Is model Turkey sliding into authoritarianism?
The trial of prize-winning Turkish journalist Nedim Sener resumed today. His case, along with many others, are raising concerns about Turkey and its model democracy in the Middle East.
Istanbul, TURKEY — A constitutional law professor, a prize-winning investigative journalist, a noted free-speech activist.
All of them are among the mounting number of Turkish lawyers, politicians, journalists, and academics put behind bars in recent months on dubious terror charges that are stoking fears that Turkey's courts and police are being used to crush political dissent.
Critics say that such cases are evidence that Turkey is sliding toward authoritarianism, even as it is lauded by Western governments as a role model for the Middle East – particularly in the wake of this year's Arab uprisings.
"Everyone is so dazzled by Turkey's regional role at the moment that there is almost total silence over this great situation of injustice unfolding at home," says Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch.
One case that has fueled fears of authoritarianism is that of two investigative reporters who were indicted as part of an antiterror probe targeting alleged ultrasecularist coup plotters.
Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener, whose trial began last month and resumed today, are accused of conspiring with a gang aiming to overthrow Turkey's Islamic-rooted government – a gang whose criminal activity they had exposed in the past. More recently, Mr. Sener, who was named a World Press Freedom Hero by the International Press Institute last year, and Mr. Sik had begun investigating the activities of a powerful Islamic network with links to the government. Among evidence seized during Sik's arrest was a book he was writing, in which he claimed Turkey's police had been infiltrated by Islamists.
Prosecutors ordered every copy of the manuscript, which they described as an "illegal organizational document," to be seized.
"If people are satisfied with this democracy, then I wish them luck and happiness," says Sik's wife, Yonca, "but it is not my definition of democracy."
The majority of those being detained are Kurds or pro-Kurdish activists. Turkey's Kurdish minority of 15 million has long faced persecution, and since 1984 Turkey has been fighting an insurgency led by the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
In the first nine months of 2011, more than 4,500 people were arrested and 1,800 held in custody as part of a probe supposedly targeting the PKK's urban wing, according to the Turkish Peace Council.
In October, Ragip Zarakolu, a prominent publisher and free-speech activist, and Busra Ersanli, a constitutional law professor, were among those arrested. Taken at the same time was Kurdish-language teacher Kemal Seven.
His adult daughter, Delal Seven-Gibbs, says she believes her father was detained solely for his connection to a teaching academy run by a Kurdish nationalist party. "We're proud knowing that he's innocent," she says. "But on the other hand, if he's innocent but still in jail, what's going to happen? He could be there for another five years."
Turkey's vague antiterror laws may be to blame, at least in part, for the wave of arrests.
Long pretrial detention, broad police powers, a tendency to launch cases on meager evidence, and, increasingly, the arrest of lawyers representing detainees mean that there are serious problems in Turkey for the rights of defendants, says Ms. Sinclair-Webb.
"With laws as they currently stand, and with a police-dominated approach, the potential is there to have witch hunts against your political opponents," she says.
In the years after it first came to power in 2002, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party forged ahead enacting legal reforms and wresting power from the once-dominant military in a bid to join the European Union.
But Turkey's membership talks with the EU have ground to a halt. Now, with a surging economy forecast to grow 7.5 percent this year, Ankara isn't inclined to listen to criticism from the crisis-hit EU over its ongoing terrorism probes.
"I am having a hard time understanding those saying a professor should not be arrested while thousands of other people are being arrested in Turkey," said Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin after the arrest of Professor Ersanli.
With Turkey assuming an ever more important role in the tumultuous politics of the Middle East, its Western allies also seem reluctant to dish out criticism. Ankara's encouragement of Arab uprisings has pushed it into tighter cooperation with Washington. In particular, its support of the Syrian opposition movement has aligned it with the United States against Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, and his ally Iran.
On a visit this month, Vice President Joe Biden asked Ankara to join a new round of sanctions against Iran – but did not raise the arrests or the issue of press freedom, diplomatic sources told the Milliyet newspaper.
"It may be that they don't want to alienate the government," says Soli Ozel, an international relations professor at Istanbul's Bilgi University. "They believe there are more pressing issues and that Turkey has a crucial role to play in the wake of the Arab revolt."