Recep Tayyip Erdogan supporters demand return of death penalty
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They crammed into mosques to mourn those who gave their lives to stop another military coup. Now, supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan want to see the cost of that sacrifice repaid in blood.
“Execution! Execution for them all — every one,” said Sait Seyit, a greying old man who sat slumped on his side at a smoke-filled café outside the Fatih mosque, weakened by a gunshot to his shoulder.
That call — echoed by thousands in mosques mourning the civilian dead from a bloody botched coup — is reawakening a political demon that has haunted Turkey’s democratic politics and helped define its outlook on the west.
Indeed, the clamour for capital punishments by Mr Erdogan’s supporters on Sunday marks an eerie twist of history. Hangings have punctuated violent transfers of power through Turkey’s modern republic, but largely at the instigation of military juntas rather than democratic politicians.
Yet a mix of empowerment and vulnerability emanates from the words of Mr Erdogan and his supporters, who stood down tanks and faced fire from rogue army helicopters to support his hold on power.
“We cannot ignore this demand,” Mr Erdogan told a chanting crowd outside his house in Istanbul late on Sunday. “In democracies, whatever the people say has to happen.”
Changing the constitution to allow for retrospective capital punishment is a diplomatic gamble for Mr Erdogan’s government that even some Turkish officials doubt he will see through. A few years ago Mr Erdogan raised the idea of reintroducing the death penalty, but never acted on it.
At stake is Turkey’s orientation towards the west and Europe, and the alliances and deals that flow from it. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, sent that message in unusually blunt terms on Monday. “We categorically reject the death penalty,” said Steffen Seibert, her spokesman. “A country that has the death penalty cannot be an EU member.”
One senior EU official was pessimistic that the Turkish president would be restrained, noting the thousands of arrests of supposed plotters since Friday. “All the false inhibitions have gone, the gloves are off,” the official remarked. “Erdogan has been turning his back on us for a while. What we are seeing is not the start but the acceleration of the process. What will stop it now?”
The irony is that it was under Mr Erdogan that Turkey officially banned the death penalty in 2004, meeting human rights conditions that opened the path to EU membership talks. The move was all the more symbolic given that it came just a few years after the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) who Turkish nationalists wanted punished with death.
Behind that decision to rescind the law was the memory of Adnan Menderes, Turkey’s elected prime minister, whose demise on the military gallows in 1961 is one of the formative moments in Turkish democratic politics. Many conservative parties — including Mr Erdogan’s AKP — still trace their roots back to Mr Menderes’ brand of populism.
Mr Menderes was one of 60 executed following the coup of 1960. After a putsch in 1971, 17 were hung by military rulers, including Deniz Gezmis, the revolutionary known as Turkey’s answer to Che Guevara. In 1984 Hidir Aslan, a leftist militia leader, was the last man executed in Turkey, one of 50 capital punishments meted out after Turkey’s military takeover in 1980. One 17-year-old prisoner’s age was manipulated to make him eligible for the gallows.
In spite of this history, many of Mr Erdogan’s emboldened supporters at the funeral argued that the coup attempt now justifies extraordinary measures.
Meryem Ozdirek, 22, said she was not bothered by the huge number of detainees — and the thousands of loved ones connected to them — who could potentially be affected. “Recep Tayyip Erdogan should take every precaution he needs,” she said.
Pressed further, some supporters acknowledged deeper misgivings about the future, predicting revenge attacks if executions were pursued. Despite that, they argued, the cause was just.
“We are desperate not to end up in the kind of misery that you see in Egypt, Syria or Palestine,” said Harun Gulay, a 43-year-old municipal official attending one of the funerals. “After this, there is no point in worrying about trying to keep the balance [with rivals to Mr Erdogan]. The situation is broken — there is no balance any more.”
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