A prison fire last week that led to the death of 13 inmates and a string of subsequent fires -- all set by prisoners protesting the conditions they are living under -- have led to a debate about the state of Turkey's jails and just why the country has such a fast-growing prison population.
Saturday's fire, which took place in the southeast Turkey's Sanliurfa, was apparently set by a group of prisoners protesting their overcrowded conditions. Since the fire in Sanliurfa, prisoners in at least three other jails started protest fires. According to Turkish reports, dormitory-style cells in the Sanliurfa prison that were built for 12 were housing 18 prisoners, forcing the inmates to sleep in shifts. The prison itself, which has a capacity of 350, was holding over 1,000 inmates at the time of the fire.
As the Hurriyet Daily News reports, the overcrowding is indicative of Turkey's rapidly-rising prison population:
The number of prisoners has increased to 132,000 from 69,000 over the last 10 years even though Turkey’s penitentiaries only had a total capacity of 125,000 people as of April 2012, according to information provided by Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin.
Over 36,400 prisoners are detainees awaiting trial while over 95,600 have been convicted. The legal process of one-fourth of the convicted has not been concluded as their appeals are being heard at the Supreme Court of Appeals, according to statistics.
At the Şanlıurfa prison, only 200 of the 1,000 inmates have been convicted.
Along with his suggestion that abortion may soon be banned, the other bombshell that mercurial Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently dropped was that his government is planning to build a massive mosque up on one of Istanbul's highest hills, designed so that it could be seen from almost every part of the city. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
“We are going to build a mosque over 15,000 meters square next to the broadcasting tower in Çamlıca. The planning work is nearing completion. I believe the bulldozers will begin working within two months. This giant mosque in Çamlıca was designed so as to be visible from all parts of Istanbul,” Erdoğan said late May 29, while speaking at the opening ceremony of a traditional handicrafts center in the nearby district of Kandilli.
Foundations General Director Adnan Ertem, Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu, Police Chief Hüseyin Çapkın, Üsküdar Mayor Mustafa Kara and Emine Erdoğan, the prime minister’s wife, also attended yesterday’s ceremony.
The mosque complex will also include facilities underneath the building for traditional crafts, such as “hat” (Turkish calligraphy) and gilding, Erdoğan said. “In other words, just as there used to be madrasahs next to [mosques] in the past, our architects have undertaken to design something similar in this contemporary setting.”
Turkey's on-again-off-again "Kurdish initiative" -- a democratization and reform effort introduced in 2009 that was intended to help solve the decades-old Kurdish issue -- has taken another unexpected turn with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent announcement that his government would soon allow for the teaching of Kurdish as an elective course in public schools. Up until now, the teaching of the language in public schools had been banned. Reports the Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Erdogan said Tuesday that elective Kurdish language classes could be introduced in Turkish schools “if a sufficient number of pupils gather” to request Kurdish language instruction.
“Kurdish can be taken as an elective class; it can be taught and be learned. This is a historical step. This way, our citizens with different mother tongues can develop their languages according to their needs and demand,” Mr. Erdogan said, speaking to his party’s lawmakers. He added that necessary legal framework already exists in Turkey to allow this.
Kurdish teaching has been banned so far in Turkish schools, despite the country’s millions of Kurds, some of whom only speak different Kurdish dialects. Children in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast provinces are taught in Turkish starting in first grade, whether they know Turkish or not.
Talk about changing the subject. For the last few weeks, Turkey had been consumed by a heated debate over last December's Uludere incident, in which 34 Kurdish smugglers were killed near the Iraqi border after the Turkish military mistakenly thought them to be Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants. Questions about the slow pace of the investigation into the incident, new allegations about the role that intelligence provided by American drones played in the attack, and some truly unfortunate remarks by Turkey's Interior Minister all threatened to turn the months-old incident into a major headache for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
After a Turkish military attack last December left 34 Kurds from a village called Uludere -- mistakenly thought to be Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants -- dead, Ankara hoped to put the matter to rest by paying the victims' families compensation and promising an investigation into the incident. But in recent days a raging debate over the incident and its aftermath has been reignited in Turkey.
As mentioned in a previous post, the renewed discussion about the Uludere (Roboski in Kurdish) incident was set off by a recent Wall Street Journal article, which focused on how intelligence provided by American unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's) might have factored into the attack, in which Turkish warplanes and artillery targeted a group of smugglers coming across the border from Iraq. But the response of officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to the WSJ article, which implied that the Turkish military made have not done enough to follow up on the original intelligence provided by the American drones, has only deepened the debate.
