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 appears in the 12 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions