EVER since the failed coup in 2016 in Turkey, the AKP-led government in Ankara has hardened its attitude towards all sorts of dissent. While governments have a duty to guard against any unconstitutional takeovers of the state, they must not use this as a cover to smother all opposition. Unfortunately, developments in Turkey are taking a very authoritarian turn. On Friday, six journalists were handed life sentences for “aiding plotters” of the coup. The sentences came even though in one of the cases Turkey’s constitutional court had ruled that the detention of the accused amounted to a violation of his rights. In the period since the coup, the Turkish state has led a sweeping crackdown against all those even suspected of harbouring sympathies for exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the state accuses of orchestrating the failed putsch. Mr Gulen has denied any role. According to reports, more than 50,000 people have been jailed while around 150,000 have been sacked or suspended, including government servants, teachers and others.
But it is not just Gulenists that the Turkish state is rounding up. Last month the authorities detained several doctors, members of the Turkish Medical Association. The medics were rounded up for criticising Ankara’s incursion inside Syria to battle Kurdish militias active in the Arab country. President Erdogan termed the doctors “terrorist lovers” for daring to criticise the military operation. In a related development, over 300 people have been held for opposing Turkey’s Syrian incursion, including those who made comments on social media, accused of spreading “terror propaganda”. All these arrests reflect that in Turkey, there is shrinking space for dissent. Without doubt Turkey faces many threats; the attempted coup was a very real challenge to the authority of an elected government. Moreover, a bloody war is raging next door in Syria, while a low-level Kurdish insurgency continues inside Turkey. But while the country may be located in a rough neighbourhood and is facing internal issues, all challenges must be confronted while safeguarding democratic rights, chiefly freedom of speech. Parties and individuals must be free to criticise the actions of the Turkish state; if the government feels the criticism is misplaced, it must engage its critics in debate instead of jailing them or terming them ‘traitors’. Turkey has had a long history of military intervention and its transition to democracy has been achieved after many sacrifices. Therefore, Ankara must guard democratic values and resist the allure of authoritarianism.
Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2018