Last month, Turkey delivered much needed medical gear to the United States to help fight the coronavirus pandemic. Along with the shipment was a letter from Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to President Trump. In it the Turkish leader expressed his hope that members of Congress and Americans will regard his government’s gesture as a step toward greater understanding between strategic allies that have been at odds in recent years.
No doubt the health care professionals and first responders were grateful for Ankara’s sizable donation of personal protective equipment. Yet Turkey’s version of “mask diplomacy” should not paper over the fact that not only has Erdoğan pursued a foreign policy that undercuts the United States, but the principles he and his party espouse contradict Western values, even as the United States struggles with its demons right now. Nowhere is that clearer than in the dramatic deterioration of the rule of law, which has taken a macabre turn lately.
On April 24, Mustafa Koçak died in a Turkish prison after a 297-day hunger strike. He was 28 years old. Koçak was sent to jail for life after a trial that failed to meet any semblance of international standards. Yet as shocking as Koçak’s death may be, the conduct of prosecutors and judges in his case has become routine as the Justice and Development Party (AKP) continues to take a wrecking ball to Turkey’s legal and political institutions.
In 2017, Koçak was convicted of attempting to overthrow Turkey’s constitutional order, having been accused of procuring weapons used to assassinate a Turkish prosecutor. Koçak confessed to this serious crime and two witnesses testified that he was complicit in the murder. An open and shut case, or so it seemed, but almost immediately a number of problems emerged. First, Koçak recanted his confession, claiming the police beat him into admitting to the crime. Second, one government witness, whose identity remained secret during Koçak’s trial, turned out to be a “professional witness,” responsible for the state’s evidence against hundreds of other Turks randomly caught up in Turkey’s criminal justice system. The government’s other witness left Turkey and, once he was beyond the reach of Turkish police, recanted his statement fingering Koçak. Still, Koçak was sent to prison for life.
Turks have grown accustomed to their fellow citizens being abused at the hands of Turkey’s justice system, which is now geared less toward safeguarding due process than doing the ideological bidding of the ruling party. Too often the police, prosecutors, and judges willfully overlook potentially exculpatory circumstances in their ideological zeal to imprison Turks who disagree with President Erdoğan’s government. Koçak may have been a leftist, and he may have even been guilty, but he deserved a fair trial.
Like Koçak there are many Turks who have been languishing in jail for no reason other than having had the temerity to criticize the government or President Erdoğan. The list includes writers, politicians—including the leader of the third-largest political party—journalists, academics, and civil society leaders. Taken together they number in the thousands. The charges against these political prisoners range from the mundane to the fantastic. In each of these cases Turkish officials claim that prosecutors have followed the letter of the law. The problem is not that there is no legal system, but that it has been used as a sledgehammer. Turkey does not have the rule of law; it has rule by law. This state of affairs is intended to cow opponents of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s worldview and its authoritarian ways into silence.
Take the case of Canan Kaftancıoğlu, a leading member of the opposition Republican People’s Party. She was found guilty and sentenced to more than nine years in jail for a myriad of crimes that included insulting the President, belittling the Turkish state, and separately insulting a public official. All of these of course were in response to her criticisms, as an opposition party member, of government performance. Journalist Zülal Koçer is being prosecuted because she recently reported on the police beating women demonstrators in Istanbul. Even the Ankara Bar Association, one of the few organizations beyond the government’s control, may soon find itself in legal jeopardy after its leaders criticized Turkey’s leading religious authority for a homophobic speech.
The upshot is that despite the trappings of a legal system commonly found in liberal democracies, politics and the interests of the ruling party and the President drive prosecutions and convictions in Turkish courts. This past May, Dila Koyurga was detained because Erdogan instituted a lawsuit against her for a critical tweet of him that she had written seven years ago as a 17-year old teenager. Paradoxically, Erdoğan, who oversees this system of intimidation, was in a bygone era the victim of the same political justice. In 1998, a court convicted him of sedition for reading a poem at a political rally that the authorities at the time, especially the military establishment, interpreted as an Islamist call to arms. This is one of the great ironies of the Erdoğan era in Turkish politics. When he came to power 17 years ago, he vowed to undertake reforms that would abolish the injustice he suffered. Instead, he is using the very same methods to undermine his own opponents.
Turkey has donated tons of medical equipment to 55 countries around the world to save lives. It is an extraordinary humanitarian gesture, but it cannot be allowed to obscure the fact that Erdoğan and the AKP have used the country’s legal system to run roughshod over basic liberties, silence dissent, and intimidate citizens—sometimes with deadly results. The Western Alliance, of which Turkey is a part through NATO and its desire to join the European Union, was created to combat these pathologies. Supporters of Erdogan and the ruling party will no doubt deflect this critique, pointing to the crisis enveloping the United States following the murder of George Floyd. They have a point; American has much to answer for on the question of race, police brutality, and criminal justice, but it also has positive myths about a “more perfect union” to which it can aspire. Demonstrations in the United States are an effort to do just that and ought not to distract from the march to authoritarianism in Turkey.