The Turkish flag was stained with the blood of the young man holding it up. He had been waving it when he was shot by soldiers who carried out last summer’s attempted coup. Handing over the torn national banner to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he declared: “I want to give it to you because you are the one who would know how to really value something so precious.”
The encounter, at the headquarters of the ruling AK Party, was stage-managed, but the emotions behind the coming commemoration of the first anniversary of the failed coup were real enough. Turkey’s President and his followers were celebrating victory over the “15 July Plotters”, but they were also mourning the 249 who died and the 2,200 wounded when the people took to the streets against the aircraft, tanks and helicopter-gunships of the mutinous troops.
There is also anger directed at enemies, real and perceived, home and abroad. There have been mass purges since the takeover – blamed on the followers of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen – was thwarted. Tens of thousands are in prison; others have been sacked from their jobs; some have fled into exile. At the same time simmering tension and confrontation with Kurdish separatists of the PKK has turned into a full-blown military conflict. And with it, say critics, has come more political suppression.
The Turkish government has been widely attacked by human rights organisations and politicians in the West over the punitive measures enacted. Mr Erdogan and his supporters have railed against the criticism as unjust and hypocritical, even alleging signs of racism and Islamophobia. Amid the accusations and recriminations, plans for the country to join the European Union seem to be slipping further away than ever.
Dissent internally has been muted following the waves of arrests. But hundreds of thousands gathered at a rally in Istanbul last Sunday evening in a “revolt against injustice”. There were cheers for Kemal Kilindaroglu, the leader of the opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP), who led the march to the city from Ankara. The huge showing, he declared, was a “rebirth for us, for our country and our children”.
Mr Erdogan lashed out about the Istanbul rally at the party headquarters in Ankara. The CHP and their supporters, he charged, “could be accused of being terrorist lovers, who carried out their walk for Gulen, for the PKK. They say their march is comparable with the martyrs and those who gave their blood for democracy fighting the coup. They are shameless hypocrites.”
In front of the adulatory crowd, who chanted his name and broke into prolonged applause, the President continued: “They walked 450km in this march of theirs; did they spend four and a half minutes of that time thinking about those killed by terrorists? We are the ones who care about those who suffered; we are the ones fighting the terrorists.”
The ongoing conflict meant there would be no end to the state of emergency which was brought in for a year after the attempted coup. Just hours before Mr Erdogan spoke on Tuesday, 14 more army officers were arrested and arrest warrants were issued for 51 people, including 34 former employees of the state broadcaster TRT. Among those arrested the next day was Ali Avci, a film producer, who made a documentary about President Erdogan along with one called The Awakening about the failed coup. He was accused by the authorities of having links to the “Gulenist Terror Organisation”.
“There can be no question of lifting emergency rule with all this happening,” said the President. “We will lift the emergency rule only when we no longer need to fight terrorism.
“The terrorists will be punished legally and until this happens, the court list will grow.” At present 50,000 remain detained and 150,000 have been sacked or suspended from the armed forces, civil service and the private sector.
The Turkish government is attempting to extradite Mr Gulen who had been living in Pennsylvania since 1999 and was, until last summer, an ally of the AK Party. Mr Erdogan, who has vowed to pursue the cleric “to the end”, asked the newly elected Donald Trump for help in sending him back. But there has been little progress on the legal action, with Justice Department officials in Washington privately saying that despite sending a voluminous amount of material, Ankara has been short on providing incriminating evidence.
Mr Gulen, in a rare public statement, said this week that he is prepared to return to Turkey if the US agrees to extradition. But he insisted once again that he was innocent. “To this day, I have stood against all coups. My respect for the military aside, I have always been against interventions,” he stated. “If any one among those soldiers had called me and told me of their plan, I would tell them ‘you are committing murder’.” The cleric accused Mr Erdogan of being the real “oppressor who caused all this suffering and oppressed thousands of innocents. I want to spit on his face.”
The impasse over the Gulen extradition is a major source of complaints about the West from the Turkish government. “If there was a coup attempt in the US and the person who organised it was living in Turkey we know exactly what the Americans will say and do,” Bekir Bozdag, the justice minister, pointed out.
In pictures: Turkey coup attempt
“We have sent them all the documents, so why is he not being extradited? People in US and Europe know about Bin Laden, well we know about Gulen. I personally know all about the putsch. I was speaking in parliament when they bombed it and a bomb landed 15 to 20 metres from me. I am lucky to be here today,” he added.
The US and Europe, meanwhile, was quick to raise “so-called human rights abuses” Mr Bozdag said. “They lecture us on abiding by the law. But everything we are doing is by the law. They talk about torture and mistreatment of prisoners. But when we say ‘tell us where this is taking place and to who’, they do not provide anything. Sometimes they choose to believe the lies told by the guilty people. No one who is innocent is going to prison.”
Belgin Aksoy has become used to such assertions. “There is no point in even trying to argue against things like that, black is white and white is black in Turkey now. I just get on with what I need to do”, she said. All her time is devoted to working for the release of her husband, arrested in the crackdown following the coup, facing up to 45 years in prison on charges of belonging to the “Fethullah Terrorist Organisation”.
Her husband Demir used to work as a civil servant before being accused of being a Gulenist “sleeper” and detained last October when police smashed into their home in Istanbul late at night. The judge who was investigating him was arrested for allegedly being a Gulenist three months later. The new judge handling the case has warned Ms Aksoy that the process will be slow because of his huge workload. The government has announced that 175 new prisons needed to be built this year.
“I cry from time to time. But the best thing to do is keep busy. I have to look after our three children, see my husband in jail one day and work part-time three days. It will take time but I am hopeful he will be freed”, said 31-year-old Mrs Aksoy. “The accusations against my husband are unjust. We were totally against the coup and we are glad it failed. There are many in the same situation as my Demir. But their voices won’t be heard on this anniversary. They are the voices which have been made to disappear.”