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Brand Turkey and the Gezi Protests: Authoritarianism, Law, and Neoliberalism (Part One)

[Street performer as Themis, the representation of justice, in Ankara's Kugulu Park. Image via occupygezipics.tumblr.com] [Street performer as Themis, the representation of justice, in Ankara's Kugulu Park. Image via occupygezipics.tumblr.com]

Neoliberalism, Illegality, and State of Exception in Turkey

The Gezi Park protests, and the state response to them, have crystallized larger dynamics in Turkey. These include recent legal changes and their contribution to the institutionalization of neoliberalism, centralization of powers, allegations of cronyism, authoritarianism, and encroachment on professional independence and labor rights. Overall, these protests offer a valuable opportunity to consider how high-security, neoliberal nation states operate in general, with Turkey as a particular instance. In this context, surveillance and anti-terror laws give the impression of a state of exception, which suspend the rights of citizens, whereby state officials appear to transcend law for the “public good.” As such, law appears to be deployed to concentrate power and to promote neoliberal institutionalization, whereas those who are unhappy with these policies are criminalized. This was exemplified in the Gezi protests.

Law, Concentration of Power, and Privatization

In terms of the neoliberal urban development of Istanbul, the encroachment of the Gezi Park development plan on Istanbul’s vanishing public space was by no means an isolated source of concern. On the day the protests began, news reports indicated that the Kadıköy ferryboat port in Beşiktaş had finally been privatized and purchased by the Shangri-La Hotel group, following a mysterious fire that incapacitated the building’s public transport function. After the Gezi Protests, however, the officials denied that the port was sold, and in July the ferries have been operating as usual—even though access to the port via the road has been reportedly difficult. When a similar fire hit Istanbul’s historic Haydarpaşa railway station, there were rumors that it would be turned into a luxury hotel. In fact, the number of public train services from the station has recently been drastically reduced, on the grounds that a new rail service will be built in the next twenty-four months, though reports now indicate that the station’s name does not appear in the renewal project. Likewise, the modernist Atatürk Cultural Center adjacent to Gezi Park has been closed down for renovations for the last few years, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has recently announced that he wants it completely rebuilt, and that he wishes to see a new mosque on Taksim Square. The broader problem here is the government’s increasing self-entitlement to privatize public assets, and the rising concerns over the fate of historic buildings, parks, and forests.

Faced with social movements resisting these tendencies, Erdoğan has recently announced that if the environmentalist youth have complaints, they should address these directly to him, their Prime Minister. If one ignores his persistently derisive and accusatory tone towards the protesters, this call might appear to be reasonable. And yet, this was precisely one of the problems: for the most part, Erdoğan now stands as the sole “go-to” authority, because his government has bureaucratized and centralized previously autonomous institutions.

For example, in May 2011, Parliament, with its absolute AKP majority, granted the Prime Minister and his Cabinet the right to issue decree laws for a period of six months, thus giving them the power to pass laws without having to submit them to parliamentary deliberation and vote. On 17 August 2011, a decree law annulled the independent commissions whose task was to protect national environmental sites. Instead, the decree gave the authority to decide whether a natural site is worthy of protection to the government’s own Ministry of Environment and Urban Development—the name of which has become an oxymoron, as the environment is now at the mercy of urban developers. A later decree law ended the independence of the Turkish academy of sciences, in a move widely interpreted as undermining scientific oversight of the effects of rampant economic development. The government’s right to pass decree laws has since expired, but apparently the AKP’s aspirational drive for construction has not.

Another focus of the protests was the controversial bill on the “Preservation of Nature and Biodiversity,” which was on the AKP agenda for early June. In yet another move towards over-centralization, it aimed at putting national parks and forests under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Forestry and Waterworks. If passed, the bill will open up for discussion the natural heritage status of about twelve thousand currently protected national parks, natural heritage sites, and forests, which may then be cleared for development, even the construction of nuclear and conventional power plants and factories. This controversial law has now been postponed, but not abandoned, probably in order not to provoke further protests.

