Four years after Trump elected, Turkey continues to arrest coup suspects

Donald Trump was elected president of the United States just over four years ago, while Turkey was in the middle of its post-coup purge of suspected members of the Gülen organisation it accused of carrying out the coup. Four years later, as Trump looks set to lose the 2020 election, Turkey continues its hunt for suspected Gülenists.

In those four years, Turkey has repeatedly sought the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the leader of the Islamic sect who has been living in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s. It has even placed an $86 million bounty on the head of 339 members of Gülen’s organisation who remain free.

And in Turkey, the hunt for people connected to the Cemaat organisation run by Gülen continues.

Pro-government media organisation Daily Sabah reported on Friday that “Authorities issued arrest warrants for 97 suspects linked to the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) on Friday, and 67 among them were detained in operations in the capital Ankara and other provinces.”

This raises serious questions as to why, over four years after the July 15 attempted coup took place in 2016, Turkey is still issuing arrest warrants. It seems surprising that Turkey does not know about anybody who remains in Turkey who was affiliated with Cemaat. And why, if they were part of an organisation Turkey designates as terrorists, did they not seek to leave the country in the past four years?

In February, over 700 supposed Gülenists were arrested by the Turkish police, including members of the military and judiciary. Without knowing details of who these people are and what their supposed affiliation to Gülen’s network is, it’s difficult to tell what such arrests really indicate.

However, the Turkish government is both paranoid and keen to extend its control over branches of government it still does not consider sufficiently loyal, and these continual arrests certainly send a signal to anybody in the Turkish government about what can happen if they step out of line.

It is certainly true that members of Gülen’s network were involved in the 2016 coup, along with other military figures from a more secular, nationalist background. Gülenist organisations were also secretive, which aided the government’s claim that the people it was arresting had been members. Yet the number of people purged from the Turkish public sector in the wake of the coup attempt suggests that many more people who were seen as critical of the government were also purged along with Gülenists.

Tens of thousands of people were purged in the weeks following the 2016 coup. According to Der Spiegel, by March 2019, over 500,000 people had been arrested in the purges, with 30,000 remaining in jail. Yet this is not a unique occurrence in Turkey’s history. Around the same number of people were arrested following the 1980 military coup in Turkey. Such actions can be seen as those of a powerful state attempting to stamp its authority on Turkey’s political life.

Turkey has also repeatedly arrested lawyers representing those accused of Gülenist links. After the Ankara state prosecutor’s office ordered the arrest of 48 lawyers and other legal professionals in September, Al-Arabiya reported that “The Istanbul Bar Association described the arrests as intimidation. In a statement released on Monday, it said the allegations related to the execution of their duties as lawyers, representing clients accused of Gülen links."

As Turkey moves away from its integration with the European Union, the pretence of an independent judiciary, with the possibility of a fair trial for those accused of political crimes by the state, becomes ever more remote. Everybody in Turkey knows they could be accused of being a Gulenist, no matter how little evidence there is to prove it.

Continued reports of the arrest of Gülenists by Turkey’s government maintain a climate of fear in Turkey, particularly for public sector officials. The value of the Turkish Lira has declined over 30% in 2020, making it the worst performing emerging market currency in the world. The strain on the living standards of ordinary Turkish citizens created by this is a serious weakness for the Turkish government.

You have to conclude that despite its professed strength, the lack of a strong political opposition, a cowed media, and a compromised electoral and judicial system, the Turkish government worries that it is not as strong as it would like people to believe. And if you think that your position is weak, you may start to see threats everywhere, even where they don’t exist.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.