Erdogan’s “New Normal” Against Turkish Political Opponents
Mariano Giustino 11 December 2023

Turkey‘s major human rights organizations, such as İnsan Hakları Derneği (İHD), claim that courts observe the rule of obedience to the President of the Republic. This appears to be the norm in the Turkish judiciary system, in the context of a regime where a single man rules.  Lately, Turkish philanthropist and human rights activist Osman Kavala, by way of his attorneys, sent out a brief statement shortly after his sentence to life imprisonment without parole was upheld. “The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold my sentence in the first degree is the product of an agreement that holds nothing but contempt for judicial principles and human life,” Kavala stated. “This decision is the most obvious indication of the fact that sentencing people without evidence has become the norm in this judiciary system.” Kavala has been held in Silivri Prison, known as the intellectuals’ prison, since November 16, 2017.

Kavala was first sentenced to life imprisonment without parole by a kangaroo court. Along with 15 other human rights activists, including some well-known attorneys, he had been charged with espionage and subversive activities against State powers. On February 18, 2020, Kavala was absolved from these charges, but he was not released because just six hours later new charges were brought against him. His acquittal had only been apparent, almost like the one described by Kafka in his novel, The Trial.  

The Turkish Appeals Court’s decision to uphold Kavala’s sentence, as well as the extremely harsh sentences of 18 years’ imprisonment of public intellectuals Can Atalay (parliamentary representaive of the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party or HEDEP), Tayfun Kahraman (academic and Chairman of the Chamber of City Planners),  Çiğdem Mater (film producer), Mine Özerden (documentary filmmaker and environmental activist), all accused of being guilty of participating  in the peaceful anti-government mass protests that took place in Gezi Park in 2013, is a “monstrous abuse of the judice system,” wrote Human Rights Watch’s Emma Sinclair-Webb on X.


The Kavala and Demirtaş Cases and the ECHR Court’s Release Sentence

The charges against Kavala are, to say the least, surreal and unsupported by the facts. He has been accused of attempting a coup during the anti-government protests that took place in Gezi Park in 2013, which went on to inspire protests across the rest of the country. According to the theory put forward by Erdoğan, the Gezi Park protests were a criminal operation intended to subvert institutional order and cause the collapse of his rule: therefore, those who organized and financed them must be punished.

The acquittal of those charged would have undermined this theory and indirectly legitimized those very same anti-government protests, which had been spontaneous, grassroots, with no ties to any party or ideology, and had involved a cross-section of the population that opposed Erdoğan’s authoritarianism.

Ankara now risks being thrown out of the European Council. Despite its membership, Turkey has not yet complied with the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR)’s ruling that Osman Kavala and Kurdish activist  Selahattin Demirtaş be released immediately.

In February 2022, the European Council began a breech proceeding against Turkey for their failure to comply with the ECHR Court’s 2019 ruling, which described the Kavala Case as politically motivated and intended to suppress any criticism from either Kavala or civil society more broadly. This breech proceeding might result in Turkey losing its right to vote at the European Council’s Parliamentary Assembly, or, indeed, no longer being a member of this important institution.

Kavala has suffered a whole sequence of maneuvers, each intended to keep him imprisoned as the foremost representative of Turkish civil society, with total contempt for fair trial standards.The fact that one of the judges and members of the Court that contributed to his sentence had run for Parliament as a member of Erdoğan’s party in 2018 is only one of many disturbing signs that the trial was politically influenced.

“Kavala’s sentence came from the Palace, not from judges, no less from a court, because those judges were acting on behalf of the Turkish President, not in the name of law and justice,” said Garo Paylan, former HEDEP parliamentarian.


Their Stories

Kavala is guilty of having rebelled against the country’s intense institutional oppression from the very start, while also working with them, managing a number of businesses and donating most of the proceeds to worthy causes. He is an ardent champion of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, and he has dedicated much of his philanthropic work to upholding minorities’ rights and resolving the Kurdish question. Indeed, his philanthropy touched a vast range of projects, including ones meant to benefit Christian, Alevi, and Kurdish communities, as well as the environment.

In 2015-16, both Kavala and Demirtaş opposed the constitutional reform project that was then approved by a referendum in April 2017. This project marked the shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system where executive powers are almost entirely in the hands of a single man.  Kavala and Demirtaş understood the grave danger this posed for the country, which was tumbling toward autocracy. They both stated they would prevent the President from enacting this reform, and Erdoğan never forgave them. Kavala may be seen as a scapegoat, someone used as an example, a warning meant to intimidate anyone opposing Erdoğan’s rule.


The Oppression of Mayors

Meanwhile, the mayor of İzmir, Tunç Soyer, also risks falling victim to Erdoğan’s machinations, in this case the President’s intention to conquer each of the country’s major cities in view of the local elections of March 2024. The Interior Ministry opened an investigation against Mayor Soyer for “insulting the Ottoman Empire and Sultan Vahdettin.” Mehmed Vahdettin, also known as Mehmet VI, was the last of the Ottoman emperors, forced to flee aboard a British warship after the collapse of his rule. He is a very important figure for Erdoğan: so much so that, on October 29, as part of the celebrations for the centenary of the Republic,  Erdoğan saluted the Turkish navy, made up of 100 ships, from the Vahdettin Palace, and not from the seemingly more appropriate Dolmabahçe Palace, where Atatürk once resided.

