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How Did Protesters in Turkey Get Labeled 'Terrorists'?

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

Turkey's PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan is unquestionably an example of the latter, if not of both. Once a jailed and banned politician for inciting hatred, now prime minister, Erdogan explicitly backs his uncompromising stance in the face of protests across Turkey with the 50% support he received in the last election. The PM and members of his cabinet have condemned criticism from the European Parliament and other international bodies regarding the AKP's hard-nosed attitude. Yet, AKP ministers and mayors' on/off-the-record provocative statements concerning protesters have solely been examples of their failed governance and antidemocratic administration.

After police brutally attacked protesters on June 15 the police anti-terror team raided the protesters' houses the following day and detained them. EU Minister, Egemen Bagis, stated that whoever entered Taksim would be considered "terrorists." How did a sit-in protest become a terrorist activity? Ironically, Erdogan's cabinet that vowed to abolish all of the antidemocratic elements in the 1982 Constitution, written under the auspices of the military regime, is now using those same ambiguous terms against the protesters.

The analyses on Erdogan's leadership, unfortunately, merely support the "unchallenged leader," the single man image he has been trying to depict among his supporters and in the international arena. A basic review of Turkey's political landscape, though, demonstrates that there are systemic deficiencies in Turkish politics through which holders of power may abuse their posts. Simply, Erdogan is not the first, and sadly will not be the last, unless the focus is given to the right question: "What are these stumbling blocks in Turkey's constitutional, administrative and criminal structure against civil rights and freedoms?"

These problems derive from "the-state-needs-to-be-protected-against-its-citizens" understanding that has been deeply entrenched in the current legal structure. The constitution recognizes the rights of individuals, yet these rights and freedoms are accompanied by ambiguous limitations. The ambiguity in constitutional law is not the sole source for the abuse of political, executive and administrative power. The Penal Code fails to properly define offenses, thereby allowing too much room for interpretation and administrative discretion. Similarly, the Law of Police Duty and Authority, amended in 2007 during the AKP's first term, grants discretionary powers to the police in deciding which mode of force it will use for deterrence. These discretionary powers have been used actively in combination with anti-terror laws. It comes as no surprise then that the AKP government has been jailing journalists, academics, writers and politicians under Anti-Terror Law since 2007 for involvement in anti-governmental activities.

These protests mark important changes in Turkey's political culture. Turkish citizens have claimed their political rights back for the first time on a national level since the Turkish political landscape was neutralized from citizens after the military coup. The terror of violence during the military regime created an environment of silent politics, or political pantomime so to speak, as those who had experienced or witnessed the violence sought refuge in their individual circles and rarely expressed their political dissent. This, however, is the first national social movement in which people have become political again, as in the basic meaning of politics: "For the people, with the people, by the people."

On the other hand, this is not the first time Turkish police have used disproportionate force. Many have been hospitalized due to improper use of riot control agents, especially in the past in south-eastern Turkey, though these received little coverage by the Turkish media. However, this time the excess use of force by the police has reached a level at which even the silence of the media would not be enough to prevent the news from spreading nationally and internationally. This was the first time after the military coup that Turkish people equally experienced the same police violence.

It is this nature of the protests that cannot be diminished by the words of the prime minister, the governor of Istanbul, mayors of Ankara and Istanbul or the EU minister, who simply called the protesters "terrorists." Nor can it be understood by simply comparing it to the Arab Spring.

The Turkish Medical Association and Union of Turkish Bar Associations have documented evidence of the excessive use of force by the police and the Ministry of Health requesting information and the personal details of protesters under treatment from hospitals. Nationally more people need to provide evidence to these bodies for official action against these violations and more people, including lawyers, doctors and other specialists, need to support both the protesters and these human rights defenders.

Internationally, what is crucial is not to consider this as a one-off incident or not to pursue single individual-based campaigns. Rather, it is crucial to initiate effective monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, and to keep using all forms of pressure, despite the ignorance of the government.