For months now, Turkish officials had been promising they would soon unveil a significant new democratization package, building it up with the kind of hype reserved for Hollywood summer blockbusters. The package, meant to move Turkey further down the democratic road and restore the ruling Justice and Development Party's reformist image after the summer's bruising Gezi Park events, was finally released yesterday, though -- at first blush -- it appears to have failed to live up to the hype, as if it had been cobbled together from outtakes and recycled footage.
The early reviews of the government's package, presented in Ankara by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, certainly have been mostly neutral to negative. "Package proves disappointing for non-Muslim communities" and "Turkey's Alevis disheartened by democratization package" were two headlines found on the Today's Zaman website yesterday. Kurdish leaders, meanwhile, also expressed disappointment with proposed reforms. "This is not a democratization package but an election package,” said Gultan Kisanak, one of the leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy party.
After a lengthy five-year trial, a Turkish court today delivered its verdict in the now notorious “Ergenekon” case, in which several hundred were accused of taking part in a plot to overthrow the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But while the court may have made its decision, the case leaves behind many unanswered questions about the fairness of the trial and the sentences handed down, as well as about whether the proceedings were able to succeed in fulfilling one of the original promises of the Ergenekon case: to shed light on some of the dark chapters of Turkey’s recent history.
At the heart of the trial was the discovery in 2007 of a stash of hand grenades found hidden in the home of a retired military officer in Istanbul’s Umraniye neighborhood. From there, Ergenekon grew into a sprawling and sometimes bizarre case that involved 275 defendants, many of them pillars of Turkey’s secular establishment, and 23 different indictments, each more complex than the other. What kept it all together was the state’s contention that there existed a widespread ultranationalist plot to bring the government down, through a combination of destabilizing violent attacks, the spreading of anti-government propaganda and other means (one indictment suggested investigators had found evidence that some of the defendants had drawn up plans to manufacture and sell chemical and biological weapons, using the proceeds to bankroll their other activities).
Turkish classical musician Fazil Say is best known for his piano work, but it's the actions he took using a computer keyboard that have thrust him into the limelight in an unexpected -- and disturbing -- way.
Yesterday, Say -- who has received rave reviews for his playing and has performed in concert halls around the world -- was given by an Istanbul court a suspended 10-month prison sentence for insulting Islam and offending Muslims -- in Twitter posts. Although he was spared the indignity of being sent to jail, Say could find himself locked up if he is convicted of similar offenses during the next five years.
The offending tweets? In one, Say forwarded an excerpt from an 11-th century poem written by the famed Omar Khayyam. “You say that the rivers flow with wine, is heaven a tavern? You say that you will give every believer two very beautiful women, is heaven a brothel?” the poem says. In another tweet, the pianist -- a self-declared atheist -- suggests the rapid call to prayer he heard coming from a nearby Istanbul mosque might have been given by a muezzin eager to get his work done and head out for a drink.
Looking at the case in a piece for the Al-Monitor website, Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a well-known civil rights lawyer in Turkey, suggests Say's conviction is part of a disturbing trend in Turkey regarding the prosecution of those deemed to have insulted religion or Islam. From Cengiz's article:
Human Rights Watch has just released its annual World Report and its chapter on Turkey contains some very strong criticism of Ankara's efforts at human rights reform. “Despite some moves for reform, the efforts have been patchy, incomplete, and the new human rights mechanisms are under government control and lack independence,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, HRW's senior researcher in Turkey. “If the government is serious about its latest moves to address the Kurdish issue in Turkey, freeing the thousands of detained peaceful Kurdish political activists, journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, and students would be a good first step,” she said. “Turkey needs to make human rights a priority in its approach to all of its citizens.”
In Turkey, the cross-party work on a new constitution during 2012 was a positive development, Human Rights Watch said. But tight government control of appointments to the national human rights institution created in March and the ombudsman office established in June undermined confidence in potentially important oversight mechanisms. There are serious concerns about how independent or effective either institution will be in practice.
Turkey’s restrictions on freedom of expression are evident both in its laws and in the pattern of prosecutions and convictions under these laws, Human Rights Watch said. Judicial reform packages passed by the parliament, most recently in June, suspended prosecutions and convictions for some speech offenses, amended penalties for various terrorism laws, and attempted to curb excessive detention on remand, but have not yet had a significant impact. Politicians’ intolerance of dissenting voices – extending as far as criticizing television soap operas – and their willingness to sue for defamation perpetuates a chilling climate for free speech.
Although it's still quite early to know which way Turkey's new peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) will go, this week saw some very encouraging signs coming out of Ankara.
Late Thursday, the Turkish parliament passed legislation that will allow defendants to use Kurdish in court, a long-standing demand put forward by Kurdish activists and politicians. Up until now, Turkish courts have regularly refused to allow Kurdish defendants to use the language during proceedings.
