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One year later, country bitterly divided

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Fariba Nawa, Special for USA TODAY

Published 6:03 a.m. ET July 14, 2017 | Updated 6:03 a.m. ET July 14, 2017

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Thousands marched in protest of the Turkish president’s crackdown on dissent since a failed coup last year.
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ISTANBUL — Gonul Acu was stunned when her husband Veli, an aid worker at the United Nations World Food Program, called last week to say authorities arrested him for allegedly being a terrorist spy.

“Veli is a person who has never touched a gun,” said Gonul, 31, also an aid worker and five months pregnant. “He is not a terrorist. He is not aiding anyone. He has simply worked for human rights.” 

A year ago this weekend, the Acus were among the majority of Turks who rallied around the government for breaking up a failed coup by a rogue faction of the military that left 249 dead and hundreds more injured.

Now they are among tens of thousands of citizens targeted by a post-coup crackdown that has resulted in the arrests of more than 100,000 people, curbs on political freedoms and a country bitterly split between supporters and opponents of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

On Saturday, the country will commemorate the victims in ceremonies across Turkey. Government officials this week have been visiting cemeteries of the victims they call “martyrs.” 

Critics of the government will also remember the hundreds of thousands of academics, journalists, members of the judiciary and military who have been jailed, lost their jobs and live in fear of being arrested like Veli Acu, 29. 

“They are separating people into groups of us vs. them,” said Murat Ozer, a civil servant who was suspended from his job in Izmir. “Many people can’t afford a living after they are fired.”

About 50,000 remain jailed — either accused of being militant Kurdish separatists or followers of cleric Fethullah Gulen, a one-time Erdogan ally who the government now alleges was the mastermind of the coup attempt. Gulen, 76, who is in exile in Pennsylvania, denies involvement in the coup. The government has been seeking his extradition from the United States. 

Meanwhile, Turks narrowly voted to give sweeping powers to Erdogan and change their government from a parliamentary to a presidential system in an April referendum.

After his narrow victory in that vote, Erdogan extended a state of emergency the government had imposed to allow raids and arrests to continue.

The government said the arrests are necessary for Turkey’s national security. Erdogan supporters like Yusuf Koyuncu, 54, an interior designer, agrees. He said the president’s political party has made him a proud Turk in the 15 years it’s been in power.

“This government wants the best for Turkey,” he said. “They’ve given us a metro train, a submarine, better hospitals and made us a world power.”

Yunus Emre, a professor of Turkish politics at Istanbul Kultur University, said the referendum further polarized the nation but brought together the opposition for the first time.

“Prior to 2017, there were two political camps in Turkey: On the one hand, a powerful and solid ruling party which had nearly 50% of the total votes, and on the other, a divided and non-influential opposition,” he said. “However this year, the opposition movement united.”

That was evident in the Justice March, a 280-mile walk from Ankara to Istanbul led by the leader of the Republican People’s Party Kemal Kilicdaroglu. The walk ended Sunday in Istanbul with nearly 1 million calling for an end to unlawful arrests. “We demand justice not only for those who gathered here, not only those who support us, but for everyone,” Kilicdaroglu said in his speech. 

Among the walkers was Utku Balaban, a sociologist at Ankara University who was dismissed from his job for signing a peace petition that encouraged a cease-fire with the Kurds. Turkey has been embroiled in a 40-year conflict with Kurdish separatists. 

Balaban, 38, was inspired by the growing number of marchers who joined the walk in the summer heat.

“It’s like a pilgrimage and it can transform an emotional reality, the way you can mobilize other people. This particular group is different than what used to be (the opposition) before this march. When you start to see people of different ideologies and different opinions, you can redefine the identity of the republic,” Balaban said.

Erdogan called the marchers collaborators of terrorism, but the government also provided ample security and did not fire tear gas or use water canons that helped quell prior protests.

Such growing opposition provides little comfort for Gonul Acu who just wants her husband to come home after his July 5 arrest — especially to see the birth of their first child.

“I’m not going to cry, and I haven’t cried,” she said. “When he comes out (of jail), I’m going to cry tears of joy.”

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