors are under huge pressure to produce the “right” results. On the opening day of the case against the alleged ringleaders in May, suspects were frogmarched past jeering crowds waving nooses.

What angered the father of the pilot Mehmet most were the double standards. When he talked about the treatment of ruling party politicians and their relatives who had been accused of links to the Gülen movement, he was enraged. He pointed to the son-in-law of a former deputy prime minister who was arrested in June as part of an anti-Gülenist operation but was then released on bail. “After three days in detention, he was out again,” he said. “My son does not even have a date for his trial.”

*Name changed at the request of his family

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.