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A failed military coup in Turkey last July served as a turning point for government efforts to crack down on opposition groups. The coup prompted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to declare a state of emergency and since then thousands of civil service members have been put on trial and government employees fired for being critical. Special correspondent Nick Schifrin reports.
It has now been more than a year since that failed coup in Turkey. You will recall, elements of the military tried and failed to overthrow the government.
Since then, the government has mounted a widespread purge in the name of security. Critics of the regime claim this has led to a fierce campaign to silence criticism across all aspects of society.
Special correspondent Nick Schifrin reports from Istanbul.
Thirty-nine-year-old Aynur Barkin has long been a proud member of Turkey's opposition. She's always known her activism carried risks, but she never anticipated being labeled an enemy of the state.
AYNUR BARKIN, Fired Teacher (through interpreter):
They want us to teach the way they like. They want us to dress the way they like. They want us to obey them wherever we go. And we say no. We have our own identities and values that we believe in. We believe in democracy.
For the last 15 years, she's been a third-grade teacher, the kind who takes selfies with her 8-year-olds. But she's also a self-described leftist who's opposed the government's education policies. And one day in February, she looked online and learned she had lost her job.
AYNUR BARKIN (through interpreter):
They do not take your statement or give any notice. There was just one sentence that read, they might be in contact with terrorist groups. Might. They do not have conclusive evidence. It's all hearsay.
She and these other fired teachers lost their jobs because the government said they supported terrorists, in other words, supported last July's failed coup. The government says elements of the military tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the administration, even sending tanks toward downtown Istanbul.
By the end of the night, 234 died and more than 2,000 were injured. Five days later, the government declared a state of emergency, saying the coup was organized by religious leader Fethullah Gulen, who runs a widespread social movement in Turkey and lives in exile in Pennsylvania.
In front of millions of supporters, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to crush the coup plotters and what he described as Gulen's society-wide conspiracy.
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Turkey (through interpreter):
From now on, we will examine very carefully who we have under us. We will see who we have in the military, who we have in the judiciary, and throw the others out of the door.
Under the state of the emergency, the impact has been enormous; 50,000 people have been arrested; 150,000 people have either lost their jobs or been suspended. The purge has targeted every aspect of society.
The fired teachers often clash with police. Two of them started a hunger strike to protest what they describe as the government's forcing them to submit or starve.
If we apply for a new job, the possible employer will find a code that says person was dismissed by decree. So nobody is willing to employ you. They are willing me to starve.
OZDEMIR AKTAN, Former Head, Turkish Medical Association:
I'm a physician, and I'm a doctor, and I'm an academic. And I ask questions. And now our system is prohibiting asking questions.
Dr. Ozdemir Aktan is a general surgeon at a private upscale Istanbul hospital. He's also been a prominent critic of the government's politics and health policy. He was the head of the Turkish equivalent of the American Medical Association. And in February, he was fired from his government hospital and teaching job for — quote — "links to terrorist groups."
I was one of the academics who have signed the letter asking for peace. And that was considered as a support for PKK.
The PKK is a Kurdish militant organization considered a terrorist group by Turkey and the U.S. It's declared a desire for independence, and targeted state institutions, like this police station last year.
On Turkish TV, Erdogan labeled Aktan and other academics who pushed for peace talks with the PKK enemies of the state.
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through interpreter):
They have titles before their names, like professor and assistant professor, but that doesn't make them intellectuals. They're unenlightened. They're vile. Those who side with the cruel are cruel. Those who side with massacre commit massacre.
That was five months before the coup, which means the coup only accelerated the President Erdogan's crackdown already in progress, says Dr. Aktan.
Turkey always looked to the West, and tried to be more to be like a Western country. We want democracy. Well, we want freedom. But now we are getting away and away from the Western population. That means less democracy.
YENAL KUCUKER, Executive Director, Turkish Heritage Organization:
I don't think this is an identity change. This is about priorities. And the national security of the country is very important.
