Erdogan’s blacklist

Voices of Turkey’s purge

‘It’s like you are a leper, nobody wants to talk to you . . . nobody wants to come close to you’

After the failed coup, came the crackdown.

And Turks have a name for the crackdown: they call it Ohal.

Ohal is short for Olaganustu Hal, a state of emergency. It was imposed in July last year after almost 250 people died when rebel military factions attempted to oust Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president.

After the coup was thwarted, few at the time blamed Mr Erdogan for hunting down those behind it. Ohal was originally sold to the Turkish people as a temporary measure. But after winning a referendum increasing his powers last month, Mr Erdogan extended it until mid-July – a full year since it was introduced. Ohal has filled Turkey’s jails, flooded its courthouses, torn families apart and helped Mr Erdogan secure an almost unimpeachable presidency, where all power flows through him.

The president’s first targets were the Islamist devotees of Fethullah Gulen, a powerful imam who preached peace from his self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania while his followers infiltrated the Turkish state. Mr Erdogan blamed Mr Gulen and his followers for the coup attempt and labelled them terrorists.

But Ohal has spread. It has swept up anyone who has upset the regime. A modern day McCarthyism has gripped Turkey. More than 40,000 people have been arrested and at least 150,000 have been sacked and effectively blacklisted. No one has been convicted, thousands are imprisoned, and tens of thousands await trial.

These are some of the victims of Mr Erdogan’s purge

‘There’s no place in this society for people like us’

Betul Celep, civil servant

Sacked January 6
At least 7,399 people were dismissed that day

When Betul Celep read her name in a once-obscure government journal, her life as she knew it ended.

Under Ohal, Mr Erdogan’s decrees become official upon publication in the Resmi Gazete, and buried among tax code amendments and civil service exam rules were the names of those to be dismissed.

Many of Ms Celep’s colleagues had already been fired so she was anxiously checking the gazette to see if her name was there. For the 36-year-old, who worked at the Istanbul governor’s aid agency and lives alone in an apartment, the first thing that came to mind on reading her name was how she would feed the 50 stray cats she cared for.

No reason was given for her sacking – the decrees are usually no more than a single line, followed by long lists of names – and she knew there would be no chance of appeal. “I never got any document, any explanation,” Ms Celep says.

But in the days leading up to her dismissal, she and several hundred others had been questioned about their politics. “I was a leftist, a union representative, a feminist. When they won’t give you a reason, you have to guess the reason – they didn’t want someone like me in the new Turkey they are building.”

Her life is now unrecognisable from the one she had before Ohal. “If you’re fired by decree, it’s like you are a leper,” she says. “Nobody wants to talk to you, nobody wants to touch you, nobody wants to take your case, nobody wants to come close to you. There’s no place in this society for people like us.” Since she was sacked, Ms Celep has taken to the streets in Kadikoy, a neighbourhood of Istanbul that is home to many students, demonstrating every day with a handful of others to raise awareness of the victims of Ohal.

She lives off the money she had saved to study for a master’s degree in gender studies at Istanbul University, but it won’t last long, she says. Her flatmate moved out, worried that she, too, might lose her job after the police visited Ms Celep’s flat when she became involved in the protests. “All the relationships around you change: those who were once friends no longer call you, and instead you make new friends, new relationships,” she says. “Now, the police officers know me. They say hello to me when they’re having coffee or see me on the street.”

Ms Celep says that fear of detention is always at the back of her mind. She wants to build a movement against what she sees as the unjust and arbitrary dismissals. “We are too many. If we can use our power, we can end the cruelty.”

‘We were the weakest links in the chain, and we were eliminated’

Sezgin Yurdakul, ferry worker

Sacked December 23

Sezgin Yurdakul learnt he was to be dismissed in a much more direct way than Ms Celep. He was called into a meeting with his superiors at the Greater Istanbul Municipality’s ferry line administration and presented with a stack of documents from his daughter’s school, and his bank statements.

The father of three sits in a café near the ferry stop in Karakoy and tells how his daughter, like an estimated 400,000 other students in the past decade, had attended Turkish schools run by followers of Mr Gulen. There were also documents from his bank, Bank Asya, an institution that was linked to Mr Gulen’s followers until it was seized by the government more than two years ago.

“My daughter studied at that school for three years,” says the 40-year-old, who has piercing blue eyes and a soft voice.

“There was a sign-board from the Ministry of Education, it was a registered school. My employer gave me assistance [with school fees]. If I aided terrorism by sending my daughter to study at that school, what is the [culpability] of the officials in that institution who gave me assistance?”

