Country Report Turkey April 2011

The political scene: In focus

The AKP comes in for criticism over plot investigations

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government led by the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has come in for severe criticism over a series of arrests made between mid-February and early March 2011 in the "Sledgehammer" and "Ergenekon" criminal investigations into various civilian/military circles for allegedly plotting to overthrow the AKP government in the early 2000s. On February 13th, 163 officers from the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), including many prominent senior active and retired service personnel, were taken into custody and formally charged. This was followed by another, more controversial, wave of arrests on March 4th when ten journalists, including respected investigative reporters Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sık, were taken into custody for alleged connections to the Ergenekon organisation. At the same time, two well-known columnists, Mustafa Balbay and Tuncay Ozkan, who have been in jail for nearly three years, told news agencies that they were being mistreated. About 50 journalists are currently in prison.

The main opposition parties, the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) accuse the government of using the trials to eliminate the AKP's opponents in the media, the military and the judiciary. In addition to provoking widespread street protests condemning the journalists' arrests as a violation of press freedom, the arrests caught the attention of the European Parliament and international media organisations. In its annual report on Turkey published on March 9th, the European Parliament expressed concern about excessively long pre-trial detention periods and the need for effective judicial guarantees for all suspects in the cases. It also warned that the detention of well-known journalists such as Mr Sener and Mr Sik might lead to a loss of credibility of the trials, the purpose of which should be to "strengthen democracy".

Mr Erdogan, whose statements about the media and press freedom have raised concern in the past, has been the main focus of the criticism. He insists that the AKP has "no interest [...] in taking over the judiciary" and "we are neither the judge nor the prosecution" and called for a speedy end to the trials, which have been continuing for over three years. Appearing increasingly impatient with criticism, he described the European Parliament's report as "unbalanced".

The trials and the prime minister's repeated clashes with the media have arguably turned into the AKP's biggest weakness ahead of the general election. Although there may be no clear evidence that it is influencing the judiciary's actions, public opinion (particularly among liberals), is increasingly suspicious. It does not help that in February the minister of culture, Ertugrul Gunay, announced that he would not be seeking to continue in his job for another term. Mr Gunay, a seasoned social democrat and former member of the CHP, joined the AKP just before the 2007 general election, helping to give credibility to the ruling party's efforts to broaden its membership and support. Mr Gunay has appeared increasingly uncomfortable in the AKP, after the prime minister described a giant monument symbolising reconciliation between Turks and Armenians as monstrous and called for it to be demolished. In March, Umit Boyner, the head of the influential business association TUSIAD, said Turkey was still waiting for democracy, transparency and justice.

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