Turkey Continues Crackdown With Mass Trial
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A mass trial in Turkey has almost 500 people standing trial for murder and attempting to kill the president. A year ago, Turkey put down an attempted coup. And since then, it's arrested tens of thousands of people for alleged ties to those behind the coup. NPR's Lauren Frayer joins us now from Istanbul. Hey, Lauren.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi.
CHANG: So who exactly is on trial, and what are they being charged with?
FRAYER: There are 486 defendants on trial.
FRAYER: They even had to build a new courtroom for this trial, said to be the biggest in Turkey. This is one of several coups trials, but it's the one with the most number of defendants. The court is surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of troops and armored vehicles. The defendants are mostly military officers who were stationed at an air base where fighter jets took off and bombed Parliament on the night of the coup attempt last summer.
They're charged with murder, as you mentioned, because 250 civilians died in the coup attempt. They are also charged with violating the constitution, trying to assassinate the president. And they face life sentences if convicted. Turkey does not have the death penalty.
CHANG: OK, so these defendants are accused of trying to overthrow the government a year ago. Have they been in prison ever since for the whole past year?
FRAYER: Most of them have. They were arrested in the days after the coup, but some defendants are being tried in absentia. And the most famous among them is Fethullah Gulen. He's a Muslim cleric from Turkey who lives in the U.S. now and has followers around the world. And he used to be close with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is now the Turkish president. But the two had a falling out years ago. And the president now accuses Gulen of infiltrating the Turkish state with his followers and masterminding last year's coup plot.
He's accused of doing all of this, by the way, from his home in Pennsylvania. He's lived in the U.S. for nearly 20 years. He's an elderly man in his late 70s. Gulen denies any role. Turkey wants the U.S. to extradite him, but that has not happened.
CHANG: Well, what's the atmosphere like across Turkey now? Are people watching this trial extremely closely?
FRAYER: They are. I mean, there's been this scene outside the courtroom which has been broadcast on television - thousands of people demonstrating in favor of the government, some calling for reinstatement of the death penalty. Someone was waving a noose over the crowd yesterday. State media are portraying this trial as a patriotic event. You know, defendants were led into the court yesterday one by one, flanked by Turkish police and soldiers on both sides of them - sort of like a military parade.
The coup attempt last year shook Turks. It frightened them. I mean, there were fighter jets bombing Parliament. And so a lot of Turks support Erdogan's strong hand in both putting down the coup and then bringing to trial the people he blames for it. But there have been tens of thousands of arrests, as you mentioned. You know, schoolteachers have been fired, private businesses taken over by the government. It's been this huge upheaval in society. And Erdogan says it's necessary for national security. Human rights groups say he's taking advantage to crack down on those who oppose him.
CHANG: Is there anything the international community is doing about this purge? I mean, we've seen the Turkish government arresting journalists and aid workers. Is there any response to any of that?
FRAYER: That's right. I mean, Turkey has become the world's biggest jailer of journalists, according to rights groups. According to the Turkish government's own figures, more than a thousand people have been arrested in this past week alone for terror links, mostly to Gulen's group. In the past week, 168 people have been arrested for social media postings, criticizing or poking fun of the government.
One of the Amnesty International staffers arrested here is a German citizen. So Germany has been vocal in calling for his release and criticizing Turkey's human rights record in general. Turkey, if you remember, is in negotiations to join the European Union. That's a long way off. But if Turkey were, for example, to reinstate the death penalty, that could be an obstacle to EU membership.
CHANG: That was NPR's Lauren Frayer. Thank you so much.
FRAYER: You're welcome.
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