Sunday, 14 Apr 2024

Erdogan Champions Khashoggi While Trampling Turkish Journalists and Dissidents

ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has kept the case of Jamal Khashoggi alive through a steady drip of leaks, forcing the Saudis to admit that the columnist and dissident was killed more than a month ago in their consulate in Istanbul.

But for Mr. Erdogan, the case has always been broader than journalistic freedom or human rights abuses. And, in fact, Mr. Erdogan’s use of the case in the name of justice has left many deeply conflicted in Turkey, a country where tens of thousands of citizens have been caught up in a government crackdown since a coup attempt in 2016.

The tactics Mr. Erdogan has used against the Saudis are much the same ones he has perfected against political enemies at home — leaks planted by government sources and reported by friendly news outlets, which he then cites to destroy his opponents.

That approach has become a staple of the president’s arsenal to spread intimidation and to crack down on dissent. He has been able to employ it so effectively, including against the Saudis, partly because of a compliant news media that he has fashioned over 16 years in power.

But the same pro-government media outlets that have been a useful tool in the Khashoggi case have also published virulent content against many of those detained under the state of emergency. They include a well-known philanthropist and civil society activist, Osman Kavala, whom Mr. Erdogan described as “the Soros ofTurkey,” referring to the vilified billionnaire George Soros.

Recently, finally despairing of Turkey’s judicial process, Mr. Kavala issued a public statement through his lawyers for the first time since his detention in October last year. He has spent a year in solitary confinement at a maximum-security prison without trial.

“I just hope that my situation will contribute to understanding of the harm caused to the citizens and to the judiciary of the Republic of Turkey by this ill-fated custodial regime,” he wrote.

Like Mr. Kavala, more than 100,000 people have been imprisoned during the two-year state of emergency, including academics, lawyers, journalists and opposition politicians who had no obvious link to the coup attempt.

About 50,000 people remain imprisoned two and a half years after the coup, according to figures published by Amnesty International. An additional 100,000 have been purged from their public-sector jobs.

The human rights landscape in Turkey is “desolate,” Amnesty said recently, “one characterized by mass detentions, prosecutions, intimidation and the silencing of independent civil society.”

That is especially so for journalists. Amnesty reported that 180 news outlets had been closed down since 2016, and 120 journalists detained.

“Turkey remains the world’s worst jailer for the second consecutive year, with 73 journalists behind bars, compared with 81 last year,” the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote in its annual report in December. “Dozens more still face trial, and fresh arrests take place regularly.”

International press freedom organizations used the Khashoggi case to highlight their concerns. “Gruesome nature of #Khashoggi murder should not distract from #Turkey’s own persecution of journalists,” the Vienna-based International Press Institute posted on Twitter.

But within Turkey, many remain fearful of voicing any criticism of Mr. Erdogan publicly, especially journalists, for whom his trumpeting of the Khashoggi case has presented a special quandary.

None of the Turkish journalists’ unions issued statements of support when Mr. Khashoggi disappeared, and they are notably absent from the vigils held outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

“There was no political agenda in not making a statement,” said Mustafa Kuleli, general secretary of the Journalists Union of Turkey. “Journalist organizations in Turkey are trying to cope with colossal problems with very few professionals: thousands of trials against members, news organizations shut down, unemployment, poor working conditions.”

“We are every day in the courts supporting journalists,” he added. “I understand why time could not be devoted to the Khashoggi case.”

Many of the journalists are ethnic Kurds and leftists accused of supporting outlawed organizations or the movement of an Islamist preacher, Fethullah Gulen, who is suspected of having instigated the coup attempt.

Mr. Erdogan has branded them as terrorists, including a German-Turkish correspondent of Die Welt and board members of, Cumhurriyet, one of Turkey’s oldest and most prestigious newspapers.

Yasin Aktay, an adviser to Mr. Erdogan and a close friend of Mr. Khashoggi’s, made a separation between the imprisonment of Turkish journalists and the killing of the Saudi dissident commentator, who wrote for The Washington Post. Many of the journalists in Turkish jails were tied ideologically or were used by terrorist groups, in particular the pro-Kurdish journalists, he said.

“These radical ideas are being sponsored,” he said. “It is not because they believe, but because they are tools.”

Mr. Kavala’s case is one of the most emblematic illustrations of the increasing authoritarianism of Mr. Erdogan’s government. He has been held on preliminary charges of having links to the instigators of the coup attempt and of using force to overthrow the government by supporting the Taksim Square protests of 2013 — charges he denies. A year after his detention, he still has not been indicted.

A wealthy businessman who ran arts and cultural initiatives for minorities in Turkey, often in partnership with European organizations, Mr. Kavala set out to fight his case through the judicial process.

“With each passing day, people who accuse me of attempting to abolish the constitutional order and the government come to realize more and more that I have nothing to do with these accusations,” Mr. Kavala wrote.

His lawyers said that after a year of trying to fight his case within the parameters of the law, they were compelled to publicize what they called the injustice of the process and the flagrant violations of Mr. Kavala’s constitutional rights.

His arrest on charges of overthrowing the state and the constitutional order through force were completely without evidence, one of his lawyers, Ilkan Koyuncu, said.

“Before anything else, he is a man of dialogue, a man of reconciliation, a man of consensus,” the lawyer said. “In any period of his life, he was not a man to be associated with coercion and violence.”

Three lawyers described a litany of legal violations, including duress used in interrogation and the failure to bring Mr. Kavala before the appropriate criminal judge. They said they had filed 20 petitions in complaint.

Mr. Kavala’s detention without trial amounts to arbitrary detention, Mr. Koyuncu said.

For many, the detention appeared to be a warning to others across civil society. In his drive for almost sultan-like powers in a new presidential system formed this summer, Mr. Erdogan has frequently lashed out at liberals, leftists and anyone with a connection to the West.

Mr. Erdogan has treated those detained as personal enemies. When Mr. Kavala was detained, the president denounced him in an address to his parliamentary group — the same before which he recently spoke on the Khashoggi case.

There, he gave credence to newspapers’ smears that Mr. Kavala had funded the Taksim Square protests and had other nefarious ties hostile to Turkey.

“Some say he is civil society; he is a nice person, a good citizen,” Mr. Erdogan said of Mr. Kavala. “When you look, the same person is behind the Taksim events. You see them in the allocation of considerable funds to certain places. All the connections are revealed one by one.”

He ended with his signature nationalist jibe: “As a nation, we will not bow down and we will ask them to pay for it.”

Follow Carlotta Gall on Twitter: @carlottagall.

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