It is important to note that the AKP’s policy of absorbing autonomous institutions is not limited to the environment, but even extends to institutions like the stock market, which was regulated by a decree hidden in another on the Ministry of Family and Social Policy. Regardless of how well these institutions actually functioned for the public good in the past, the major problem is the exercise of centralized control over different institutions by absorbing them rather than reforming or improving them. Therefore, asking Gezi protesters to raise their concerns with the Prime Minister as the authority, sincerely or otherwise, is only a sign of a larger problem.

Another core problem is the apparent use of the justice system to suppress and discourage all dissent from such authoritarian and centralizing moves. Normally, a legal appeal against a policy regarding natural conservation could be launched through the courts. In fact, the Taksim protesters did just that, bringing a lawsuit against the privatization of Gezi Park. Given the circumstances, the court issued an expedited decision to halt the demolishing of the Park. Erdoğan has aggressively criticized this decision, declaring that he doesn’t understand what the judiciary is trying to do. Troublingly, it is now unclear what might happen next. The kinds of laws of protection that provided the basis of the court decision appear to already be on the AKP’s radar. In fact, when AKP officials first announced a possible referendum on Gezi, they had to be reminded that there was an open court case on the matter, and only then conceded that a referendum could be held “after the court’s decision.”

While it was unclear what would happen next, in a controversial midnight bill, AKP deputies passed a law that absorbed the authority of the Chamber of Engineers and Architects into the Ministry of Environment and Development. The Chamber had been instrumental in filing the initial court case to stop the demolishing of Gezi Park. Reportedly, with this new bill, the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning will be “responsible for all the decisions related to the approval of urban projects, which were supervised by related chambers” such as the Chamber of Engineers and Architects. Therefore, it is not only scientists and natural conservancy, but also architects and urban planning that is now rendered redundant by the government.

In another recent development related to the Gezi protests, the Prosecutor’s Office has requested the arrest of twelve members of Taksim Solidarity on the grounds that they had formed an illegal organization. Taksim Solidarity is composed of various institutions and NGOs, such as political parties, the Chamber of Engineers and Architects, and LGBT groups. Criminalization of the right to expression and assembly on the one hand, and passing laws to concentrate powers to further capitalist construction interests on the other, operate together in neoliberal institutionalization.

This has disturbing implications for the judicial process and contributes to the impression that the government operates in a prolonged state of exception. After the constitutional referendum of 2010, Turkey’s already imperfect judicial checks and balances appear to have been dismantled and further politicized. Consequently, the UN Human Rights Council published a report on the independence of judges and lawyers in Turkey. The Democratic Jurors’ Association of pro-democracy judges and prosecutors has consistently raised concerns over this issue, as well as what appears to be the increasing instrumentalization of the judiciary to stifle dissent.

Law, Surveillance, and Authoritarianism

This brings us to a third major problem that contributes to the authoritarian climate: the infamous anti-terror law. According to an Associated Press survey on the impact of the adoption of anti-terror laws after 9/11, conducted in sixty-six countries, about 119,044 arrests and 35,177 convictions have occurred in these countries. More than half of these convictions came from China and Turkey. The chilling result is that Turkey was by far the most zealous enforcer of such legislation, convicting 12,897 people, or roughly one out of every six thousand citizens, followed by China, which convicted one out of every 180,000 citizens. In 2005, before the changes to the anti-terror law, the total number convicted of terrorism in Turkey was only 273. As argued by Special Rapporteur Gabriela Knaul in a report for the United Nations Human Rights Council, all this raises questions regarding the expanded legal interpretations of what constitutes “terror” after 2006.

Under the anti-terror law, the Special Authorized Courts (SACs) have been over-empowered. At times translated as Special Heavy Penal Courts, SACs continued the legacy of former State Security Courts, mostly consolidated after the 1980 military coup. A recent report indicates that under the AKP, SACs housed sixty-eight thousand investigations, as compared to only eight thousand in 2001. Yet such courts have become the subject of major controversy because of allegations of mistrials or problematic use of evidence. The SACs have been accused of making convictions on the basis of “evidence” such as inconclusive digital material, unreliable witnesses, inconsistent witness accounts, or objects like the keffiyeh or books (including an unpublished one), as evidence of links to terrorist activity.