According to the Kemalist newspaper Sözcü, the Interior Ministry nominated two inspectors to investigate the speech Mayor Soyer gave on the day celebrating Izmir’s liberation from Greek occupation, which took place on September 9, 1922. Soyer reportedly criticized the Ottoman State and its administrators, therefore committing the crime of “insulting the Sultan’s memory and inciting hatred and hostility.” The inspectors’ task is to examine recordings of this speech, in which Soyer quotes the following words from Atatürk: “Those who governed these lands were neglectful, deceitful and treacherous. They never thought of women, children, or the future. They threw a whole nation into the fire just to preserve their own power. They trampled on human dignity.”

Erdoğan intends to bring about a “quiet revolution” through which the founding values of the secular Republic will be replaced with values he calls “local and national”, “Turkish and Islamic”, thus creating a “new Turkey,” as he is fond of calling it. For this to happen, he needs to take over the country’s three major cities: Istanbul, the country’s cultural and economic capital, and the heart of political Islam; Ankara, the capital; and the Pearl of the Aegean, secular İzmir, Turkey’s most European city. Since 2019, Istanbul and Ankara have been administered by the largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded by  Atatürk himself.


The Imprisonment of Can Atalay and the Clash Within the Turkish Judiciary

Lately, a clash has taken place within the Turkish judiciary, beginning with the weakest link among the country’s institutions, the Constitutional Court. Tensions have been growing within the Turkish administration and the President’s own Justice and Development Party (AKP): one side wants the Presidency to control the Constitutional Court, while the other wants it to remain independent.

Moreover, the Turkish Justice System has suffered another harsh, unprecedented blow. Last month, the Court of Cassation failed to uphold the Constitutional Court’s ruling that the imprisonment of opposition deputy Can Atalay, elected to parliament in May, constitutes a violation of his rights.

The Court of Cassation not only ordered the lower courts to ignore the ruling, but also filed criminal complaints against nine of the Constitutional Court’s judges. A new low has been reached: lower courts rejecting Constitional Court rulings that displease those in power.

Erdoğan has often stated his intention to write a new Constitution in order to replace Atatürk’s secular vision of the country. This new Constitution may no longer refer to the ECHR, inserted into Article 90 during the pro-European agenda of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and eventually abandoned in 2016. AKP representatives have suggested the creation of a local justice system, with a national judiciary opposing Western influences and their alleged “neolibreal conception of the judiciary.”


A Divided Opposition and the Arrest of Imamoglu

The Turkish opposition rebels against the destruction of the country’s justice system, but it is divided. Still reeling from its electoral defeat, and torn apart by internal power struggles, it can no longer identify common ground on which to build a broad alliance with which to oppose Erdoğan in view of the crucial local elections of March 2024.

The conservative opposition party, the İYİ Parti (the Good Party), led by Meral Akşener, refuses to re-establish its former electoral alliance with the largest opposition party, the CHP. The İYİ Parti intends to present its own candidates at the 2024 elections. The third major opposition party, pro-Kurdish HEDEP, plans to do the same. If these plans do not change, the opposition parties risk heavy defeat, and the loss of the major cities that were gained at the elections in 2019.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan is attempting to eliminate his most dangerous electoral competitors. The President has often used the judiciary to rid himself of his most insidious adversaries: for example, in the case of Kurdish leader Demirtaş, and that of Ekrem İmamoğlu, currently the Mayor of Istanbul. The polls say that İmamoğlu is significantly ahead of Erdoğan, but he was unable to run in the presidential elections of May last year due to a first-degree sentence of 2 years and 7 months, and also because he was banned from public office allegedly for insulting the judges of the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK). İmamoğlu has also been charged with hiring 1,668 people with suspected ties to 8 different terrorist organizatios, including the Kurdish Independence Party the PKK and other ill-defined extremist groups.

The President believes he has a historic mission to accomplish: the enactment of a “new official ideology.” According to said ideology, the country’s modernization and secularization over the last 200 years (with the exception of the rule of Abdülhamid II) has constituted a historic betrayal of Turkey’s Muslim identity. The President’s new Constitution would “correct history’s wrongs’’ and forever consign Atatürk’s secular Republic to oblivion.

The criminalization of all oppositions, accused of threatening national security, is therefore not only an electoral strategy meant to reinforce Erdoğan’s power: it is also a cornerstone of this new official ideology. Since the “national interest” depends on this “historic mission,” there cannot be any room for opposition. This is the “new normal” in Turkey, 100 years after its founding.



Cover photo: from left to right, the former political prisoners in Turkey Deniz Yücel, Zehra Dogan, Can Dündar, Asli Erdogan, and Peter Steudtner stand in front of the Federal Chancellery and in front of a replica of a cell. They are demanding the release of other human rights activists who can be seen on the posters, including Osman Kavala. The sentences of three other activists portrayed here were overturned: Hakan Altınay, Yiğit Ali Ekmekçi and Mücella Yapıcı. (Photo by Annette Riedl / DPA / dpa Picture-Alliance via AFP.)

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