One woman tells the story of her husband’s arrest and ongoing detainment following the coup attempt in Turkey.
This is the story of one of the many arrests made in Turkey following the coup attempt of July 15th. It’s also the story of how the aftermath of the coup attempt has irreparably altered the course of one family’s life. It’s also the story of so many thousands of families in Turkey now, families being punished for not supporting President Erdogan on his path to dictatorship. It’s a story of how we’ve become a statistic on the radio — 12,000 police officers arrested, including 2,000 high-ranking officers — a statistic that’s easily repeated and yet meaningless because it lacks context.
My husband was arrested on Thursday July 21st and has been detained ever since. The accusation leveled against him, that he is a member of a terrorist group, is based on the fact that he did a PhD in the UK on a government scholarship. No evidence has been found against him. My husband is a police officer. He’s Turkish; I’m French.
On the day of the coup, July 15th, he was supposed to be in France with me and our two kids at my parents’ home for a ten-day holiday. I was already in France and he was supposed to join me with our two kids on July 12th, after they had spent the celebration of the end of Ramadan at his parents’ village near Ankara. But he wanted to take our kids to see an eye specialist and a dentist in Ankara first because the medical services where we lived were poor, so he changed the departure date for their plane tickets to July 16th. When the coup started, he was having dinner with a childhood friend who he hadn’t seen in two years, and our kids were asleep for their final night in Turkey before the holidays. As they heard the jets over the centre of Ankara, my husband understood something was amiss, so he drove home and called me immediately.
We knew that they would not be able to fly out the next day as planned, and started wondering about what we should do. The following day, he received notification that his holiday had been cancelled and that he should report back to work. Airports had just reopened in Istanbul, so he drove there with our kids. I flew in on Sunday and we spent one night together at the airport hotel. On Monday morning, July 18th, I left for France with our kids and he started his journey back to work in a small city on the Syrian border 1,500 km from Istanbul. By the time he arrived, he had already been suspended. He only went to work to hand over his police badge and his service weapon.
The two days that followed were spent wondering what would happen next. He called me regularly, on one occasion to tell me that he had heard that police officers and their families were being put under surveillance, meaning we were likely under surveillance too. He called to tell me about what had happened to one of his colleagues who had been arrested and roughly treated in front of his heavily pregnant wife and their two young boys. He called to tell me that some of his fellow officers had started to fear arrest and that some had already fled. Then, on Thursday the 21st, his phone went off. After several hours of waiting and calling other people in Turkey, I received confirmation that my husband had been arrested.
My husband is a police officer, but he didn’t choose that career; his father chose it for him when he was 14. He was enrolled at the school for police cadets and then the police academy. Still, he was proud of what he had become and of his duty to serve. At the police academy, he graduated at the top of his class which meant he had the opportunity to work for the elite departments of the Turkish National Police. He was also selected to serve as part of a peacekeeping mission for the United Nations for a year. In 2008, he was granted a scholarship by the Turkish National Police to study for a PhD in international relations in the UK. All of this should have meant the promise of a distinguished career of which he could be proud. Instead he was branded a threat, a member of a terrorist organisation, imprisoned without charge, and dismissed from his job.
These past two months I’ve been reading about what’s going on in Turkey compulsively. I’ve started following the social media accounts associated with the organisations and media outlets campaigning for Turkish journalists and writers in Turkey. I’ve compiled opinion pieces from the New York Times or the Guardian about Turkish journalists who fled the country at the last minute. I’ve been reading the appeal by Nobel Laureates for the release of prominent writers, who are portrayed as the face of Turkish democracy. I’m a human rights advocate and I dearly value the role of journalists and intellectuals in the democratic process, but for me, the face of democracy isn’t that narrow, it takes the face of so many other public servants who have been dismissed for no reason other than not publicly supporting President Erdogan and his AK Party. It also takes the face of my husband, who believed in the rule of law and in respect for the rights of every citizen in Turkey.
In the first days after the coup, when journalists, judges, lawyers, and teachers were arrested by the thousands, there was widespread outcry in the international media. People wondered how it could be possible that so many — up to 80,000 — could be dismissed so quickly. There must have been a pre-established list, everyone said. I can’t speak to that, but I can say that within the police force, some people had been singled out before the coup and for the past three years had been facing a barrage of humiliations, demotions and threats; that’s why they were easily found after the coup. Here is how it happened for my husband and I.
