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[OPINION] We should not let the oppressor reduce the victims to numbers

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Ali Yıldız*

July 20 marks the sixth anniversary of a state of emergency (OHAL) declared in Turkey in the aftermath of a coup attempt on July 15, 2016. The ill-planned coup was thwarted in a few hours, but the mark it left on Turkish politics through the state of emergency renewed every three months for two full years became permanent with a law, numbered 7145, which granted the government the authority to use emergency measures indefinitely.

The two-year-long emergency rule saw the enactment of 32 government decrees, amending more than 1,000 legal provisions, most of them having human rights ramifications. These led to the mass detention of opposition deputies, the removal of democratically elected Kurdish mayors, the closure and dissolution of 151 media outlets, a constitutional referendum switching the Turkish system of governance from a parliamentary democracy to an executive presidency long sought by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and eventually a presidential election that Erdoğan won.

It was not the coup attempt that demolished Turkish democracy and the rule of law. That was done by the state of emergency, tellingly labelled as a “civilian coup” by opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. The end result is illustrated in Freedom House’s categorization of Turkey as “not free” since 2018 in its annual Freedom in the World reports.

Government decrees reducing citizens to sub-citizens

During the state of emergency, the Turkish government summarily dismissed individuals from public service with ad hominem emergency decrees (known as KHKs) on the grounds that they had links to terrorist groups. Removal from public service based on a KHK has a permanent effect and brings with it at least 30 types of discriminatory practices, depriving the victims of a range of rights, from a ban on adopting a child to obtaining a passport, from a ban on being a mayor, lawyer, accountant or school bus driver to exclusion from benefiting from disaster aid relief, publishing academic papers and the like, according to a joint report by The Arrested Lawyers Initiative and Human Rights Defenders e.V. What is worse, purged civil servants are blacklisted in the databases of employment and social security agencies with code 36/OHAL/KHK based on an Aug. 2, 2016 circular. This amounts to strong discouragement for private sector employers to hire victims of these dismissals.

The joint report, titled “No Country for Purge Victims,” gives the following list of bans and denials, illustrating the breadth and depth of the agony inflicted on the purge victims. The list indicates the ever-growing grip of a prohibitive mindset on all layers of daily life, which has permanent consequences for the people it targets.

Numbers

Yale historian Timothy Snyder says: “Victims left behind mourners. Killers left behind numbers.” With the KHKs, the Turkish government indefinitely dismissed a total of 125,678 people from public service — 33,716 teachers, 7,233 academics and 7,299 physicians and other healthcare professionals. In addition, 332,884 have been arrested over their links to the Gülen movement, while more than 101,000 of those were put into pretrial detention. Of those 332,884, 116,702 people have so far been convicted of membership in a terrorist organization, while 115,714 are still being investigated or standing trial.

The Turkish government labels the Gülen movement as a terrorist organization and accuses it of masterminding the failed coup in July 2016. The movement strongly denies any involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.

Victims

These numbers appear in many human rights reports and news about the human rights situation in Turkey. Although they represent the severity of human rights infringements in Turkey, as Snyder said, they also have the potential to turn people into numbers and turn their sufferings into a stream of anonymity. We should not consent to reducing people to statistics.

“Cultures of memory are organized by round numbers, intervals of ten; but somehow the remembrance of the dead is easier when the numbers are not round, when the final digit is not a zero,” Snyder wrote. That final digit, for him, symbolized the real human sufferings. I will conclude by adapting his strategy of turning the last digit into real human stories to Turkey.

To better understand the ongoing cruel purge in Turkey, it could be helpful to think of the 125,678 people whose jobs and achievements were erased without due process and their worlds ruined in the cruelest ways possible. Or it might be easier to imagine that the final “6” of the 33,716 dismissed teachers are Gökhan Açıkkollu, who was tortured to death and posthumously exonerated, and Cafer Bayram, Hatice Ezgi Orçan and Mehmet Çelik, all of whom succumbed to cancer after their dismissal, and Halime Gülsu, who was denied her medication and adequate healthcare leading to her preventable death while in a prison cell, and Hatice Akçabay, who drowned in the Evros River together with her three children while fleeing persecution.

We can better empathize with the dismissed if we remind ourselves that, say, the final “3” of the 7,233 academics might be Ahmet Turan Özcerit, who was diagnosed with cancer while in prison and passed away shortly after his release; or Assistant Professor Mustafa Çamaş, who died while working at a construction site after a crane fell on him, just because nobody else would employ him in a job that befitted his expertise; or Prof. Dr. Hanifi Binici, who was still denied reinstatement to his job even after his acquittal by a court and succumbed to cancer due to the stress he suffered.

Finally, the “4” at the end of the 332,884 arrestees might be thought of as symbolizing honorable judges and prosecutors Teoman Gökçe and Seyfettin Yigit, two victims abandoned to death in a prison cell; and Alparslan Güngör and Mustafa Erdoğan, who were diagnosed with cancer while in prison and were denied their right to early release until death became a certainty — all four incarcerated over their links to the Gülen movement.

When it comes to torture and infringement of the right to life, one is too many. Every single victim of a human rights violation is an entire universe on its own account, father or mother to several, son or daughter to a few, brothers and sisters to many. Let’s at least save the final digit from the abyss of anonymity and oblivion.

* Ali Yıldız is a Brussels-based lawyer and founder of The Arrested Lawyers Initiative.

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