Defending the military's actions in the botched attack, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the the armed forces did what they needed to do and followed up on the American intelligence with their own drone surveillance. From the Hurriyet Daily News:
"That region is a terror region,” he told reporters accompanying him on a trip to Pakistan.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent statements that his country is united by "one religion" have caused quite a stir, drawing criticism both inside and outside Turkey. Erdogan made the comment in reference to the Kurdish issue in two recent speeches, saying what he advocates for is "one nation, one state, one flag and one religion." (A classic nationalist refrain heard in Turkey, mostly meant as a rebuke to Kurds, is that the country has "one flag, one nation, one language.")
Facing mounting criticism of Erdogan's remarks, Huseyin Celik, a deputy chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said they were a "slip of the tongue":
Çelik suggested that Erdoğan might have intended to emphasize the common religion of Islam that Turks and Kurds share, in the face of “attempts by Turkish and Kurdish chauvinists to trace their origins to Shamanism and Zoroastrianism.” The prime minister “may have meant to say that a common faith is one of the main reasons that no ethnic strife has erupted in this country despite all the efforts of Turkish and Kurdish chauvinists,” he said.
Even Erdogan, a proud politician not prone to admitting his own mistakes, said he slipped up, meaning to say "one homeland" rather than "one religion." In a column in yesterday's Today's Zaman, analyst Lale Kemal takes a look at why Erdogan's "slip of the tongue" struck such an off note:
Being a doctor in Turkey carries with it a certain amount of prestige. But, increasingly, the job is also proving to be one that comes with a high level of danger. The last month has seen a string of violent attacks against doctors and health professionals in Turkey, from the murder of a doctor by the 17-year-old relative of a patient of his who died to attacks against ambulance crews that were accused of arriving late. Things have gotten so bad that Turkish doctors went on a nationwide strike earlier this month to protest the violence they are facing, while the Health and Justice ministries have been forced to step into action and come up with a plan to protect the country's medical workers.So what's behind this upsurge in violence against doctors? Some suggest that because of a recent expansion of universal health coverage in Turkey, the country is now facing a severe shortage of doctors, resulting in poorer care and more angry patients and relatives. Some doctors, on the other hand, believe that they are the victims of government rhetoric that they say portrays them as lazy elitists. Reports the Financial Times:
If there's one thing everyone in Turkey's deeply divided political scene can agree on, it's that the country desperately needs a new constitution to replace the current one, written in 1982 by the generals who led a coup two years earlier. Although that constitution has been amended several times, it remains a woefully inadequate and undemocratic document, one that is completely out of touch with Turkey's current realities. Here's how law professors Serap Yazici and Mustafa Erdogan describe it in a 2011 report they wrote for the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV):
The 1982 Constitution was not only anti-democratic in terms of the method it was made, it also did not fit the ideal of a democratic and pluralist-liberalist society in terms of its content. Indeed, with characteristics such as its official ideology, its hierarchical model that renders the society subject to the state, its unionist-uniformist structure that sees differences and diversity illegitimate and its sacrificing freedom for authority, the 1982 Constitution is far from the standards of today’s democracies, and goes against the structure and needs of the society in Turkey.
The annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), released this week, contained some fairly bad news for Turkey. The commission, a bipartisan federal watchdog that monitors religious freedom around the world, this year put Turkey on its list of "countries of particular concern" (CPC). That puts the NATO member, European-Union aspirant and stalwart NATO ally in the company of repressive countries such as Burma, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Uzbekistan, a "who's who of dictatorships and closed societies," as one report put it. “It’s no coincidence that many of the nations we recommend to be designated as CPCs are among the most dangerous and destabilizing places on earth,” USCIRF Chair Leonard Leo said in a statement. “Nations that trample upon basic rights, including freedom of religion, provide fertile ground for poverty and insecurity, war and terror, and violent, radical movements and activities.”
Needless to say, Turkish officials were not pleased with the USCIRF's downgrade (Turkey was previously on the commission's less damning "watch list"). Reports the Washington Post:
Turkey’s ambassador in Washington decried the decision.
“Any unbiased eye will immediately realize that that’s not where Turkey belongs in the USCIRF annual report,” said Ambassador Namik Tan.
In an unexpected move, a Turkish judge today released pending trial Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik, two high-profile journalists who had been detained for over a year on charges that they were part of a plot to topple the government.
The arrest and jailing of the two respected journalists had brought Turkey's record on press freedom under increasing scrutiny. For example, Sener and Sik's surprise release -- along with two other journalists who were in jail -- came only days after the New Yorker took a look at the subject of media freedom (or the lack of it) in Turkey, first in a long article and then in a followup blog post by the story's author, Dexter Filkins. In his post, which notes that Turkey has the highest number of journalists jailed in the world, Filkins writes: "Measuring strictly in terms of imprisonments, Turkey—a longtime American ally, member of NATO, and showcase Muslim democracy—appears to be the most repressive country in the world." Clearly, this is not the way Ankara would like the world to think of Turkey. For the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has worked hard to present itself as a force for reform and democratization, the release of Sener and Sik appears to be an important step in rescuing its image.