On Friday, members of an Istanbul-based non-governmental organization (NGO), which is focused on environmental issues, were stunned by the news: activities of their organization was halted by the government on terrorism charges.
To their surprise, Sisli Anti-Erosion and Forestation Association, whose primary agenda had been waging a fight to preserve Istanbul’s dwindling green areas, is accused of terrorism. But they were not alone. In a nation-wide crackdown, the Turkish authorities suspended activities of 370 NGOs and groups including childcare centers and lawyers’ associations on terror-related charges in deepening crackdown against opponents since an abortive coup in July.
The Turkish Interior Ministry on Friday announced the decision that stunned critics and observers of Turkey, sparking a fresh round of debates about the scope of ongoing repression against government opponents. Despite mounting criticism, the government appears as unapologetic in its actions which it says are needed as essential bulwarks against terrorist threats that jeopardize national security.
Among the NGOs whose activities were halted, the Interior Ministry said 153 were allegedly linked to the Gulen movement, 190 to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), 19 to the leftist militant group the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP-C), and eight to the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus appeared before the media with a defense of the government’s decision and tried to legitimize the ban on NGOs operating across the country. “The organizations are not shut down, they are being suspended. There is strong evidence that they are linked to terrorist organizations,” Reuters quoted Kurtulmus as saying.
He argued that Turkey is fighting terrorism on multiple fronts. The deputy prime minister said the government is still trying to rid the state institutions of Gulenists, while also fighting Kurdish insurgents and ISIS.
The targeting of NGOs is not the first of its kind. It is a symptom of a wider crackdown waged by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan administration in an accelerating pace against critics of all sorts since the attempted coup.
Erdogan, whose bellicose rhetoric against opponents came to define his routine, firmly sprang into action to press his long-sought bid: an executive presidency that would add tremendous powers to already present at his disposal.
More than 120,000 public officials saw themselves purged from state institutions on alleged ties to Fethullah Gulen movement, which government designated a terrorist organization, and on coup-related charges. But the epic scale of purges gives legitimate cause to critics to believe that government is not restrained itself to clear bureaucracy of only suspected Gulenists, but also everyone deemed non-loyalist. Both Gulen, who lives in the U.S. in self-imposed exile since 1999, and his detained followers deny charges of links to the coup.
The issue has become a source of lingering tension between Turkey and the U.S. as Ankara demands extradition of Gulen from Washington.
Progressive Lawyers’ Association (ÇHD), which is representing mostly secular lawyers and legal scholars, found itself among the suspended institutions. It announced on Twitter that ÇHD, which has been operating since 1974, is suspended for three months. It is one of the leading professional associations with nearly 3,000 members in the country. Back in September, the association’s head revealed gruesome details of the torture of detainees in prisons, drawing the ire of government officials who hit back at ÇHD for its revelations. Union of Turkish Bar Associations criticized the government for halting activities of NGOs without a court verdict or due investigation, vowing to fight against it.
The sweeping measures against opponents reveal an underlying pattern behind government’s purge and crackdown. The scope and proportions of the purge lead critics to the conviction that it spares no group, knows no bounds, recognizes no ideology and ethnicity. While the government characterizes most of the purges under the guise of a Gulenist cleansing, it also targets non-Gulenist groups, including Alevis, leftists, Kurds and recently seculars.
So zealous and far-reaching the crackdown was, it even targeted child-care centers, NGOs that operate in education and health field to help the needy and underprivileged. Of 370 NGOs, 47 of them are based in Diyarbakir, BBC Turkce reported. And 11 NGOs that were working to develop rights of children, to provide artistic skills and specialized education to the poor kids were now suspended on “terrorism” links and alleged ties to the Gulen movement.