The municipality – his employer – deposited this educational assistance into his account at Bank Asya, for years one of Turkey’s largest banks. Mr Yurdakul says he chose it because it followed Islamic banking principles by not paying interest.

His answers failed to convince his employers and on December 23, he was fired from his job. He does not receive any unemployment benefits and has applied for almost 20 positions since then. “When you tell your story, no one gives you a job,” he says.

He has protested in front of his old employer’s premises for months. All it has done is add to his followers on social media, he says with a smile. He fears he will never find another job in Istanbul and is thinking of selling his house and returning to his hometown in northern Turkey.

“This period was more difficult for my wife than for me,” he says. She went to see a psychologist and took anti-depressants and sleeping pills. She wasn’t able to finish breast-feeding their newborn daughter, Burcak. His 13-year-old daughter, Sevval, is also struggling. “Our life was [turned] upside down. My [older] daughter had to change schools, and in the new school she feels isolated ‒ they say her father is a Fetocu [ a member of Mr Gulen's cult, now considered a terrorist]. She has no friends.”

For now, Mr Yurdakul lives off his savings and money given to him by his family. He is angry and thinks the government kept Bank Asya open to trap people and that he was targeted because his department needs to fill a quota of dissidents. His employer did not respond to requests for comment.

“I know some people who had political links and they got off,” he says. “We don’t have any political links or a politician to call and say, ‘Come and save me’. We were the weakest links in the chain, and we were eliminated.”

‘When I try to remember, I still end up in fear’

Asli Erdogan, novelist

Detained August 17
At least 2,692 people were also sacked that day

Asli Erdogan is 50, a novelist and one-time particle physicist with a small frame and a quiet voice. She was at home alone last August when the government sent in dozens of masked police officers with automatic weapons to detain her.

She was taken to Istanbul’s Palace of Justice with other journalists from Ozgur Gundem, a newspaper she wrote for and which the government says is linked to Kurdish terrorists. Ozgur Gundem denies the allegation.

Ms Erdogan is on the paper’s board of advisers and while she shares the same last name as the president, she is not related to him. In the 1990s she wrote a long-running column called The Others, in which she told the horrific stories of women and children who had been raped and tortured, often in the Kurdish south-east of Turkey during the increased military presence at the time.

At the prosecutor’s office the corridors were jammed with people waiting to be arrested. Ms Erdogan’s lawyer told her she would be out within 15 minutes. But, as the minutes turned to hours, she realised something was wrong.

When the prosecutor started to speak about Ms Erdogan’s case, she fainted. She ended up in Bakirkoy women’s prison in Istanbul, where she spent a total of eight days in solitary confinement. “The cell was extremely dirty, the bed had urine on it. For 48 hours, they didn’t give me any water,” she says.

“I don’t have brothers or sisters so I thought, for me, a solitary cell would be easier than a ward.” But within “two or three days [in solitary] you notice you are unable to form sentences or if they ever take you out, you walk 10 minutes [and] you are out of breath because you don’t move,” she says.

When she left solitary confinement, she had lost weight and, she says, her face “had aged maybe 15 years in eight days. [It was] very tough, very tough”.

Officials deny she was refused water, though Ms Erdogan says camera recordings prove otherwise. In total, she spent four months in jail and has yet to face trial. During her imprisonment, her friends and readers stood outside the jail, singing for her. Deep in the bowels of the prison, she heard nothing.

Now, sitting in her publisher’s sunlit office, the shelves lined with books, Ms Erdogan speaks quietly and matter of factly about the events of recent months. But the state of emergency has taken its toll. She struggles to make sense of what happened to her.

“Since I came out of jail, I haven’t been able to write. When I try to remember, I still end up in fear . . . there is a lot of experience that needs to be written,” she says.

‘The regime is pushing all who oppose them out of politics’

Selahattin Demirtas, opposition politician

Arrested November 4
Eleven other opposition MPs remain in prison

One of Turkey’s most popular politicians and the only one who presented a real threat to Mr Erdogan’s referendum, Selahattin Demirtas has been in prison since November 4. The 44-year-old lawyer faces 100 different charges and a cumulative sentence of at least 400 years. Most allege that he has ties to Kurdish terrorists. He denies them, and was arrested after refusing to submit to a prosecutor’s questioning.

Now, the man once known as the Kurdish Obama for drawing thousands to his fiery speeches, is largely silenced. In Edirne prison he writes short stories, paints, and speaks to the world outside through scribbled notes handed to his lawyers. He has yet to appear in court. In March, Mr Demirtas sent a letter to the Financial Times. It was memorised by one of his visitors, and written up hastily. Below is an edited extract.

