The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In quest to punish coup plotters, Turkey squeezes out room for dissent

Demonstrators hold a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, as they gather at Taksim Square in Istanbul on July 24. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

The room for dissent in Turkey had already been under threat. But in the wake of the failed military coup, the space in which political opponents could criticize the government has all but disappeared.

Authorities have moved to root out alleged coup supporters, including purging thousands of bureaucrats, declaring a state of emergency and suspending a European human rights convention.

The government has censored media outlets, detained rights advocates and fired teachers and academics. A decree signed by the president ordered more than 2,000 private schools, charities, unions and health centers shut for alleged links to the plot.

Amnesty International's researcher in Turkey, Andrew Gardner, said the scale of the purge is "breathtaking."

Together, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, have been moving toward a greater authoritarianism as they have silenced opponents and accumulated power, urging Turks to adopt a conservative, Muslim identity and painting opponents as terrorists. Their politics have left little room for anyone else.

Now, as Erdogan responds forcefully to the failed coup, Turkey's already shrinking dissident communities say they are in danger of being snuffed out.

“The ruling party wants to do whatever they want,” said Ebru Uzumcu, a 43-year-old therapist, “and they want to suppress all opposition.”

Turkey declares a state of emergency for three months

Uzumcu is a member of the activist network that sprung from protests to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013. The demonstrations, which spread nationwide but were eventually quashed, were the first major challenge to AKP rule.

“I can live with people who are not like me. But can they live with people who are not like them?” Uzumcu said of the AKP and its supporters.

“That’s the fundamental question,” she said. And right now, “the future doesn’t look bright.”

The government arrested thousands of officers, including more than 120 military generals, in the wake of the July 15 coup. On that night, a rebel faction of the military seized aircraft, blocked bridges, sent tanks to parliament and declared martial law. More than 260 people were killed.

But as authorities broadened their crackdown, judges, lawyers, columnists and cartoonists were among those suspended or detained.

On Monday, authorities issued detention orders for 42 Turkish journalists as part of the investigation into the failed coup. A senior Turkish official said the journalists were ordered detained for “possible criminal conduct” but did not elaborate.

The government says the thousands targeted all have links to cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose movement authorities say orchestrated the coup.

Gulen and Erdogan — both Islamists — were once allies against Turkey’s staunchly secular state. As early as the 1970s, Gulen, a charismatic preacher, had begun urging followers to infiltrate government institutions to change the state from within.

When Erdogan

came to power in 2003, he found Gulen’s network useful as he rid the Turkish bureaucracy of its military and secular holdovers. But the relationship soon soured, and Erdogan charged Gulenists with establishing a “parallel state.”

Today, the scope of the purge against alleged Gulenists and others is such that even government supporters — or those who at least opposed the putsch — have also been accused of ties to the plot.

A Turkish intelligence official said last week that Gulen operatives had infiltrated the country’s main opposition parties, all of which condemned the coup.

“We don’t want a witch hunt,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, told a local television station last week. All those prosecuted should “be tried in line with democracy and the rule of law.”

For those on the margins — and without the support of a major political party — the fear of arrest is far worse.

Onur Fidangul is the president of a gay rights organization and was also active at the demonstrations at Gezi Park.

There, as LGBT activists, environmentalists, Turkish mothers and apolitical residents joined together to oppose government repression, Fidangul said he saw the type of Turkey he wanted to live in.

“It was the first time I believed people wanted democracy,” he said, “and equality for all.”

But since then, the government has lost what little tolerance it had for dissent. It has pursued Gezi Park activists with court cases and rejected permits for gay-pride parades. Journalists have been arrested for tweets, and others for “insulting” Erdogan.

“I’m very concerned about being targeted right now. So many people have already died” or lost their jobs, the 25-year-old Fidangul said after the failed coup.

“All the high-level politicians are hateful toward LGBT people,” he said. “I’m afraid that the threats toward us will increase.”

In the midst of the post-coup crackdown, human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz was detained last week at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport and held for four days.

His wife, the writer Sibel Hurtas, was also detained but quickly released.

Cengiz’s detention “is an indication of what will take place politically inside Turkey from now on,” Hurtas said before his release late Sunday. Cengiz, Hurtas said, was adamantly opposed to the coup.

“People are being dismissed from their jobs. Newspapers are being shut down. Access to websites is being blocked off,” she said, adding: “I believe we are going through a serious test right now. We are in a state of complete uncertainty.”

Hugh Naylor in Istanbul and Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Souad Mekhennet in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world