21 Months on, Emergency Rule Creates ‘Empire of Fear’ in Turkey
Yasemin, 30, is a teacher of Turkish literature at a private high school in the upscale Bahcesehir neighborhood of Istanbul. As part of the school curriculum, she has to talk about Turkish poets and writers in the history who were persecuted by political authorities of their times, arrested or forced into exile due to their critical stance. She says she feels anxious and fearful while talking about stories of those people in the classroom.
“I fear that one of my students whose parents support the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) could report me to the police on an accusation that I am criticizing the government under the cover of teaching Turkish literary figures,” the young teacher told Globe Post Turkey. Her anxiety in the classroom illustrates the intense sense of fear prevalent in Turkey due to an ongoing state of emergency, known as OHAL in Turkish. It was first declared in the aftermath of the failed military coup on July 15, 2016, and extended in every three months since then.
The AKP government’s declaration of the state of emergency on July 20, 2016 for three months was justified on the grounds that the country is facing an extraordinary assault. The following day, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told journalists that OHAL might not necessarily last for three months. “We are planning to terminate it within 40-45 days and get the desired result,” Kurtulmus said back then.
21 months passed. And the Turkish Parliament on Wednesday extended the OHAL for the 7th time for another three months. On the same day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the country would hold snap presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24. This is the second time people in Turkey will go to polls under the state of emergency.
Apparently, what makes life unbearable for some Turkish people under OHAL rule is the fear of being labeled as a terrorist, a traitor or the supporter of the Gulen group, which is accused by the Turkish government of orchestrating the failed coup. The group’s leader, Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based cleric, denies any involvement in the failed putsch.
Turkey is no strangers to martial laws. But a nationwide emergency rule had not been declared in Turkey before. In the past, it was limited to Turkey’s east and southeast regions due to a battle against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish rebel group that fights for autonomy for decades.
The OHAL law came into force in 1983, and it was first declared in 1987 and remained in effect in the country’s east and southeast for 15 years until 2002.
The AKP government ended the years-long emergency rule in these regions when it first came to power in 2002. In an effort to highlight his contribution to Kurdish rights, Erdogan had always bragged about ending the emergency rule in provinces predominantly populated by Kurds. Now it has become the architect of a nationwide emergency rule whose end does not appear on the horizon.
Those facing a criminal case following the failed coup attempt — nearly half a million of them — are the ones that feel the brunt of the emergency rule the most. Governors have enormous power discretion and prison conditions are shaped according to OHAL rules. Those who plan to travel abroad have to apply for permission by local authorities.
President Erdogan insists OHAL has no impact on the daily lives of the Turks, yet there is police or gendarmerie presence everywhere and people are made to undergo criminal record checks (GBT) sometimes more than once in a single day.
“When I go to the bus station to go to work in the mornings, I undergo a police security check twice. When making an intercity travel, our car is always stopped by the gendarmerie teams who take our ID cards to make GBT. I breathe a sigh of relief each time my ID is given back. Since everyone is reporting each other to the police these days as a Gulen follower, I am afraid that such a thing could happen to me, as well,” said Yasemin.
During the emergency rule, forced disappearance of individuals, as well as claims of maltreatment and torture in Turkey’s prisons, have significantly increased, which have been documented by some international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the Amnesty International. Extraordinary powers granted to police by the OHAL rule seem to have created a feeling of unaccountability among members of the police force.
An incident experienced by a university student in Ankara shows how the powers granted to the police during the emergency rule are being misinterpreted and misused by the police.
The university student, Emre, was driving a motorcycle when he was stopped by a police officer in Ankara’s Etimesgut neighborhood in February. He forgot his driving license at home that day and begged the police not to impose a fine on him, saying that his house is close and he could immediately bring his driving license to show him.
The police officer charged him despite the young man’s requests not to do so. When Emre voiced his frustration, the police officer’s reaction was hair-raising. “You should thank God that I did not shoot you in the foot.”
Emre says he very well understood on that day that he should have never confronted any police officer during OHAL and should be more careful and cautious than ever for his own safety.
In Turkey where the voice of the opposition is nearly completely silenced and even the slightest criticism of President Erdogan, the government or its policies is considered an insult, prompting a legal action against the critics, there is no public outrage over the unceasing state of emergency.
Even the opposition parties are not in solidarity against the OHAL rule. The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is acting as an ally of Erdogan, strongly supports the state of emergency, with its leader Devlet Bahceli describing the continuation of it as a “national obligation.” The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) are against the emergency rule, but their opposition is not that strong to mobilize the masses to halt the martial law.
Seval, a housewife living in the secular Avcilar neighborhood of Istanbul, says the best words to describe the OHAL are “anxiety, fear, and helplessness.”
“The people around me, students, working people and others, are generally unhappy and hopeless about their future and not sure what will happen to them, yet they are even afraid of talking about their fears among each other. My daughter’s teacher, a 50-year-old man, fears being expelled from his job under a government decree because of his membership to an education labor union,” says the woman. All respondents talked on the condition of anonymity over the fear of reprisals.
The AKP government has pressed ahead with many controversial government decrees, known as KHKs, during the emergency rule. At the stroke of a pen, lives of hundreds of thousands of people were affected. These government decrees, which have the force of law, do not require the approval of the Turkish Parliament to go into force. They cannot be challenged at the country’s Constitutional Court, either. The emergency rule allows the president to rule the nation by executive decrees.
Over 150,000 people have been removed from public jobs by these decrees. As soon as their names are published by the Official Gazette, they lose almost everything. They are barred from applying for a public job again. A fired police officer can’t be a private security guard. A teacher can’t provide private tutoring. And a lawyer can’t practice law anymore.
Their passports are revoked. Those in public housing have to vacate in 15 days. They are stripped of all benefits and titles. Those who are not imprisoned are the lucky ones. Orders in these executive decrees remain in force regardless of a court decision, meaning that nothing changes even if courts find the fired public employees innocent.
The state of emergency decrees affected so many people that critics argue that the significant number of them might not have a slight involvement with the coup attempt or any other criminal activity. To address these concerns, the government established a commission that would figure out if mistakes were made. The commission has received over 108,000 complaints as of March and decided only in over 7,200 of them.
The European Court of Human Rights received tens of thousands of applications as well, but rejected them en masse, pointing to the commission as a domestic remedy. Without exhausting it, the court opined, the applications won’t be considered.