Official documents obtained by Nordic Monitor revealed that a Turkish court treated the call of 74 US senators for the addressing of human rights violations in Turkey as support for terrorism and evidence against an outspoken critic of the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In March 2015 the US senators sent a letter to then-Secretary of State John Kerry to express concern over what they called “an affront to the basic principles of democracy, free society, free enterprise, rule of law and equal opportunity,” urging him to speak out against violations of press freedom in a Turkey.
However, Turkish prosecutor Serdar Coşkun considered the letter from the US senators to the secretary of state to be criminal evidence against US-based Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, an outspoken critic of radical Islamist groups and a vocal opponent of President Erdoğan.
The letter was co-signed by US Senators Charles E. Schumer and Roger Wicker and endorsed by 72 other senators.
According to the documents, the Ankara 4th High Criminal Court accepted the prosecutor’s indictment that accused the US lawmakers of putting further pressure on Turkey on behalf of people and institutions affiliated with the Gülen movement, which is considered a terrorist organization by Erdoğan.
The document included in the indictment that lists the senators’ letter as evidence of terrorism:US_Senate_letter_indictment
Nordic Monitor previously reported how President Erdoğan used his stranglehold on power to restructure the Turkish judiciary and justice system and change its direction from European standards. Coşkun’s indictment exposed that Turkey under the Erdoğan government has been systematically distancing itself from the rule of law and universal principles.
The indictment, under file No. 2016/24769, incorporated the letter as if it were criminal evidence against the movement, which is a strong advocate of multiculturalism, education and interfaith dialogue and develops projects to fight Islamist extremism and radicalism. The court, overseen by presiding judge Selfet Giray and member judges Salih Ay and Erhan Karakaya, did not bother questioning the inclusion of the US senators’ letter and in fact repeated the same argument in its decision rendered on June 8, 2018. The reasoned decision was issued in January 2019.
The indictment accused 75 people of terrorism based on dubious evidence because of their affiliation with the Gülen movement. Only four people — former lawmaker and journalist İlhan İşbilen, journalist and TV network general manager Hidayet Karaca, Gülen’s cousin Kazim Avcı and media owner Alaeddin Kaya — were convicted and sentenced to aggravated life by the Ankara 4th High Criminal Court. The rest of the defendants live outside Turkey and did not stand trial. None of the defendants had any criminal record, and they were all the subjects of prosecution because of their affiliation with the Gülen movement.
In the 2015 letter the 74 US senators said, “We write to express our deep concern about the persistence of human rights violations in Turkey.” The letter noted that the senators were particularly concerned by the arrest and detention of members of the Turkish media and the broad effort by the Erdoğan government “to censor the freedom of press.” The lawmakers said a strong democracy requires that all members of society respect freedom of expression, even when voices opposed to the government are vocal. “We hope that you will address this issue as you engage with the Turkish government,” the letter said in urging Kerry to take action.
The letter drafted by the senators cited a report from the world’s leading rights advocate, Human Rights Watch, saying that the brief arrest of the Zaman daily’s editor-in-chief, Ekrem Dumanlı, in December 2014 and the arrest of Hidayet Karaca, CEO of the Samanyolu Media Group, had attracted international attention. Moreover, the letter referred to allegations of corruption that were leveled against ex-ministers, pro-government businessmen and even Erdoğan’s son in 2013.
Following the unprecedented letter from the 74 US senators, the Erdoğan government claimed that those US politicians had sold out to the Gülen movement, with a chorus of pro-government media running headlines on their front pages accusing the senators of being enemies of Turkey and the movement of cooperating with “Zionists” and the “Jewish lobby.” The flagship of the pro-government media, Sabah, which is managed by Serhat Albayrak, the brother of President Erdoğan’s son-in-law, said Senators Bob Menendez, Chuck Schumer and Roger Wicker were “enemies of Turkey” who, along with the other 71, were conducting a black propaganda campaign against Turkey.
The letter came weeks after 89 members of the US Congress also asked Kerry to raise his voice more loudly to support Turkey’s media freedom. In the letter, dated February 2, 2015, they stated that “this decision by the Turkish government to intimidate, arrest, and smother voices opposed to the government is a threat to the very democratic principles that Turkey claims to hold dear.” According to the members of Congress, the charges faced by Dumanlı and Karaca were “questionable.” The pro-government media claimed that the US lawmakers had been bribed. The congressmen publicly rejected those claims and Erdoğan’s “disrespectful” remarks at the time.
Pressure on journalists and the crackdown on Erdoğan critics throughout the country had intensified in the aftermath of a corruption scandal in December 2013 that incriminated Erdoğan, his family members and his business and political associates. Immediately after the corruption investigation, Erdoğan accused the police officers, judges and prosecutors involved in the case of mounting a coup against his government and claimed they were linked to the Gülen movement, which he branded a “parallel state.”
The overwhelming evidence in the case in the form of wiretaps, surveillance records, bank records and other documentary evidence showed the investigators and prosecutors simply did their job and followed the leads in a criminal investigation to uncover a major graft network. Some of the original evidence was also submitted in a federal case in New York where Iranian sanctions buster Reza Zarrab, who had bribed Erdoğan’s cabinet members, testified against the manager of a Turkish-government-owned bank and revealed the graft scheme he ran with the help of state-lender Halkbank officials. The bank’s then-deputy general manager, Hakan Atilla, was tried, convicted and sentenced to 32 months in federal prison.
The Erdoğan government has seized major news outlets, transforming them overnight from fierce critics into docile supporters of the government line. Dumanlı and Karaca were the first victims of Erdoğan’s press crackdown, and the raids on media outlets including Zaman and Samanyolu in 2014 and the Koza İpek Media Group in 2015, have emerged as a turning point in Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule. In early March 2016 a Turkish court approved the state seizure of Feza Media, which includes the Zaman daily, once Turkey’s most widely circulated newspaper and at the time one of the few remaining critical news outlets.
The crackdown on critics and purge of government officials that were initiated in the aftermath of the December 2013 corruption probes gained speed after a failed coup bid in July 2016 that gave Erdoğan a pretext to pursue a mass purge with no administrative or judicial probes. The government has rounded up over half a million volunteers of the Gülen movement since 2016, mainly on coup, terrorism and defamation charges. The witch-hunt aimed to suppress civil society, silence critical voices and stifle the right to dissent, while Erdoğan continued to transform Turkish democracy into a dictatorship.
In May 2016 Erdogan’s Turkey designated the movement as a terrorist entity without any evidence that Gülen or people affiliated with the movement committed any terrorist acts. Then, the coup attempt was carried out as a false flag in order to create a pretext for the ensuing crackdown. Interestingly, Erdoğan called the failed coup “a gift from God.”
The UN and its agencies do not consider the Gülen movement a terrorist organization, and UN mechanisms have time and again ruled against Turkey by declaring that movement members were targeted, prosecuted and tortured in clear violation of Turkey’s commitments and obligations under UN conventions. The US, Canada and European countries have also rejected the Erdoğan government’s efforts to brand the civic group as a terrorist entity and denied extradition requests based on fabricated criminal charges.