Turkey Still Arresting Hundreds of ‘Gulenists’ Blamed for 2016 Coup Attempt

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he delivers a speech following a cabinet meeting, in Ankara, on June 9, 2020. (Photo by Adem ALTAN / AFP) (Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images)
ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

Turkey issued hundreds of new detention warrants this week for alleged followers of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, portrayed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the mastermind of the failed 2016 coup attempt against him.

Over 80,000 suspected “Gulenists” have been arrested over the past four years, prompting complaints from human rights organizations and Turkey’s putative partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Turkish media on Tuesday announced a major operation in the coastal province of Izmir against the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” or FETO — the Erdogan government’s preferred term for followers of Gulen. 

Police issued 208 arrest warrants for armed forces personnel across 25 cities in Izmir and arrested 89 suspects in simultaneous raids, some targets ranking as high as colonel. Turkish media identified four of them as F-16 fighter pilots.

Another operation on Tuesday detained 24 alleged “senior FETO members” spread across 14 provinces, while police in the Aegean area of Balikesir reported arresting nine more. Many of them were former military or police officers.

“Since the abortive putsch, some 80,000 people have been held pending trial and about 150,000 civil servants, military personnel and others sacked or suspended. More than 20,000 people had been expelled from the Turkish military,” Reuters noted on Tuesday.

Human rights advocates, the International Commission of Jurists, and the Istanbul Bar Association expressed alarm in September when Turkey began arresting the lawyers who represent accused Gulenists. The Turkish government essentially accused the lawyers of corrupting the court system by unduly influencing the investigations of their clients.

“Lawyers should never be arrested or sanctioned for representing their clients, or identified with their clients causes,” the International Commission of Jurists noted, while the Istanbul Bar wondered how anyone accused of ties to Gulen could expect a fair trial if merely representing them in court was treated as supporting a terrorist organization.

Erdogan’s vengeful crackdown against suspected Gulenists does not stop at Turkey’s borders. The New York Times on Tuesday reported allegations that Erdogan is using aggressive rendition demands, espionage, prosecutorial harassment of foreign citizens — including Americans — and even hitmen to take out Gulen supporters and allies of the PKK, the militant Kurdish separatist organization that is Erdogan’s other major domestic adversary.

Austria, in particular, is concerned about the rising level of Turkish espionage activity against perceived enemies of Erdogan living on Austrian soil. The situation has allegedly reached the level of an assassination plot against a Kurdish-Austrian politician.

“Austria has become a target of Turkish espionage. Erdogan’s long arm reaches all the way to Vienna-Favoriten,” Austrian integration minister Susanne Raab told the New York Times.

Fethullah Gulen himself lives in Pennsylvania. The Turkish government has been unsuccessfully trying to extradite him since 2016. Many Turkish attempts to extradite accused Gulenists from other countries have failed as well. Erdogan accuses Gulen, a onetime ally of Erdogan turned bitter enemy, of seeding the Turkish government and military with hundreds of his loyal followers to pave the way for the coup attempt. Gulen and his movement, which calls itself “Hizmet,” faces plenty of criticism beyond Turkey’s borders, but other governments have not followed Turkey’s lead in classifying the entire movement as a terrorist organization.

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