The government declined our interview request. But Turkish Heritage Organization executive director Yenal Kucuker echoes the government argument when he says government structures had to cleanse themselves of people who support Fethullah Gulen, especially the military.
In specific divisions, there are certain generals, commanders, different ranks getting their instructions from — not from the military, but from those who were outside of the military. There was a cleanup campaign, so to speak, to eliminate those who are affiliated with Gulen movement.
That campaign has extended into journalism, and it's a fight that the Cumhuriyet newspaper knows well.
Turhan Gunay is the newspaper's books, magazine editor. He shows off mementos and the newspaper's century-old tradition of opposition.
What happens to people in Turkey right now if they oppose the government?
TURHAN GUNAY, Editor, Cumhuriyet Books Magazine (through interpreter):
I can only answer this question through my own experience, and that is, you are thrown into jail. The government has no tolerance for the slightest criticism.
Today, Gunay is free, surrounded by a fraction of the books he's spent the last 33 years reviewing. But he spent nine months in prison with his colleagues. And they were just released last month. That's him on the left in the blue. They had been accused of aiding a terrorist organization.
Did they provide any evidence?
TURHAN GUNAY (through interpreter):
No, they didn't. There was only the accusation, aiding and abetting the PKK. But we have no connection to them. After all, we are just journalists.
Cumhuriyet journalists have been arrested by previous Turkish governments, and Turkey has suffered three previous successful coups, the last one in 1980.
But Gunay says today feels different. Since last year's coup, 150 media outlets have been closed. And like all critics who've been jailed or fired, his passport's been taken away, so he can't leave a country that he says is becoming an open-air prison.
Turkey is a civilized, secular, and Muslim country. It was founded on that and molded on that. But, today, the people we call secular, modern, or civilized are cornered into certain spaces, and the areas they live in are fast being destroyed.
The government has stood by its characterization of the Cumhuriyet newspaper as pro-coup. And last month, one year to the minute after the coup, Erdogan recommitted himself to what he describes as strengthening the state.
The July 15 coup attempt wasn't the first attack against our country, and it won't be the last. For that reason, we will first rip the heads off these traitors. We will cut their heads off.
The crowd responded, "We want executions, we want executions," even though the country banned the death penalty 13 years ago.
What is the state of the justice system in Turkey?
OMER KAVILI, Lawyer for Accused Airman (through interpreter): People have become afraid of saying what they have seen or standing as a witness to what they have witnessed.
Omer Kavili is a lawyer for a 33-year-old 1st lieutenant in the Turkish air force. That's him on the right with his family. He's accused of being a coup participant.
In total, thousands of Turkish service members are on trial, part of the largest legal proceedings in Turkey's modern history. Kavili says his client didn't help the coup plotters, and the only evidence the government has presented is a video during the coup of his client walking in a hallway.
Can your client get a fair trial?
OMER KAVILI (through interpreter):
This is no trial. As he gives his testimony, we should be able to ask questions. But our microphones are turned off. I can't speak to my client because, between us, there is a wall of armed police. We don't know the evidence against us. We don't know who testified against us. If you call that a fair trial, to hell with it.
Kavili shows me how, every time he goes into court, authorities cover up his phone's cameras. He says, in this environment, the defenders feel like the persecuted.
They are already tailing me and tapping my phone. I'm under constant surveillance. They can detain me anytime they want.
The government's defenders acknowledge the coup was a turning point, but they argue it was for the better: The people prevailed, and the military learned its lesson.
This was the first attempt coup attempt the Turkish people were able to stop. This is democracy, and this is an elected government. The only way for the elected government to be — to leave this post is basically with elections, with the ballot, not with bullets.
Today, amidst Istanbul's high-rises, posters depict failed takeover attempts and men labeled martyrs who died defending the government. Authorities here are keenly watching their own people. And, in the name of preventing another coup, they're targeting all their perceived enemies.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Nick Schifrin in Istanbul.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
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