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Erdoğan intensifies crackdown on opponents through mass detentions

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Cevheri Güven

In the last two days, Turkey’s authorities have detained over 500 government critics including Kurds, Gülen movement followers and protesting university students. As the country continues to debate a possible snap election, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s pressure on opponents is bringing new mass detentions by the police.

The Gülen movement, which the government accuses of orchestrating a failed coup in 2016, represents the lion’s share of mass detentions in the country. İstanbul prosecutors have issued detention warrants for 294 people, 292 of whom were either active duty soldiers or former soldiers previously dismissed from the ranks over suspected Gülen links. While there are high-ranking officers such as colonels and majors among the suspects, 211 are cadets from a military school that was shut down in 2016. Most of the former cadets continued their higher education at other universities.

Students were the second largest group targeted by the operations, particularly those from İstanbul’s prestigious Boğaziçi University, where the recent appointment of a pro-government politician as rector sparked a wave of protests by students as well as members of the academic staff. A total of 159 Boğaziçi students were detained in İstanbul on Monday. In addition, police in İzmir took into custody 27 students from İzmir University during a protest to demonstrate solidarity with Boğaziçi students.

Levent Pişkin, a lawyer for some of the students, announced that the detainees were threatened with torture and ill-treatment during their interrogation at police centers. Incidents of torture involving allegedly Gülen-linked detainees have become an everyday occurrence. The Ankara Bar Association has published a report on the brutal interrogation of the soldiers who are still being held at the Ankara Police Department. The authorities are keeping silent in the face of the allegations.

Kurds, specifically those involved in pro-Kurdish political activism, are also victims of the mass detentions. In a protest march held by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in the southeastern province of Batman on Jan. 29, 23 participants were detained, six of whom are minors.

Increasing political tension

While President Erdoğan has been using reconciliatory rhetoric aimed at normalizing ties with the US and the EU, the atmosphere of pressure is intensifying within the country. In addition to his previous remarks promising democratic and legal reforms, Erdoğan on Monday said they want to draft a new constitution.

The opposition believes Erdoğan is rapidly setting the stage for an election. According to Meral Akşener, leader of the ultranationalist İyi (Good) Party, all of Erdoğan’s moves are indicative of a snap election to be held in June.

Against the backdrop of Erdoğan’s new reform discourse, the country’s police, led by Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, have been raising tensions.

Soylu, one of the most powerful ministers in Erdoğan’s cabinet, has adopted the harshest stance against the Boğaziçi students. Soylu has used the word “deviant” on Twitter to refer to a pro-LGBT group among the students.

Soylu’s tweet was blocked from access in France as it was found to be in violation of local laws. When accessed from Turkey, the same tweet has a warning to users that it violates Twitter’s rules on hateful conduct while not blocking it from access as Twitter claimed it would be for the good of the public that it remain open to access. Nevertheless, the warning message was the first time Twitter had imposed a restriction on a Turkish minister.

Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and a major ally to Erdoğan, supported the police intervention and slammed the student activists.

“All kinds of insects and anarchist groups have been nesting in this university,” Bahçeli said. “If the gate of Boğaziçi University was locked [by the police], it is to narrow the terrorist groups’ room to maneuver.”

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