On Thursday, the leader of Turkey’s largest opposition party began a 250-mile march to Istanbul from Ankara to protest the growing number of people arbitrarily arrested and jailed by the Turkish government.
Thousands have joined CHP (Republican People’s Party) head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu on the March For Justice [Adalet Yürüyüşü], which is expected to take 23 days to complete.
Kılıçdaroğlu instigated the march following a 25-year sentence being handed to a member of his party. On Wednesday 14 June, CHP MP Enis Berberoğlu, formerly a journalist, was convicted of espionage and revealing state secrets after handing over footage to Cumhuriyet newspaper purportedly showing Turkey’s intelligence agency MIT loading weapons and ammunition intended for Syrian rebels in 2014. The report appeared in the paper in May 2015, causing huge local and international waves at the time.
CHP has called Berberoğlu’s sentence “politically motivated” and accused judges of ‘acting as pawns of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party’ (AKP), a charge vehemently denied by the Turkish government.
Following the lifting of immunity for MPs in March 2016, which some CHP members also voted for, over a dozen lawmakers from Turkey’s second largest opposition, HDP [Peoples’ Democratic Party] – a pro-Kurdish party – have been jailed, including both co-leaders Figen Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş. In February, Yüksekdağ’s Parliamentary membership was revoked after being convicted of making “terror propaganda”. She denies all charges, while her party released a statement calling the removal of her post in Parliament as “unconstitutional”.
Berberoğlu becomes the first CHP MP to be jailed. He joins 50,000 other Turks arrested since the introduction of a state of emergency last summer, which was initially intended to target suspects of the failed coup in July, but which has since been used to crack down on known opponents of the government, including journalists, human rights activists, and teachers.
Prosecutors claim all those arrested are suspected of plotting the coup, or have links to terror groups such as the PKK or FETO. Yet many others have also been caught up in the government purge, which has resulted in more than 140,000 people being fired or suspended from their jobs.
Kılıçdaroğlu said on Thursday that he was marching in support of not just his MP Berberoğlu, but all those who had been unjustly included in the purge.
Carrying a placard with the word ‘justice’ [adalet] on it, he said: “Our only demand is justice. This is a holy march; this is not about any political party. We are living under an autocratic administration installed by the 20 July coup. In a country where jails are full, there is no justice. Anyone who wants justice should support this march.”
Earlier this year, Kılıçdaroğlu campaigned for a ‘No’ vote in the referendum to change Turkey’s government to an executive presidency. For years, electoral support of the secular Kılıçdaroğlu has been pegged at 25% by the ruling AKP. But by moving above party politics, Kılıçdaroğlu was able to work together with a big coalition that secured 48% of the popular vote under conditions many independent commentators labelled “unfair” that also included a host of irregularities, such as the admission of unmarked ballot papers, which significantly boosted the “Yes” vote.
The government has criticised Kılıçdaroğlu for instigating the march. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said: “Justice cannot be sought in the streets. It is not becoming of the main opposition party to take to the streets and complain about us to the world. Parliament is the venue for resolutions.”
He added, “I advise him to end this now… provocative actions are always possible in such situations. Our interior minister is overseeing all security measures and is in close contact with the CHP people.”
On Friday Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ issued a written statement that described the CHP Justice March “illegal” and claimed it was an attempt to influence ongoing judicial proceedings.