by Cevheri Güven
A government crackdown on the faith-based Gülen movement launched following a corruption scandal in Turkey in late 2013 and culminating in the aftermath of a failed coup in 2016 continues at full speed today despite the passage of six years.
Although the movement strongly denies any involvement in either the corruption investigations or the failed coup, the Turkish government accuses it of masterminding both, calling the movement a “terrorist organization.”
Today tens of thousands of Gülen movement members languish behind bars, while thousands of others have illegally fled the country to seek asylum in Western Europe via neighboring Greece. Some of their members have drowned trying to reach Greece by crossing the Aegean Sea or the Evros River, which forms the land border between the two countries.
Six years after the first arrests began in 2014, the crackdown on the movement has not come to an end. Interior Ministry figures show that more than half a million people have been investigated so far.
First arrests following graft investigations into the government
From Dec. 17-25, 2013, Turkey was shaken by allegations of large-scale corruption involving bribery, money laundering, irregularities related to city planning and construction and schemes to rig bids in public tenders, implicating then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his son Bilal Erdoğan as well as four ministers in Erdoğan’s cabinet. While the ministers resigned, Erdoğan sacked all the prosecutors and police officers involved in an attempt to prevent his son from being summoned for questioning. The purge was followed by a number of legislative amendments aimed at blocking similar probes in the future.
Erdoğan pinned the blame for the investigations on the Gülen movement and alleged that the prosecutors and police officers involved in the investigation had ties to the group.
While there had been pressure on the movement prior to the corruption scandal, particularly targeting its educational institutions, no member of the group had been arrested. That was until July 22, 2014, when the police officers who took part in the corruption operation were arrested. The arrests were subsequently expanded to include judges, prosecutors, teachers, NGO staff and businesspeople. The situation took a turn for the worse on the heels of a failed coup on July 15, 2016, after which the arrests took on a massive scale.
Hundreds of thousands investigated
According to data provided by Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu on July 15 of this year, a total of 282,790 people were taken into custody for alleged links to the Gülen movement over the past four years, 94,975 of whom were arrested. Soylu also said 25,912 people were in prison at the time and that the overall number of people who were investigated stood at 597,783.
The operations have continued uninterrupted since Soylu’s statement in July.
Nearly a thousand detentions in November
On Nov. 19, for instance, 38 businesspeople in İstanbul, Ankara and Şanlıurfa were detained for allegedly making donations to Gülen-linked schools in Africa. According to the prosecutor’s office in charge of the investigation, supporting Gülen-affiliated schools amounts to financing a terrorist organization.
On Nov. 22 police in İstanbul detained 54 university students who were accused of forming a new Gülenist network.
It is not an easy task to keep tabs on the number of alleged Gülenists detained and arrested on a daily basis. However, state-run Anadolu news agency reports alone indicate that the process involves dozens of people every day and that the number of detentions reached close to a thousand over the past month.
A man who lost his entire family
Some people who took risky journeys to flee the government crackdown in Turkey due to their links to the Gülen movement met with tragedy and lost family members.
Murat Akçabay, who along with his wife Hatice Akçabay used to work for Gülen-affiliated NGOs, is one of those people who experienced perhaps the bitterest tragedy possible. The couple had three children when authorities issued warrants for them. In order to avoid an imprisonment that would leave the children separated from their parents, they went into hiding for 28 months, waiting for a change in Turkey’s political situation.
After repeatedly changing addresses, the family realized they had no other place to hide and decided to cross the Evros River to Greece on Feb. 18, 2018. Their boat capsized and only Murat Akçabay survived the incident, losing his wife and their three children.
Like the Akçabay family, thousands have been waiting for a change in the political state of affairs in Turkey. Those who are tried for alleged links to the Gülen movement often receive six years, three months in prison for membership in a terrorist organization. Depending on the case, the sentences can go up to 15 years in prison.
Blacklisted and unable to find jobs
While mass arrests and lack of personal security are the most significant problems faced by members of the Gülen movement, they are also struggling to make ends meet.
More than half a million people investigated over alleged ties to the group were categorized on the nationwide social security database under “Code 36,” a warning to any potential employer that they are hiring an alleged Gülenist. Very few are willing to take the risk.
Those tagged under Code 36 are either employed as undocumented workers or left unemployed. The members are the group are mainly former white collar workers, most of them university graduates.
Members of the group are also prohibited from aiding each other financially. In particular, assisting families of the imprisoned is construed as supporting a terrorist organization. One example was Muhittin Şahin, a pastry shop employee in the northwestern province of Zonguldak who was arrested for sending two families TL 1,500 ($190) each.
Hoping for an amnesty
Some 30,000 Gülen-linked people fled Turkey illegally and arrived in Greece, some of whom subsequently went on to settle in other European countries. Hundreds of thousands of Gülenists remained in Turkey in the hope of benefiting from a possible general amnesty. Human rights defenders have been campaigning for such a move for years, insisting that such a large number of people cannot possibly be terrorists. While the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 prompted the government to pass legislation to ease overcrowding in prisons, the law explicitly excluded political prisoners including Gülenists.
Oğuzhan Albayrak: No chance for members of the Gülen movement to live
Oğuzhan Albayrak, a former Turkish diplomat and secretary-general of the German-based NGO Human Rights Defenders (HRD), said members of the Gülen movement have been subjected to a mass crackdown and condemned to a “social death.” Albayrak said the recent spike in large-scale police operations targeting the group is linked to Turkey’s political situation and that every time President Erdoğan feels cornered in domestic politics, he ramps up the pressure on his critics, and Gülenists become the prime target as he considers them to be his arch-enemies.
Albayrak also highlighted the frequent use of lengthy imprisonment and torture against members of the group.
“Torture, in several forms, is a practice used against Gülenists, which has led to deaths in detention centers. We have reported on these. Many others died in prison after being deprived of access to medical treatment. When you look at the profile of those who left the country, you can see they are individuals with a high risk of being subjected to torture” Albayrak said.
“Erdoğan considers Gülenists in particular to be a threat since they are a well-educated group.”
In violation of Turkish law, critically ill Gülen movement followers including terminal cancer patients are not released from prison or given timely access to medical services. There have been many instances when these patients died several months after their release from prison because their condition was far too severe for recovery.
Apart from torture and acts of maltreatment, members of the Gülen movement are also faced with the risk of abduction and unlawful detainment by intelligence operatives. The United Nations recently requested Turkey’s statement over the alleged enforced disappearance of six people. A total of 29 people were forcibly disappeared over the past four years, according to HRD’s reports.