Marxist attacks in Turkey: why rights activists fear fallout

Two attacks in two days attributed to a Marxist group listed as terrorist by Turkey and the US could play into Erdogan's efforts to clamp down on dissent, activists say.

Akin Celiktas/AP
Police officers stand after two leftist militants attacked Istanbul Security headquarters, rear-left, in Istanbul on Wednesday. One of the militants was killed and two police officers were injured in a shootout with police.

Two attacks in two days attributed to an outlawed Marxist revolutionary group have heightened fears here that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to consolidate his hold on power, will clamp down further on political dissent.

The spate of violence has exposed a polarized society still haunted by discontent that erupted into sweeping anti-government protests in 2013. The state is promising to hunt down the “dark forces” behind the attacks.

On Wednesday, police in Istanbul killed an armed woman after she tried to attack the city’s police headquarters, less than 24 hours after a prosecutor was killed at an Istanbul courthouse.

Local media identified the woman killed Wednesday as a member of the DHKP-C, a leftist extremist group that claimed responsibility for the courthouse attack. In that incident, two gunmen took the prosecutor hostage and held him for hours before all three were killed in a shootout with the police.

But with Turkish authorities growing increasingly intolerant of political dissent, rights activists voiced concern that the terrorist attacks could spark an even greater crackdown on free speech and civil liberties.

“The danger is that the government could use these outrageous crimes to justify repressive policies and suppress dissenting opinion,” says Andrew Gardner, a Turkey researcher for Amnesty International. “Time and time again, we’ve seen the Turkish government failing to distinguish between violent acts and people exercising their right to peacefully protest or express legitimate political opposition.”

'Dignity' over 'freedom'

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the violence underscored the need for security measures ahead of June’s parliamentary elections.

“Not even for a minute will we tolerate those who take to the streets without permission, threatening the country’s security, whoever they are and whatever they intend,” he said at the funeral Wednesday for the slain prosecutor, Mehmet Selim Kiraz.

Mr. Davutoglu also defended his decision to ban at least 13 media organizations and journalists from attending the funeral, citing displeasure with their coverage.

“Human dignity is more important than press freedom,” Davutoglu said. “From now on, everyone will be careful. Everyone will be careful with their behavior.”

Authorities are now investigating seven Turkish newspapers that had published an image of the prosecutor being held in his office at gunpoint during the siege. The publications have been accused of disseminating "terrorist propaganda" for the DHKP-C.

“The government has been equipping itself with more and more powers in order to muzzle critics and restrict protests,” says Emma Sinclair-Webb, a Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Turkey is a world leader in terms of the number of people who have been put into prison on terrorism charges without having committing any offense that should or could be described as terrorism.”

Concerns about leadership

The attacks highlight mounting frustration with what critics describe as Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style of leadership, which erupted into nationwide demonstrations in 2013, after police used excessive force to disperse protests against plans to raze Istanbul’s Gezi Park.

Mr. Kiraz, the prosecutor, had been investigating the case of Berkin Elvan, a teenager killed after being hit in the head by a tear gas canister as he stepped out to buy bread. His death in 2014, after nearly nine months in a coma, reignited nationwide protests; he became a symbol of heavy-handed police tactics and official impunity.

In taking Kiraz hostage, the DHKP-C claimed to be seeking justice for Elvan.

Staunchly anti-American, the DHKP-C is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US, and the European Union. The group has waged a long-running battle against the Turkish state, and is responsible for sporadic but brazen attacks, including a suicide bombing against the US Embassy in 2013 that killed a security guard.

The group was more active in the 1970s, but it cashed in on anti-establishment sentiment during the Gezi protests, especially in certain disenfranchised working-class neighborhoods where it still enjoys some support.

Officials have often invoked the threat of DHKP-C violence to justify security crackdowns. Following Elvan’s death last year, Erdogan sparked outrage when he alleged that the 15-year-old had links to terrorism.

Crackdown predates violence

“It feeds into a narrative that Erdogan can capitalize on, of an unreasonable opposition that is radical and undemocratic, and it helps the government to rationalize further centralization and further securitization of the state,” says Howard Eissenstat, a history professor at St. Lawrence University who has written extensively on Turkey.

“In a twisted way, the DHKP-C and Erdogan are symbiotic,” Professor Eissenstat says. “Erdogan benefits politically and in terms of his centralization of power by pointing to radical groups like this, while they’re hoping to elicit [an] overwhelming police response.”

Other analysts say that the latest attacks aren’t likely to change Erdogan’s policies, pointing out that Turkey’s crackdown on free speech predates the violence.

“I am not expecting there to be drastic changes,” says Nate Schenkkan, a Turkey expert at Freedom House. “It might be disastrous for people who have peacefully and nonviolently tried to oppose policies that the government implemented, but it’s important to remember that the crackdown has already been under way.”

The attacks come a week after the passage of a controversial new law to broaden police powers and allow the use of live rounds against protesters. The new rules allow police to detain people for up to 48 hours without a court order; governors can bypass the judiciary to order arrests.

“It’s all about extending police powers to detain and crackdown on demonstrations,” says Ms. Sinclair-Webb. “That’s a very worrying measure in the run-up to elections.”

'Insulting' the president

Although Turkey is no longer the world's leading jailer of reporters, censorship remains a concern. In the midst of the hostage crisis on Tuesday, the government banned news outlets from covering the story, prompting many channels to abruptly cut their live feeds.

And it’s not just journalists. A 16-year-old may be facing two years behind bars for “insulting” the president during a student protest, while a former Miss Turkey is on trial for sharing a satirical poem on Instagram. A single Facebook post deemed critical of Erdogan was enough for police to haul a 13-year-old student before prosecutors.

More than 105 people have been prosecuted for insulting the president in the past seven months. Meanwhile, nearly 68,000 websites are inaccessible by Turkish users, including that of an atheist association and the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Although the country’s top court overturned last year’s bans on YouTube and Twitter, Turkey leads the world in requests to remove tweets.

“Freedom of expression has always been problematic in Turkey on political issues, but this is a new phenomenon of prosecutions for insults and blocking websites,” says Kerem Altiparmak, professor of law at Ankara University. “After Gezi, authorities saw that the new generation has concerns about the government and can easily take to the streets in protest, so it’s no coincidence that they’re going after these youngsters.”

But Mr. Altiparmak doesn’t anticipate much of a public backlash. “In other countries, this kind of trend might cause more opposition, but in our society, people have grown used to censorship and pressure on freedom of expression.”

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