[OPINION] Erdoğan helps neo-nationalists drive anti-American campaign in Turkey

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Abdullah Bozkurt

One of the two main drivers of anti-American sentiment among youths in Turkey is the relentless campaign by a militant neo-nationalist group led by Doğu Perinçek, a former foe who turned into an ally of embattled Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the aftermath of massive graft probes into government officials. While Islamists in the government love fanning and fueling anti-US resentment in general, Perinçek’s thugs, who are well-connected in the intelligence, judiciary and other government agencies, develop special projects catering to youth groups that were set up across the country and help militants evade punishment when they run into trouble with the law.

Although the Turkish Youth Union (Türkiye Gençlik Birliği in Turkish, or TGB) and the Young Pioneers (Öncü Gençlik, or ÖG) youth groups attached to Perinçek’s neo-nationalist Homeland (Vatan) Party stand out from the crowd, there are other structures, some cell-based and others ostensibly independent networks, that work alongside the TGB and ÖG in indoctrinating Turkey’s youth with xenophobic, conspiracy-laden ideologies. The fallout from the hateful narrative often resulted in violent acts that threatened the safety and security of NATO troops deployed in Turkey as part of joint alliance cooperation.

Perinçek, an obscure politician with deep connections to the notorious Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT), and his cronies have not only encouraged youths to take action against NATO interests but also provided them with legal cover to allow them to operate with impunity. Using the loyalists and partisans they planted in the judiciary, militants were given get-out-of-jail-free cards in all the cases where TGB militants attacked US soldiers or trespassed in secure military areas. Perinçek ally the Erdoğan government has proven to be unwilling to press for the successful criminal prosecution of such cases and looks the other way when neo-nationalists save their militants from any sort of punishment in a court of law.

Examining a series of similar cases where TGB suspects were acquitted in physical attacks against US and German soldiers deployed in Turkey as part of a NATO mission or bilateral military cooperation absolutely proves that this has been a pattern rather than an exception. The first case involved TGB members putting a sack on the head of one US soldier identified as Jesus Salazar Munoz, who was on shore leave from American navy ship the USS Ramage in the town of Bodrum in Turkey’s western province of Muğla on Oct. 19, 2011.

The attackers wrestled the sailor to the ground and put a sack over his head. The prosecutor indicted eight members of the TGB including General Secretary of the TGB Özgür Bursalı and Homeland Party Deputy Chairman Utku Reyhan on “deprivation of liberty” and “insult” charges and asked the court to sentence them to up to 16 years, four months, in jail. The other suspects in the case were Halil Umut Alparslan, Mustafa Üzek, Beyhan Korkman, Safa Parlak, Cemil Gözel and Hidayet Dakmaz. However, the Bodrum 3rd High Criminal Court acquitted all of them on Feb. 9, 2016. The court even said the protestors were justified in their act, which was seen as a response to US troops detaining Turkish soldiers in Iraq’s Sulaymaniyah on July 4, 2003 with bags on their heads.

In a twisted case, the court initially said the complaint filed with the police on insult charges by Munoz was not taken through a translator who was duly authorized. It ruled out the key testimony on procedural grounds years later although there was no such reason to do so. Upon a request by the court, Munoz filed a new complaint through legal bilateral channels from the US; yet, the court again ruled that the second complaint was not filed properly, either, creating a pretext to drop the charges.

On the deprivation of liberty charge, the court said the attack was not premeditated, took place in a crowded public place and that the suspects had no intention of kidnapping. That actually contradicted the suspects’ public statements, which showed how they had planned the attack in detail. They had actually bragged about it for quite some time in neo-nationalist media outlets controlled by the Perinçek group. The court even returned the memory cards that the militants used to record the attack and post the footage of the incident on the Internet. The acquittal was deliberate despite abundant evidence in the video recording, witness and victim testimony and wide public coverage in the Turkish media.

The second incident took place on July 17, 2012 when seven TGB militants planned to assault and place bags over the heads of sailors from the USS Abraham Lincoln, which had docked in Turkey’s Mediterranean province of Antalya in the south. The militants started calling the US sailors murderers and said they did not want to see them in Turkey. Before they were able to execute their plan, the TGB members were detained by plainclothes police officers who were trailing the group on an intel tip. The suspects, identified as Can Aslan, Murathan Demirkıran, Toygar Ateş, Seda Gökalp, Kadir Arıkan, Gözde Topraklar and Soner Keskin, were charged and faced trial.

However, on Feb. 12, 2014, the case ended with the acquittal of all the suspects, who were even given back the confiscated bags they planned to place on the heads of the US sailors. Judges and prosecutors aligned with the Perinçek group turned the case upside down, going as far as accusing the police officers of treating the TGB suspects badly and desecrating a Turkish flag that was waved by TGB members in protest of the US soldiers. In a mind-boggling ruling, a female police officer was sentenced to eight months in jail for detaining the TGB suspects. Her conviction was not commuted on the grounds that she did not show any remorse for detaining the suspects even though short sentences rarely result in imprisonment in Turkey.

