A billboard in New York City’s Times Square that reads “STOP ERDOGAN,” referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose rule has seen the imprisonment of tens of thousands on politically motivated charges, has drawn the ire of officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Paid for by Turkish rights group Advocates of Silenced Turkey, a US-based nonprofit focused on addressing human rights violations in Turkey, the sign was branded by AKP spokesperson Ömer Çelik as the work of the Gülen movement, a faith-based group outlawed by Ankara.
Following a coup attempt on July 15, 2016, the Turkish government and President Erdoğan pinned the blame on the Gülen movement, describing it as a terrorist organization.
Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the movement, strongly denied having any role in the failed coup and called for an international investigation into it, but President Erdoğan — calling the coup attempt “a gift from God” — and the government initiated a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.
“FETÖ [a derogatory acronym referring to the Gülen group as a terrorist organization] is an enemy of Turkey and hence our president. This treacherous network added to their betrayals by targeting our president with ads filled with lies. Their attacks on our president stem from their enmity towards our people,” Çelik tweeted.
Following the reaction from the AKP, the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office said it had launched an investigation into the people responsible for putting up the billboard in New York City.
— Advocates of Silenced Turkey (AST) (@silencedturkey) March 2, 2021
Scores of Gülen movement followers were forced to flee Turkey to avoid a government crackdown following the coup attempt. Some had to take illegal and risky journeys in dinghies to Greece because their passports were revoked by the government.
According to a statement from Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu on February 20, a total of 622,646 people have been the subject of investigation and 301,932 have been detained, while 96,000 others have been jailed due to alleged links to the Gülen movement since the failed coup. The minister said there are currently 25,467 people in Turkey’s prisons who were jailed on alleged links to the Gülen movement.