Iranian philosopher Ali Shariati once said: “Do not believe anything in a nation where only the government enjoys freedom of speech.”
The wisdom of these words has been proven time and time again, most recently during the Covid-19 pandemic where the Chinese government’s handling of the outbreak included withholding information while blatantly abusing the World Health Organization in a way that possibly cost thousands of lives across the globe.
The scandal exposed the crystal-clear fact that authoritarian regimes cannot be trusted as they often feel no incentive to prioritize transparency over political gains and the information that they provide is not fact-checked by any independent institutions or free media.
Mismanagement of health crises is not the only way in which dictatorships inflict devastating impacts on people’s lives through manipulation. They also systematically lie and deceive in order to crack down on dissent without drawing too much criticism.
While the mechanisms employed in defaming political opponents can vary depending on cultural and geographical context, there is one method that seems to stand out in recent years: linking critics to terrorism based on abusive prosecutions.
This is perfectly in line with the zeitgeist since terrorism has become morally bankrupt governments’ go-to justification to explain their shady moves in an attempt to exploit the heightened anti-terror sentiment in the post 9/11 world.
The pretext of fighting against terrorism has appeared in a wide range of cases, from China’s massive mistreatment of its ethnic Uighur minority to Saudi Arabia’s incredibly destructive involvement in the conflict in Yemen.
In terms of stamping out domestic opposition based on terrorism-related prosecutions, however, Turkey has probably taken the lead in the world.
According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, more than 150,000 people were under criminal investigation for alleged links to the faith-based Gülen movement last year, of which some 30,000 were held in prison, along with an estimated 8,500 others, including elected politicians and journalists, imprisoned for alleged ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Interior ministry figures show that more than 600,000 people have been subjected to terrorism-related investigations over alleged Gülen links in the last four years.
To put that into perspective, Turkey has more terror suspects than active military personnel.
This is the result of a combination of factors such as the country’s notoriously vague anti-terror laws, the widely reported lack of judicial independence and impartiality as well as the blanket and retroactive criminalization of the Gülen movement after the government alleged that a failed coup in July 2016 was the work of a group of Gülen-linked soldiers within the military.
Let’s take a quick look at some of these so-called terrorists:
Ahmet Altan, a 70-year-old legend of journalism and literature, is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for supposedly aiding a terrorist organization by writing columns.
Selahattin Demirtaş, a popular Kurdish politician, has been imprisoned on remand since November 2016 over his political speeches, which earned him charges of spreading terrorist propaganda.
Hidayet Karaca(10), the former chairman of a TV broadcaster, is currently serving an aggravated life sentence for terrorism over a TV show.
On top of that, any criticism of the government’s handling of the ethnic conflict in the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeast or questioning Turkey’s military involvement in neighboring Syria’s civil war can easily be construed by Turkish courts as grounds for charging people with “spreading terrorist propaganda.”
Even lawyers have been accused of terrorism simply for legally representing someone standing trial for alleged terrorism.
These sweeping and abusive trials have rendered the very concept of terrorism devoid of meaning, as explained with lucidity by the European Parliament’s Turkey Rapporteur Nacho Sánchez Amor: “If we call everyone a terrorist, maybe no one is a terrorist.”
Yet, Europe is far from being guilt-free in this grim outlook.
Relations with Brussels was perhaps the most significant factor that has compelled Ankara to stick to a false pretense of having a functioning justice system as the country continues to depend on the European Union for its foreign trade and investments, despite the fact that membership prospects of early 2000s seem to have vanished.
Let alone effectively using this leverage to advance human rights in Turkey, Brussels has not even demonstrated a strong intention towards that end, arguably to avoid jeopardizing a migrant deal struck in March 2016 that assigned to Turkey the role of Europe’s gatekeeper.
This strategically and morally flawed agreement created a vicious cycle whereby Turkish President Erdoğan became more and more unhinged in his dealings with the European Union as he felt like he had the upper hand on Europe while European leadership grew increasingly indulgent with him out of fear that he may blow up the project in which they made so much investment.
Ultimately, he did detonate it. Or at least he tried to. Following a military escalation in northern Syria against the Russia-backed forces of Damascus last February, Erdoğan’s government announced that it would no longer comply with the deal, encouraging thousands to amass on Turkey’s border with Greece and unleashing the humanitarian drama that ensued.
Doing business with authoritarian regimes is inherently costly. The entire world is now paying dearly for overlooking China’s pathogen-ridden wet markets and its lack of transparency in almost all of its relations.
It took a global pandemic that killed tens of thousands and an unprecedented global economic meltdown that is likely to follow for Europeans to consider reviewing their relations with the Chinese Communist Party which was, as Foreign Policy pointed out, already responsible for genocide against Uighur people, violating international law in the South China Sea, wholesale intellectual property theft from and cyber-espionage against the West and one of the worst records of environmental pollution in the world.
What will it take for Europe to stop indulging Erdoğan’s boundless contempt for human rights and dignity? Though relatively unnoticed in the current migratory context, the anti-Gülenist purge alone has led thousands of Turkish political refugees, including myself, to seek asylum in Europe. Now pro-Erdoğan figures are blatantly threatening the entire opposition with actual violence. What if decades of bolstering internal polarization culminates in a larger civil unrest, causing tremendous waves of additional Turkish migrants heading for the border?