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12 July 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 3:39pm

The police chief on the run from Erdogan: how Turkey’s democratic triumph became a purge

Sadik helped arrest the plotters of the failed coup of 15 July 2016. But soon he was under suspicion himself. 

By Leighann Spencer

From the age of 14, Sadik* dreamed of joining the Turkish police force. He attended police college straight after secondary school and quickly worked his way up to police chief, a position he then held for almost two decades. During this time, he gained global experience, taking part in United Nations Peacekeeping operations and representing Turkey at international meetings. He received bonuses and certificates of appreciation, as well as a United Nations Medal for Service.

Sadik was a model police chief. His performance mark was always over 90 per cent and he never had any disciplinary penalties or even complaints about his work. Due to his global experience and connections, he was tasked with making sure Turkey was in line with the rule of law, as part of its bid to join the European Union.

In July 2016, Sadik’s family – his wife and two young children – were on vacation. It was the summer holidays, but as he only had a few days annual leave, he did not join them. Thus, on the night of 15 July 2016, he was home alone in the capital city of Ankara when he received a call from a friend, who exclaimed that she had seen F-16 fighter jets flying at a very low altitude around Çankaya, an area of the city. Shocked, Sadik said he would call her back. It was then that he turned on the national news. The anchor woman seemed nervous, shuffling her papers. Then the TV began to broadcast footage of soldiers amassing on a famous Istanbul bridge. Sadik switched on his police radio, and discovered the city police director and deputy were transmitting orders. He quickly realised it was a coup. 

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Sadik called his driver, grabbed extra ammunition, and headed to the Ankara Police Headquarters (Ankara MHQ). It was around 11:30pm by the time he arrived, and the main gate was blocked by armoured trucks. He got out of the car and rushed to the side gate, where the deputy police director was trying to coordinate officers who had gathered in the chaos. He heard heavy gun shots and the building lights went out.

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Inside, Sadik met some colleagues.  “I remember one shocked chief smoking indoors that dark night, whilst another deputy director was rushing from one side to another with a white bulletproof vest on,” he tells me. None of the others had bulletproof vests, nor any weapons aside from the standard pistol, which made it impossible to counter the tanks, helicopters and fighter jets overhead. Meanwhile, Sadik was receiving messages from colleagues who, stuck in traffic, could see tanks moving up to Çankaya Köşkü (the residence of the prime minister) and elsewhere. The police radio reported gunfire at the military barracks, at another police headquarters, and the one he was occupying.

The sound of heavy gun shots intensified by the minute. As Sadik and the other policemen sought shelter, he sent a brief text to his wife. The next thing he knew, a F-16 jet bombed the front side of the Ankara MHQ. “This explosion was the worst moment of my life,” he recalls. “Despite having been exposed to an exploding vehicle abroad and devastating earthquakes in Turkey, this is the closest I have felt to death.” 

He texted his wife again, this time telling her where he would like to be buried were he to die that night. Her reply was fragmented – it seemed she could barely string a sentence together. She told Sadik to stay alive for their children. The police radio announced that the coup plotters were at the main gate of the headquarters. Sadik called his chief for advice, who told him to leave the building.

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He thought of his family and plucked up his courage. The gate from which he had entered was now under fire, so when the intensity of the gunfire dropped, he fled through the back exit instead. “My heart rate was probably at its peak,” he says. Heavy gun shots semed to come from everywhere. He caugt sight of the upper floors of the building on fire.  

Sadik managed to reach the rear exit and find his driver. “The thing imprinted in my mind from that moment is thirstiness,” he recalls. “Even while fasting every Ramadan I don’t remember such a thirstiness.” His driver was terribly frightened. He had felt the sonic boom  of the fighter jets, and assumed they had bombed somewhere very close. The two men drove to an oil station to fill up before fleeing to a secure distance. Sadik remarks that “people may blame us for not being brave enough to counter the plotters, but as mentioned our equipment was not proportionate”. They listened to the police radio. Meanwhile, crowds responded to calls from the minarets, and overcame the plotters. It was 4:30am before Sadik went home.

The following day, Sadik met with colleagues who recounted their experiences of the previous night. A key moment was when President Tayyip Erdogan appeared on TV over FaceTime, and called for Turkish people to go to the streets and defend the government against the coup. But that morning, the roads were empty, some blocked by police tape. There were fractured shop windows, and F-16 fighter jets still flying overhead. The Ankara police headquarters, the backdrop for many speeches and celebrations, was now severely damaged from the bombing, and riddled with gun shots. Sadik went through the place that he had fled the previous night. There were massive blood stains everywhere and evacuated armoured trucks in the parking lot. He learnt that a colleague had been shot dead, and others wounded. 

****

Once back in control, President Erdogan declared a state of emergency and promised to take swift action against the coup plotters. He also lost no time in blaming his former ally, turned enemy, the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers, known as Gulenists. Sadik was tasked to the Counter Terror Division to help with arrests. Military staff brought in busloads of suspected military coup participants. Sadik remembers a lot of confusion, and questions about paperwork. He maintains that “none of these soldiers looked like they had attended an armed conflict, they were not wounded. Some might have only been on duty the coup night to peel the potatoes in the kitchen. But colleagues were breathing from the nose [they were very angry], they had had a horrible night and did not question it”.

Some of the suspects did not go peacefully. Sadik recounts one arrested captain trying to explain something to the police officer who was handcuffing him. The officer lost control and tore the captain’s shoulder strap indicating his rank, before throwing it on the ground. Sadik suggested that everyone calm down. His intervention worked, but the accused were stripped to their underpants. In light of what Sadik knows now, I ask him how he feels about participating in those arrests. He replies: “I know that I assisted, but I did not have a main role, did not harass or torture anyone. I did not decide who to arrest so I feel peaceful inside.”