Also yesterday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reshuffled his cabinet, most significantly replacing the hawkish Interior Minister Naim Sahin with Muammer Guler, a former governor of Istanbul who originally hails from southeast Turkey. Sahin, an old school nationalist, had managed to enrage Kurds on numerous occasions, especially in the wake of the 2011 Uludere incident, in which 34 Kurdish villagers were killed in an errant military operation. At the time, Sahin dismissed the killed villagers as "extras" in a PKK operation and said there was no need for Turkey to apologize for the incident.
It's generally accepted that a strong separation of powers between the various branches of government is the bedrock of a functioning democracy. But recent comments made by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, indicating that he believes Turkey's current separation of powers is hindering the country's progress, has left some observers concerned the PM might have a different understanding of how a democracy works.
During a speech made earlier this week in the city of Konya, Erdogan complained of obstacles that had been put in front of his government's efforts to introduce "further services" to the Turkish public. “You know this thing they call the division of powers; this turns up in front of you as an obstruction. The legislature, executive and judiciary in his country must consider the benefit of the nation first and then the benefit of the state,” the PM told his audience.
On Turkish television, these are dangerous times to be a historical figure or a cartoon character. In recent weeks, Turkey's state television regulatory body has accused The Simpsons of blasphemy, while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested prosecutors take a look at a hit soap opera loosely based on the life of sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, accusing the show of denigrating the country's Ottoman past.
In the case of The Simpsons, the Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTUK) fined private broadcaster CNBC-e $30,000 for showing in September an episode of the long-running animated series that the agency determined was "making fun of God." Writing in The Telegraph, Justin Vela reports:
The episode in question was the Halloween special 'Treehouse of Horrors XXII,' that originally aired in the US in October last year. In one segment of the episode, titled "Dial D for Diddly", the religiously-devout character Ned Flanders goes on a killing rampage after being given orders by what he thinks is the voice of God. Later in the episode, the Devil demands God bring him a cup of coffee. "Yes sir," God responds, revealing it is actually the Devil that runs the world.
RTUK stated that the episode shows "one of the characters is abusing another one's religious beliefs to make him commit murders.
The Bible is publicly burned in one scene and God and the Devil are shown in human bodies."
RTUK also said that God serving the Devil coffee can be considered an insult to religious beliefs.
Under the guidance of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey completely abolished the death penalty in 2004, one of several reforms enacted with an eye towards meeting the criteria required for joining the European Union. So what to make of the suggestions made recently by the AKP's leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that Turkey should consider reintroducing capital punishment?
First, the background. Erdogan got the debate going earlier this month when he told an annual gathering of AKP members that, in response to recent upsurge in attacks against Turkish forces by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), public opinion now supports reintroducing the death penalty. Soon after, Erdogan told a crowd in Ankara, "In the face of deaths, murders, if necessary the death penalty should be brought back to the table (for discussion)." While Turkey's Minister of Justice has said that there are no plans to bring the death penalty back, the fact that Erdogan -- Turkey's most powerful politician -- has brought up the issue, was enough to raise concern among many Turks and some European politicians.
Like so many other recent political and judicial moves in Turkey, the final verdict that was handed down the other day in the "Sledgehammer" case -- in which more than 300 active and retired military officers, among them some generals, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on charges of plotting to overthrow the government -- offers little resolution, only further deepening the political divide in the country.
To be sure, the 21-month case and the sentencing of the officers were history-making, the first time that members of Turkey's previously untouchable military found themselves on trial and then convicted for planning to do the kind of thing that their predecessors had done four times in the past. Needless to say, the final verdict makes it clear that the power equation in Turkey has changed for good and that the powerful military has been neutered as a political force. The military's rather tame response to the verdict, saying that it "shares the sorrow" of those were convicted and their family members, is a far cry from the more muscular kind of pronouncements the Turkish generals used to make when they weren't happy with things.
One of the darkest legacies of the Turkish state's fight against the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the 1990's is the large number of enforced disappearances that took place in the predominantly-Kurdish southeast region. Human rights workers in the region working on the issue believe some 1,000 people were disappeared by suspected state actors during that time.
Until relatively recently, families of the Kurdish disappeared had little hope for finding answers to what happened to their relatives and little reason to believe justice would somehow be served in these cases. In the last few years, though, have given some hope that things might be changing, with victims' families, lawyers and civil society organizations in the southeast starting to push more openly for investigations into the fate of the disappeared and with the government showing some willingness to take a look at the dirty deeds that were committed in its name.
In a new report, Human Rights Watch takes a look at this issue by focusing on one of the first instances in which a Turkish military official was put on trial for suspected crimes committed during the 1990's, including the disappearance of several men. From HRW's report:
There were positive indications of change in 2009, however, when a remarkable trial began in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır of a gendarmerie officer, retired colonel Cemal Temizöz, three former PKK members turned informers, and three members of the “village guard” (local paramilitary forces armed and directed by the gendarmerie). The prosecution accused the defendants of working as a criminal gang involved in the killing and disappearance of twenty people in and around the Cizre district of Şırnak province between 1993 and 1995.