The regime is pushing all who oppose them out of politics, declaring them terrorists and criminalising them. It is doing so predominantly through a judiciary it has seized control of . . .

Thousands of my colleagues and I are not in prison because we have committed crimes. We are in prison because crimes have been committed against us . . .

They have locked us away, denied us our right to respond . . .

We have been imprisoned for five months and the day of my first [court] hearing is still unclear.

But our morale is high and our faith in democracy and peace is stronger than ever.

‘The main experience is isolation . . . It’s civilised torture’

Nazire Gursel, wife of imprisoned journalist

Arrested October 31
On October 29, 10 newspapers, two news agencies and three journals were shut down. Later, one TV station and two radio stations were shut. At least 150 journalists are now in prison

On a chilly day in March, Nazire Gursel gets into her car in Istanbul to make her weekly trek to Silivri prison to visit her husband, Kadri, one of Turkey’s most celebrated journalists.

On October 31, the police came to their house in an upscale Istanbul neighbourhood. Her 55-year-old husband was at work and Ms Gursel remembers the police being polite, almost apologetic, as they searched their house, waiting for him to come home so they could arrest him.

At Silivri, he is allowed some visitors but he is in a cell on his own. “The main experience at Silivri is isolation,” says Ms Gursel, a former journalist who campaigns on his behalf. “It’s civilised torture.”

In her husband’s indictment, which emerged several months after his arrest, he is accused of showing support in his columns for the Kurdish Workers’ party, or PKK, a separatist terrorist group, and being in contact with people who used ByLock, the encrypted smartphone app the government says the followers of Mr Gulen used to plot the coup attempt. He denies the charges. He says hundreds of people contacted him because he is a journalist, and the indictment does not clarify the nature or frequency of the communications.

His friends and family see his case as particularly ludicrous because he has twice been kidnapped by the PKK during his 30-year career and was one of the first journalists to warn of the dangers of Gulenist infiltration.

“Step by step they have done bad things to Kadri, and at last they took him to jail,” says Ms Gursel, changing from a short skirt to something more modest before going in to see her husband. “It feels like a Nazi camp.”

The events of the past few months have taken their toll and her voice is weary when she speaks, punctuated by a short laugh when she points out the surrealness of her life. When she meets her husband, they talk about a holiday they can take when he is finally released.

For now, she has more pressing concerns. In the past five months, her 10-year-old son Erdem has seen his father twice. The week of her visit, Erdem heard the president on the radio describing journalists as rapists and child molesters. He had an anxiety attack and had to be taken to hospital.

Mr Gulen has denied any involvement in the coup. The US has yet to consider extraditing him and US officials say privately that the evidence provided by Turkey is not compelling. The purge has created a new underclass. Those loyal to Mr Gulen are prosecuted as members of the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation, or Feto. They are Fetocus, despised by their neighbours, shunned by their friends. The worst is reserved for the families of suspects in the military and the judiciary.

‘They won’t let me live, they won’t let me leave’

Esra Er, naval officer’s wife

Sacked November 22
At least 15,408 people lost their jobs that day

Esra Er gave birth to her youngest son Halim the day before the attempted coup. He was born with severe birth defects and is in urgent need of medical help.

But since her husband Samet was arrested in January, they have been refused any government assistance.

The arresting officers said the naval officer had used ByLock. His wife says he had not. The authorities have not provided any further details of what it is he is supposed to have done wrong and he has yet to be formally charged.

“What they are telling us is, ‘Prove to us he is not guilty. We have caught him. Prove to us he is innocent.’ If they were to present any evidence we would prove my husband is innocent. However, we are not able to do that,” says Ms Er from the flat she has shared with her in-laws since the coup attempt.

Until then, she has to figure out how to care for Halim in a society that shuns her. Visibly distressed, her son is attached to a tube to ease his breathing. “All I think about is the operations for my child; I feel half dead,” she says, laying out mounds of medical documents prescribing immediate facial reconstruction for her son. It is surgery she cannot afford.

Not only is she without social security and health insurance, her husband’s unemployment insurance ran out two months after his arrest. Finally, she was denied a government-issued card for those below the poverty line. “The social security officer told me, “If your husband was in jail for dealing drugs or murdering someone, we would have helped you, but if he’s a Gulenist, there’s nothing I can do for you,” she says.

“We are psychologically wrecked . . . on the one hand, I am trying to take care of things at the hospital and [on the other] I am trying to visit my husband.”