The third case happened on Jan. 23, 2013 when TGB militants trailed seven NATO troops who were deployed in İskenderun province as part of a NATO operation to beef up Turkey’s security with Patriot missile batteries against threats originating from Syria. The militants placed bags over the heads of two German soldiers after running them down on the street. Perinçek’s mouthpiece Aydınlık ran a story three days later about how shop owners in the area were very proud of the TGB members for their action. The police rounded up dozens of TGB members including TGB head İlker Yücel, who is now working as the news coordinator for the neo-nationalist ragtag Aydınlık daily. In the end, only three suspects were indicted, and the court sentenced them to 87 days in jail in a hearing on Feb. 1, 2016 after three-year trial phase. The prison sentence was converted into a fine of TL 740 (approximately $210). Not even a slap on the wrist.

The fourth attack on US/NATO troops was recorded in Istanbul on Nov. 12, 2014 when TGB members attacked and roughed up three US Navy sailors who were on shore leave in civilian clothes. They sprayed them with red paint, and sacks were put over their heads by university students who were members of the TGB and ÖG. The youth group approached the US sailors from the USS Ross as they were trying to use an ATM, struck up a conversation as if they were interested students before they verbally and physically started abusing them.

Perinçek hailed them as heroes and expressed how proud he was that the attackers were members of his party. His Aydınlık daily featured stories praising them and the Ulusal TV network paraded them on TV screens. Uğur Aytaç, TGB İstanbul chairman; Uğurcan Yardımoğlu, ÖG Istanbul chairman; TGB Chairman Çağdaş Cengiz and nine other militants were detained by the police and questioned. They were referred to the prosecutor, who did not even bother taking their depositions and ordered them to be released the next day. That again showed how the Perinçek group is protected from any criminal prosecution in the Turkish judiciary.

The fifth incident was reported on April 16, 2016 when two TGB militants entered İncirlik Air Base, where US and anti-ISIL coalition partners have deployed troops. The suspects blended into a group of Turkish youths who were at the base to participate in an event marking Turkey’s April 23, National Sovereignty and Children’s Day. After the event was over, the TGB militants started chasing an American soldier named Nicholas Allen Rockwell, trying to put a bag over his head. Punches were thrown, and one attacker said: “Bombs are exploding every day. Every day we receive news of martyred soldiers. You are responsible for that.” Turkish security guards intervened and detained the militants. The suspects, identified as TGB Adana former chairman Yalçın Semir Akarsu and TGB Adana provincial head Cenk Kızılırmak, were referred to court for arrest, but the judge released them pending trial.

The two along with the mastermind of the attack, Sinan Sungur, former TGB secretary-general, were indicted on charges of insult and trespassing in a forbidden military zone by the Turkish prosecutor, who demanded 12 years’ jail time for their crimes. Sungur said they had been waiting to stage such an act for two years and that the April 23 event gave them the opportunity to do so. It suggested the group has good intelligence and operational capabilities. They must have had inside help to pull off such a stunt. Yet, all the suspects who were detained were immediately released from custody. In the first hearing held on Oct. 20, 2016 by the Adana 20th High Criminal Court, the judicial supervision of the suspects was lifted as well. Fırat Kayaönü, lawyer for the suspects, told the court that he would have done the same if he had been in their place. The second trial in the case was held on Jan. 27, 2017 and the third was convened on May 18, 2017. The case is still pending, but no one is expecting any convictions.

The Perinçek group and its militant youth groups have been prosecuted and investigated in Turkey, but all criminal cases involving the group were derailed and thwarted by Erdoğan when he secretly made a deal with the neo-nationalists in the aftermath of the Dec. 17-25, 2013 corruption investigations that incriminated Erdoğan, his family members and his business and political associates. To save himself from serous legal troubles, Erdoğan helped secure the release of Perinçek and his comrades who were convicted on serious charges and an abundance of evidence. What is more, the prosecutors, police chiefs and judges who oversaw their cases were dismissed, purged and arrested on fabricated charges and alleged links to the Gülen movement, which Erdoğan declared an enemy after the graft revelations.

As a result, the prosecutors who have been investigating the TGB network for incitement to violence since 2011 were sacked by the Erdoğan government. The new prosecutor in Ankara, Serdar Coşkun, a pro-Erdoğan loyalist, decided to drop the probe into the TGB on Oct. 31, 2014. Coşkun said the TGB actions should be considered part of the freedom to protest, freedom of assembly and freedom of thought. Coşkun is now busy going after the opponents of Erdoğan’s authoritarian regime.

The case reveals how things changed dramatically in the criminal justice system when Erdoğan struck a deal with Perinçek. The last order to authorize the wiretapping of TGB leaders by a judge was taken on Feb. 13, 2014, almost two months after the graft probes. Now this fanatic group, estimated to have around 100,000 members with at least 10,000 activists according to the TGB’s own account, continue running amok in Turkey with a full-frenzy, anti-US and anti-NATO conspiracy. They are organized in 64 cities in Turkey and 20 capitals in Europe, and in almost all cities in Germany, where 3 million Turks live. By the way, the TGB and others are also strongly supported by an influential neo-nationalist faction within Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

All in all, Islamists and ultranationalist groups on two extremely opposite sides of the political spectrum now work hand-in-hand in a NATO member country that is home to the second largest military after the US in terms of manpower. They are inflicting substantial damage on the perception of the transatlantic alliance, reinforcing xenophobic feelings in Turkey and are putting the safety of NATO troops at risk.

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