Crackdown In Turkey Continues With Mass Trial

Aug 1, 2017
Originally published on August 1, 2017 4:37 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Turkey, the government's crackdown has entered another chapter - a mass trial in the capital, Ankara.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: Demonstrators supporting the government chanted outside the courtroom where nearly 500 people went on trial today. The defendants are mostly military officers charged with trying to overthrow the Turkish government during last year's failed coup attempt. The government has detained some 50,000 people since then. NPR's Lauren Frayer is following the trial and joins us now from Istanbul. Hi, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about these nearly 500 people standing trial today.

FRAYER: Well, they're mostly army and air force officers from a base where fighter jets took off and bombed Parliament on the night of the attempted coup last summer. There are also some businessmen, a religious scholar - 486 defendants in all, so many that it took hours to just file them all into the courtroom. They were escorted one by one, flanked by Turkish police and soldiers. Only 41 of them actually fit in the courtroom. The others are in an overflow room.

Thousands of people came out to watch this trial, to surround the courtroom. And that sound you heard, you played, from outside the court - what you heard there is people yelling, bring back the death penalty. Someone was even waving a noose above the crowd. Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2004, and so suspects at this trial face life sentences if convicted.

SHAPIRO: And is there a separate charge sheet for each of these hundreds of people? Are they each getting a trial, or was it sort of one mass hearing with everyone charged with the same offenses?

FRAYER: Most of them are charged with murder. More than 250 civilians were killed in the coup attempt last year. They were also charged with violating the Constitution and attempting to kill the Turkish president. There have been several trials linked to last year's failed coup, but this one has the largest number of defendants. And most of them have been in prison for the past year.

A few are being tried in absentia. And the most famous among them is Fethullah Gulen. He's a Muslim cleric the government blames for this whole failed coup. It calls him the mastermind. He's an elderly man in his late-70s. He's lived in the U.S. for nearly 20 years, and he denies any role in the coup. Turkey wants the U.S. to extradite him, and observers say the Turkish government hasn't shown really concrete evidence of his involvement in this plot.

SHAPIRO: Well, after more than a year of this widespread crackdown, is there any sign that things are going to change?

FRAYER: No, frankly. The interior ministry released a tally last night. In the past week alone, nearly a thousand people have been arrested for ties to terror groups. That's mostly to Gulen. Another figure from the interior ministry last night - 168 people have been arrested in the past week for insulting the state on social media. People have even been arrested for wearing a specific T-shirt here. At one previous trial, one of the defendants wore a T-shirt that says, hero - the word hero in English. And people have started wearing the same T-shirt in solidarity with him. And state media say more than 20 people have been arrested for wearing that T-shirt.

SHAPIRO: How is the international community responding to this crackdown? Are they putting pressure on Turkey?

FRAYER: One thing to watch is whether Turkey does bring back the death penalty. You heard those people chanting. Reinstating capital punishment would certainly raise alarm in Europe. The U.S. has not put much pressure on Turkey. But I should say Turkey's president is very popular. He says this purge is in the name of national security. Turkey's in a state of emergency, and he's got support from many people who believe such measures are necessary to save their country.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer in Istanbul. Thank you.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.