In a recent public statement, Boğaziçi University computer scientists criticized the use of digital material as conclusive evidence in courts, because of the ability to use malware to plant evidence on targeted computers. The Initiative for Solidarity with Detained Students (Tutuklu Öğrencilerle Dayanışma İnisiyatifi) cites the case of a book authored by Jürgen Habermas (translated into Turkish as Civil Disobedience) being confiscated as evidence of illegal activity. Likewise, recent scandals over allegations that evidence was planted in major cases have made newspaper headlines, as lawyers and reporters have continued to raise similar questions regarding law enforcement and the SACs. In response to serious criticisms, in July 2012, the AKP made new amendments, according to which SACs would be abolished in name, but the special authorized powers would not, since they would be transferred to other units. Thus, even though there have been recent amendments to the terror law, the ways in which it has been deployed during the Gezi protests indicate that there are good reasons to continue to be concerned.

At the height of the protests, EU Minister Egemen Bağış announced that whoever entered Taksim Square during police raids would be considered a terrorist. Likewise, Erdoğan has repeatedly referred to Gezi protesters as “terrorists” and accused Taksim hotel owners of harboring “terrorists.” Rhetoric aside, in order for someone to actually be tried under anti-terrorism legislation, one of the most important things is to establish their links to armed violence. The police have now duly exhibited the alleged “findings” of their Gezi Park-related raid on the homes of some protesters, including a sword, a gun, and some anti-aircraft ammunition. Some of these appear to have been confiscated from the household of a few protestors (but not the protest site itself). Indeed, the lawyer of one of the protesters has now confirmed that the gun and ammunition belonged to the protester’s father, a retired police officer. Furthermore, while there is no record of police injury during the protests due to firearms, there is a record of civilians joining the police with clubs or knives in their hands to attack protesters. Finally, insulting Erdoğan and other state officials has reportedly been considered as evidence to make allegations of terrorism against protesters. In the light of such concerns, it should come as no surprise that many approach the “evidence” of terrorist involvement at Gezi Park with caution.

Furthermore, as part of the new anti-terror methods, law enforcement has been given a substantial right to wiretap phone conversations for the purposes of collecting intelligence. Turkey has recently witnessed numerous wiretap scandals, which have violated the privacy of targeted parties. This includes private videos and phone conversations of politicians leaked on the internet during the elections, and a bug found in Erdoğan’s office. There have also been concerns over reports that intelligence units may have become a site of an alleged power struggle between Erdoğan (and his supporters) and other conservative groups, namely the Gülen movement. Both parties have denied such a tension, but regardless of whether these allegations are true, Turkey does have a surveillance problem, as indicated by discussions in the Turkish Parliament. Media reports of the parliamentary investigation on the subject have raised questions over the use of state discretionary funds to purchase surveillance equipment, making it untraceable. In its final report, the Commission suggested more legal control over intelligence agencies such as the gendarmerie and the police department. Again, while the wiretaps are nothing new, what does appear new is the growth of the surveillance industry, concerns over the easy manipulation of digital material in order to fake conversations and fabricate images, and the easy availability of the necessary technology, which can even be purchased on the internet.

It needs to be emphasized, however, that the atmosphere of protests across the country has temporarily created a counter “state of exception” to what was becoming a norm in the erosion of rights. In particular, social and alternative media have been employed by protesters to challenge official narratives of the demonstrations, together with new ways of organizing that spread to other parks, poking a hole in the surveillance and disciplinary environment. In addition to a series of bureaucratic and legal investigations against protesters and organizers, the AKP government’s reaction to these concerns has been to propose new modes of surveillance of social media by law enforcement. AKP officials claim these regulations are needed to oppose illegal activity, but considering what appears to be the criminalization of the right to assembly and expression, what constitutes “illegality” becomes questionable. For example, when one Gezi protest supporter was detained by police for his tweets on the subject, he was reportedly interrogated about his family’s criminal record and voting preferences. In such a context, it should come as no surprise that many may wish to continue the protests, whatever the eventual fate of Gezi Park itself.

[Part two of this article can be found here.]

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