ANKARA – Many in Washington have been debating whether Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) could be a model for the Arab Spring, as our neighbors in the Middle East aspire to get rid of totalitarian regimes and become true democracies. But the reality in Turkey makes clear that the AKP model does not hold.
On Nov. 9, I visited the Silivri prison where hundreds of journalists, publishers, military officers, academics and politicians are being held. Trials were opened in 2007 on charges that an ultranationalist underground organization had plotted for years to overthrow the government. Many of those indicted have been detained for years without trial. There has not been a single conviction to date. Justice is at stake — and, so far, has been flagrantly denied.
At work is an insidious attack on the rule of law by Turkey’s governing party. These trials could have been an occasion for Turkey to achieve a much-needed catharsis for correcting past wrongs, but they have been turned into instruments to silence the opposition and suppress freedoms.
Among those being held are eight opposition members of Parliament. Turkey’s high election board declared that these people were qualified to stand for elections, and all won seats in Parliament. That they are incarcerated violates their rights under Turkish law as elected representatives of the people.
A universal norm of the rule of law is that one is innocent until proven guilty. Another is that evidence leads to the arrest of a suspect. In today’s Turkey, however, people are treated as guilty until proven innocent. One gets arrested; then authorities gather evidence to establish an infraction. Presumed guilt is the norm. Sadly, all opponents of the government are viewed as potential terrorists or plotters against the state.
The AKP is systematic and ruthless in its persecution of any opposition to its policies. Authoritarian pressure methods such as heavy tax fines and illegal videotaping and phone tapping are widely used to silence opponents. Even more disturbing is the AKP’s claim that such things are being done in the name of democratic progress. The latest government target is the primary vestige of our democracy, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which I lead.
While at the Silivri center in November, I likened the conditions to those of a concentration camp and said that prosecutors and judges were not meting out justice and did not deserve to be called upholders of justice. This month, I learned that the prosecutor’s office had opened an inquiry into my comments, contending that I was “seeking to influence a fair trial” and “insulting public officials.” Never mind that not a day passes without some comment by government officials, such as the prime minister, on the process of law and justice. Clearly, an effort to single out the leader of the main opposition party ratchets up the pressures on freedom of expression. Meanwhile, the Constitutional Court penalized our party when we asked for the chief justice to recuse himself from particular cases. Our request was based on ill will, we were told when the $3,000 fine was levied, and the CHP was unnecessarily preoccupying the court’s time.
It all boils down to this: In today’s Turkey, when one criticizes the justice system, one is prosecuted. When one appeals to the courts, one is penalized.
But here is why I stand behind my words: I have the right and duty to be critical of all that is wrong in my country. It is my inalienable right to point to injustices and to ask for justice. If the courts are not performing their duty, one can, and should, stand up and say so. I do not ask for forgiveness. Rather, I want my own immunity as a member of Parliament to be lifted so that I can be tried in a court for all to witness the outcome. Righteousness is the ultimate immunity.
Turkey today is a country where people live in fear and are divided politically, economically and socially. Our democracy is regressing in terms of the separation of powers, basic human rights and freedoms and social development and justice. Citizens worry deeply about their future. These points are, sadly, reflected in most major international indexes, such as Human Rights Watch, which rank Turkey quite low in terms of human rights, democracy, freedoms and equality.
Our party stands for democracy, secularism, the rule of law, human rights and freedoms. We envision a progressive Turkey where citizens, regardless of their faith, ethnicity, gender or political view, are equal before the law. Building political, economic and cultural walls between people is not consistent with democracy or social justice. Only a nation at peace with itself can be a model for its neighbors. A nation plagued by multiple forms of division and polarization is doomed to failure.
Tactics such as oppression, preying on fear and restricting freedoms can help sustain a government’s rule for only so long. Never in history has a government succeeded in ruling permanently through authoritarian measures. Oppression does not endure; righteousness does. Turkey will be no exception.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu is chairman of Turkey’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition party.