With no place left to turn, she tried to leave the country and found her passport had a ban on it. “They won’t let me live here, they won’t let me leave here. I am destroyed.”

‘I gave my son to the state, and now they are accusing him of treachery’

Yusuf Yamandag, air force trainee

Yusuf Yamandag was arrested on July 15, the night of the coup attempt
Almost 250 people were killed that night

On the night of the attempted coup, Yusuf was at a training camp for the Air Force Academy a few hours’ drive outside Istanbul, his father says. The 23-year-old and his fellow trainees were ordered on to a bus, given guns and told to go to the city to help the police counter a terrorist threat.

Their bus was stopped by protesters even before it reached the city and the trainees were arrested and eventually charged with trying to assassinate the president and dismantle the republic.

His devoted family do not believe Mr Yamandag could have been involved in the coup, despite allegations that the Air Force Academy was riddled with Gulenists.

“I gave my son to the state, to the honourable Air Force Academy, and now they are accusing him of treachery,” says Ardagan Yamandag, a retired academic. The family home is filled with pictures of their smiling son, his military uniform, badges and a Turkish flag. But despite these emblems of patriotism, they have been shunned by all who know them. “Our neighbours won’t talk to us, our old friends don’t dare talk to us . . . People on the street point to us and call us Fetocus,” he says.

Hundreds of other families are in a similar situation. We all have the same grief. We have become closer than relatives,” he says. “There are many of them that couldn’t hire a lawyer since they didn’t have any money. The ones who could . . . sold their oxen, cows, land. They took a loan, sold their houses and cars to hire a lawyer.”

Before Mr Yamandag was arrested, his family had never been inside a prison. Now, they visit him there every week. He can barely see the sun from his cell, says Seyma, his twin sister, a theatre student at Halic university. She tells him about the outside world and tries to keep his spirits up but she is infuriated by the situation they find themselves in. “We are in our 20s. Instead of going out and having fun, we are going to Silivri,” she says, referring to the hulking prison complex near the Bulgarian border.

The psychological impact of her brother’s arrest on her and her family has been immense.

“I don’t feel like doing anything anymore . . . All the things I take pleasure in life are gone now,” she says. “They have robbed us of our honour. Half my heart is in prison, held hostage.”

‘I am trying to find my husband and they are accusing me of being a terrorist’

Ayse, intelligence officer’s wife

There is a small group of people, perhaps a dozen or so, who have vanished. Their cases remain veiled, rarely mentioned in the Turkish press, outside of the purview of Ohal and of the courts.

On November 1, Ayse’s husband, a 37-year-old Turkish intelligence officer, picked up their son from kindergarten in Ankara and left him with Ayse’s father. The last images of him were captured on neighbourhood CCTV cameras. Since then she has not seen or heard from him. “Neither him nor the car has been found,” she says. She did not want either his name or their surname to appear in print. She also declined to be photographed.

In the days after the coup attempt, Ayse’s husband had been suspended from his job, before finally being dismissed on August 2. He had told her he feared he was being followed and that he was being pressured to be an informer but that he did not know anything. “I can’t make anyone believe in me,” says Ayse, her face pale and her eyes red as she tries to stop crying. “I am trying to find my husband and they are accusing me of being a terrorist too. We are not terrorists. I only want to hear from my husband. He was not the man of any side. But I can't make anyone believe me. And now we are destroyed.”

Her husband spent years climbing the intelligence ladder, working in cities all over Turkey and even in Athens, at times returning to Ankara to carry out specialist investigations.

“He worked so hard to get this job and to be able become a diplomat. He studied international relations. He was studying day and night. He missed our son’s childhood,” she says.

Her phone rings and it is her five-year-old son, asking for a blue balloon. “He is a bright kid,” she says. “Sometimes I catch him talking to himself and ask him what is he doing. He says he is playing with his Dad.”

She has tried official channels but no one is helping them. “My husband is innocent and I am afraid that he might become a scapegoat,” he says.

“All my values are destroyed. I have lost all my hope. I sometimes think of dying with my son and getting rid of all this mess.”

Last month, after winning a referendum that allowed him to greatly increase his powers, Mr Erdogan extended the state of emergency for another 90 days. In the days that followed, more than 1,000 people in the police were arrested, and another 9,000 dismissed from the force. More arrests are planned. The office of Mr Erdogan, the Justice Ministry and prosecutors did not respond to requests for comment either on individual cases or the purge itself.

The government has repeatedly described the purges as necessary to defend Turkish democracy. “We are going to keep up the fight in terms of democracy, fundamental rights and liberties,” the president has said.

The crackdown continues.