Three years ago, when my husband finished his PhD in the UK, he had to go back to Turkey and start working again, as his scholarship contract obliged him to serve twice the amount of time he had spent studying abroad. He was posted in a small city in the southeast, a sensitive area given that the Syrian border was only a few kilometers away and the PKK was strong in that region. The city had an amazing history, the surroundings were beautiful, and a cease-fire between the PKK and the Turkish authorities left us with the feeling that it would be a quiet time. I took up a position at the local university, and I was pregnant with our second child, so we felt like a new chapter of our life was opening. A few weeks after our arrival, a major corruption scandal that involved then-Prime Minister Erdogan, his family, and their close friends rocked the country. Erdogan vowed to take revenge upon those police officers and prosecutors who had dared launch the investigation. The investigation was shoved under a carpet, but the cleanup of the judiciary and the police started wide and large. Anyone who did not loudly delcare their support for the AKP became a threat. My husband immediately understood that his career would be jeopardized. In a matter of weeks, he was demoted, reassigned from one to another post, and investigated for things as petty as not wearing a tie at work. When the time for promotions came, the government changed the rules as many times as it took to make sure no one they did not think supported the AKP would get promoted, so he didn’t. Instead, those officers who had once been pushed aside for accusations as varied as corruption, violence, and even sexual harassment were given sensitive positions.
At the university, at first everything went fine for me. Conditions were not ideal, but the work was interesting. The students were mostly Kurds from the neighboring cities and towns; many were the first in their families to ever go to university. Many had a very strong political mind. By and large, I felt almost privileged to be able to teach young adults who seemed to have a great future ahead of them. However, political turmoil hit the university too, and suddenly being a foreigner was not a privilege but instead a threat. Foreign teachers like me were fired, then re-instated, and then given hell until they left or fired again as I was.
In the course of two years, many things changed. The PKK called for Kurdish youth to rise and demonstrate when Kobane was in danger of being taken over by ISIS, and our city saw days of violence. The cease-fire with the PKK collapsed, and attacks against police and military convoys resumed, making roads unsafe after sunset, bringing back checkpoints at the entrance of the city most nights and then most days too. Next, the government decided to launch “security operations” in cities and towns where the PKK was strong, and their complete destruction ensued, causing hundreds of deaths among civilians as well as police and military personnel. The latter were reported in Turkish media, the others much less, which caused indescribable unease in the streets of our city, now full with Syrian refugees and people displaced by the fighting close-by.
Meanwhile, my husband worked nightshifts on top of his day job most days. He was under constant pressure at work. He would come home telling me how some of his colleagues wanted to shoot live bullets into protesters during the Kobane demonstrations. He would describe how corruption was rife among local construction companies and trucking companies, the two main business sectors in that region of Turkey, and his superiors let this happen.
Last December, criminal investigations were launched against every police officer who had done a PhD or a Master’s degree abroad on the grounds that they had abused their status as civil servants, even though they had gone with scholarships from the police. The reasoning was that since the Gulen movement supposedly encouraged its followers to educate themselves and work hard, those who had successfully applied to study abroad must be Gulenists. The investigation into my husband did not lead anywhere, but it was just one instance of the government trying to label him as a Gulenist.
Today, my husband is in prison. There is no evidence against him, no credible charge, no trial date, and no hope for a speedy release. His name, alongside thousands of others, has been published by the authorities in the official gazette and all pro-government media in lists of civil servants dismissed because they are suspected of terrorism. The lists are on the Internet, where they will remain because the government willfully put them there to humiliate these people and their families. My husband’s name is there, even though he believed in democracy and the rule of law and because he was not afraid to say that Erdogan’s AKP was leading Turkey towards a dictatorship. My husband, who for 16 years served his country as a police officer and never took part in political activities because he was bound by his position to remain neutral, has lost the right to work in Turkey in any job related to his expertise.
After the attempted coup, the government did not just investigate to find those responsible and punish them. Rather, it went on a mission to destroy the lives of anyone who did not support their vision of a Turkish state. It went on a mission to rid public institutions of anyone who might not support them in the next elections. In doing so, it dismissed the fact that public institutions such as the police, the army, courts, schools, and universities, aren’t meant to serve the leader but rather the people no matter their origins, opinions, or beliefs. Public institutions need to be representative of the people whom they serve, which means employing them all as well, irrespective of their backgrounds.
Democracy does not sustain itself anywhere in the world with journalists and writers only. Most will argue that democracy needs writers and artists that will push the limits of what is generally accepted as good behavior, and that is an important guarantee that expression is free. Investigative journalists who can work independently and lawyers who can defend anyone without fear hold a crucial position in the preservation of democracy as well. And yet, so too do police officers.
A note from Balkanist on anonymous submissions: since the summer of 2014, Balkanist has put in place a strict policy barring consideration of any piece submitted anonymously or by writers known to our staff whose agenda has been to remain anonymous.
In this case, after closely corrobating the author’s story with multiple sources, and reviewing a variety of materials including photographs, our editor has chosen to run the story anonymously, as decided with the author, owing to the exceptional situation in Turkey today.
Photo credit: Francisco Anzola/flickr/some rights reserved