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Is Turkey celebrating centenary under ‘stroke’?

October 29, 2023, represents 100 years since the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey by the Grand National Assembly. A century is just like a drop of water in the history ocean of nations and our multi-millennia-year-old planet. It is said that history repeats itself. Indeed it does; but a closer scrutiny of related events and reigning circumstances reveals that it is not always in the same way. And this is what really makes the difference. Thus in 1923, the occasion was on the 302nd day of the Gregorian calendar, 63 days to the end of that year. One hundred years later, everything reads the same except the day of the week. Monday was it then. This time round it is a Sunday. On a critical light note, does this year’s centenary Sunday reflect a day before or six days after the 1923 Monday? That is question.

By tradition, for 35 hours running, more than 85 million Turkish people (according to 24 October 2023, Worldometer elaboration of the latest United Nations data) starting from 1:00 pm on 28th October, will be celebrating their national day. But what sort of day? This is where those who have read James Bond (007) secret service novel series by Ian Lancaster Fleming have an extra experience delight from the coincidence perspective. October 29 of every year is also the World Stroke Day.  Could there or this be a symbolic coincidence to the effect that Turkey is actually marking the republic centenary under stroke?

A coincidence is a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection. From the medical point of view, the World Stroke Day is to raise public awareness of stroke prevention, detection, and treatment. It seeks to educate the masses about the cause of this second leading cause of death globally. It further highlights the importance of timely intervention, access to appropriate healthcare services and the role that individuals and institutions can play in recognizing stroke symptoms and taking preventive measures.

Doesn’t this apply to social, political, educational, governance, ethical, faith and religious aspects of the Turkish people, a hundred years down the republic line?  Consider the following perceptions pertaining to centenarian Republic of Turkey, land of the father of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and renowned people like Beduizzaman Said Nursi and Islamic scholar-cum-theologian Fethullah Gülen. While Nursi held that a nation’s ruler is a public servant obliged to serve the people rather than practice domination and despotism, Gulen, has had a lot to do with moral values. Where does one find the trace of Nursi’s great life characterized by dedication, pious efforts and selflessness in the lives of most current leaders? What has happened to Gulen’s advocacy for access to universal education, tolerance and peace?

Instead, within one month to the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey celebrations, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) Grand Chamber made a decision pointing to a serious violation of rights by deliberately equating non-criminal acts, which were not crimes according to the interpretations of national courts, with knowingly and willingly joining an armed terrorist organization. Centenarian Turkish legal system stands accused of being filled with uncertainties, arbitrariness and systematic obstruction of the right to a fair trial which seriously tarnishes the integrity of its judicial system and exposes the country to a clear accusation of failing to uphold the most basic principles of justice.

The court also reveals attack on the freedom of association protected under the Convention through the Turkish government suppression of dissent, and its classification of the freedom of association as a terrorist offense thus obliterating the right to freely assemble and engage in peaceful and legitimate activities with like-minded individuals, which forms the foundation of democratic societies.

The ECtHR decision clearly indicates that the results of this violation go beyond the directly affected individuals, deeply undermining the right to participate in civil life without unwarranted interference, translating into about 8,500 applications involving similar complaints and more than 100,000 cases with similar allegations being heard in Turkey. All in all, according to the court’s findings and records obtainable from the Ministry of Justice, it can be said that there is a systematic and serious problem affecting more than 1,000,000 individuals with a multiplier effect when considering family and household dimensions.

Turkey practically threw the ECtHR’s decision out of the window as Justice Minister Yılmaz Tunç called it “inadmissible” and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Parliament it was “the last straw … and impossible for us to respect the decisions of institutions aligned with terrorist organizations just like us.” This has two serious implications, the more important of which is a government that is not ready to be held accountable for its deeds.

With due respect, many issues stick their neck out. The Kurds question turns out as the right-marker. When the Republic of Turkey was founded on October 29, 1923, after a war of independence against the Allied occupiers who had crushed the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a general in the defeated Ottoman army, rode on ideas of French elites. A nation-building process took place making life difficult for ethnic minorities, prompting the majority among them, the Kurds (20% of the population), to rebel. The effect has been an armed insurrection since 1984 and which has claimed more than 40,000 lives and outlawing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is taken as a terrorist organization.

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One hundred years on, the Turkish government has failed to resolve this question – the reason for which former president Abdullah Gül said has assumed the level of a regional problem that is open to manipulation by international powers. If the Kurds had been granted more extensive democratic and fundamental rights and freedoms, Gul is convinced, Kurdish citizens’ loyalty and feeling of belonging would have been strengthened and the story would be reading differently. Why doesn’t Erdogan see it this way?  

The second is the Gulen issue. Why, why, has the Turkish government been arresting, prosecuting and persecuting members and perceived members of the Gulen movement? The number of Kurds being ill-treated by the Erdogan regime is roughly known. But how about those of the Gulen movement?

I put the second question to one of the victims living in exile and this is what I got: “A really difficult question. There are Turks, Kurds and all other ethnicities in the movement. I don’t think (there is) any person in Turkey who did not read the newspaper Zaman (1 million circulation, once from 5 million); did not go to centers of the movement; did not go to coaching centers, schools and universities they run; did not read magazines Sizinti (750,000 circulation) and Fountain Aksiyon (75,000 most circulated magazine). In short, there is no person who did not drink at least their tea. Maybe we will understand the figure from the number of people who were accused and had cases opened against them. That’s roughly 600,000…”

As if the ECtHR decision was not enough to tell the story, just four days to the centenary celebrations, Turkey’s Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya, announced the detention of 611 individuals across the country. This was part of a broader investigation into alleged connections with the Gulen movement. Yerlikaya said these detentions were carried out under the coordination of the General Directorate of Security, with support from the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIOT). Bases for the current detention orders concerned allegations linked with the current and financial structure of the Gulen movement.

Grounds of which they were operated include attempts to flee the country, using the controversial messaging app Bylock, being mentioned in Bylock related content, opening student residence, and providing financial support to families of jailed people and convicts.” All these have been denied by the ECtHR in its latest decision as constituting basis for criminal charges and fueling concerns about the erosion of civil liberties in Turkey.

That is what the Republic of Turkey centenary celebrations are all about – including what a pro-government outlet promoted and marketed under the “Pence Operation” banner targeting the Gulen movement. As the recent ECtHR Grand Chamber decision clearly put it, the human rights crisis in Turkey is reaching a critical juncture, raising serious concerns about  upholding international law and protecting human rights. There is nothing short of a country marking its national anniversary under social, economic, political, faith, religious and ethical stroke condition, ridiculing, among others, membership of the Council of Europe and the United Nations.

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Felix Kaiza is a Tanzanian journalist with more than 50 years of experience currently working as an independent media consultant. Learned in agriculture, journalism, political science and international relations, his main fields of consultancy, besides the media, are good governance, nature conservation, tourism and investment. He was the first Tanzanian Chief Sub-Editor of an English daily newspaper in 1970, he has been behind the establishment and growth of the national independent media since the early 1990s. He is UNFAO Fellow Journalist since 1975 and has wide experience on regional integration. He worked on the Information Directorate of the original East African Community on whose ashes survive the current one. His ambition is to brand Tanzania in the inbound market with made-in-Tanzania brands, including information, almost all of which is currently foreign brewed.

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