Another post-coup task that Sadik was given was to protect attendees of the Democracy Watch rallies, intended to symbolise civilian resistance to the coup. He learnt that many attendees were municipality workers who had been forced to attend. Most of the crowd seen on TV waving flags with enthusiasm were workers and their families, under pressure to attend for fear that their relative might lose their job. Sadik continued to help the Counter Terror Division for months, until one day he learnt that he was to be deployed further away, to a place where it would be impossible to commute. He says this is called “exile” amongst colleagues.

****

Meanwhile, Sadik was trying to make sense of what had happened on 15 July 2016. Odd things had occurred before the coup, although he had not realised the connection at the time. Two weeks previously, his chief told him to exchange his money to foreign currency. A coup generally leads to economic crisis, and the Turkish lira’s value could have dived.  On 14 July around 5:30pm, the day before the attempted coup, Sadik was in his office when a junior officer received a phone call. His face changed suddenly. Sadik later asked the junior officer whether the call was in relation to the coup, and the officer claimed another chief had asked whether anything odd had happened. Sadik wonders whether maybe some knew in advance, but cannot be sure. Nonetheless, himself and many others now facing arrest certainly did not know.

He also missed the signs that the government might see him as a threat. Numerous organisations, including global organisations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations, have noted that accusations of terrorist membership have been levelled against those who are critical of the ruling AKP. Indeed, such accusations have been taken against journalists, judges, lawyers, academics and human rights defenders. The accusations are often based on not only the individual’s own actions and beliefs, but also those of their acquaintances.

One line of reasoning, which Sadik believes to be true, is that people were blacklisted following the infamous 2013 corruption scandal. This included dozens of officials and businessmen connected to the AKP, including some of President Erdogan’s family and close associates. It was also the turning point in Gulen and Erdogan’s relationship, when the latter accused the former’s supporters of driving the investigation to undermine the state. Sadik did not necessarily think that the AKP was guilty, but was vocal about wanting to see justice. He took a similar democratic stance when the Turkish Intelligence Agency was caught delivering arms to Syrian rebels, and was friends with a police chief who investigated the case. But these are questions Sadik ponders in hindsight; he never guessed that he too would be labelled.

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Nonetheless, Sadik was dismissed from his position as police chief in October 2016. He was told via an internal memo, which arrived with no reason or justification. He learnt from pro-government newspapers that it was simply due to alleged “links to a terror network”. Despite being a victim of the coup plotters’ attacks, he was dismissed as if a perpetrator. His dismissal seemed illogical. He wants justice for the legitimate culprits, but on behalf of those like himself, who are arbitrarily persecuted, he feels angry and confused. Just over a month after the memo, he was officially dismissed by an emergency decree. This is a law that bypasses the legislative assembly, and publicly declares someone as having indisputable Gulen links.

Since then, Sadik has been on the run. The police have searched his family home twice. He says the searchers come with a list of publishing houses shut down by decree. If you own books from a blacklisted publisher, you are finished. Dollars are equally dangerous: Turkish authorities believe that the serial numbers on these banknotes are being used as codes by Gulen and his followers. If you have one US dollar and it is found in a house search, you are finished. 

He tries to remain optimistic, but Sadik has been away from home for a year and a half now. He cannot see his family. It is difficult for his wife to shoulder the responsibility alone, and his kids are having a hard time at school, and have had to get psychological support. They hate the doorbell ringing, and the sight of police patrol lights. But as Sadik states: “They are proud of me, and that is enough for me to rely on them.” At the beginning, he had skin problems because of the stress, and had to take medication. Like many fugitives, he still has health issues but cannot go to a clinic because its database is linked to the police database.

Sadik continues to live as a fugitive, with no social network, just the basic needs for survival. He depends on his savings, which will not last forever. Some of his friends have ceased talking to him as they do not want to lose their jobs. Sadik does not know how long he can bear this situation, but believes justice will return one day.

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Two years on from the attempted coup, Sadik believes that in current day Turkey, a happy minority is ruling an unhappy majority. Some think the elections are rigged; with the majority of media outlets owned by Erdogan allies, and an opposition candidate in jail, they are certainly not fair. The AKP and its nationalist allies have the majority in the Assembly so it can pass any law that it needs, not to mention the emergency decrees declared without oversight. Many Turks suspect the economy is worsening, despite the official growth statistics. The mantra of the AKP is: “you can’t survive without us”, says Sadik.  Problems are instead blamed on foreign powers. “The Mediterranean Belt is known for warm blooded people with a smile but it has gone,” he says “The situation is likely to continue, likely to worsen.”

The justice system is no better. Sadik has colleagues who have faced arrest and pre-trial detention, only to be released because of a lack of evidence. At other times, after deciding a release, judges begin to receive threats. They say they must consider their lives and their family, so if prosecutors object to a release decision – also because of threats of dismissal or worse – the judges go ahead with prolonged detention. “In such an unfair situation where justice has disappeared, would you like to surrender to face persecution and torture in detention?” demands Sadik. “I will wait until the derailed justice system returns to normal.” He knows speaking to me, publishing his story, is risky. But he also knows that the world needs to learn what is really happening in Turkey. He hopes that with more pressure from the international community, justice will return.

Leighann Spencer is a criminologist and freelance writer. Her expertise is on identity, vigilantism, conflict and state accountability in Africa and Turkey. She is a PhD candidate at Charles Sturt and works at Platform for Peace and Justice, which works on human rights and justice in Turkey. She tweets @_LeighannSpence​.

*Name has been changed. 

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