Protesters in ‘silent scream’ for jailed Turkish military

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Angered by the jailing of scores of military figures, protesters in cities across Turkey are demanding justice with quiet but determined weekly rallies they call “silent screams.”

For the past few months hundreds of demonstrators, many of them relatives of the detained officers, have been gathering peacefully across the country every Saturday afternoon to denounce what they see as politically motivated punishments against the country’s once omnipotent military.

They carry Turkish flag, banners and photos of the detained officers, but they refrain from marching or shouting slogans, hoping that their coordinated, silent protests will be more effective. At one gathering in Ankara in November, some protesters covered their mouths with black ribbons.

“We will continue our protest until we empty Silivri,” said 55-year-old Safiye Kavvas during a recent protest in Ankara. Silivri is the heavily guarded prison near Istanbul where more than 300 military officers are being held who was convicted of an alleged coup plot in September.

Since coming to power in 2002, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to tackle head-on the powerful military, the self-appointed guardians of the secular state who carried out four coups over half a century and had threatened his Islamic-rooted party with a political ban.

Tensions have for years been building between Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and its opponents who fear Turkey's secular traditions are in peril and the premier's attempts at consolidating power are leading him to anti-democratic excesses.

But the extensive legal process that has led to the mass convictions of military figures, while hundreds more are still in jail awaiting trial, has sparked particular outrage in some corners.

While pro-government circles have praised the legal process as a step towards democracy that will end decades of political interference in Turkey, critics have branded the cases witch-hunts aimed at stifling voices of dissent.

The main opposition party leader last month likened the Silivri prison complex to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

“There were concentration camps in Hitler’s Germany in the 1940s. Today in the 2010s’ Turkey, there is another concentration camp in Silivri,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Republican People's Party (CHP).

“What do they share in common? Opposing the party in power... Professors, academics, journalists, authors are there in the concentration camp. We’ll tell about this camp to the whole world.”

Dozens of journalists are also in detention, as well as lawyers, academics and lawmakers - most of them accused of plotting against the government or having links with the outlawed Kurdish rebel movement the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Faced with a public outcry, Erdogan has been trying to distance himself from the detentions, acknowledging in a recent television interview his unease over “dropping army morale” over the arrests at a time when his government is seeking to crack down on armed wings of the separatist Kurdish rebels.

In an apparently conciliatory gesture, the premier surprised observers earlier this month when he visited an ailing general in hospital -- who was among the more than 300 officers jailed for up to 20 years in after a court ruled that a 2003 army exercise known as “Sledgehammer” was an undercover coup plot.

At the Ankara protest, much of the anger is focussed on the Sledgehammer trial. “The Sledgehammer verdict is a massacre of law,” read one banners quietly held aloft. “Turkey, do not sleep. Do something about your military!” read another.

“I’m here with the families of jailed officers because I believe the cases targeting the military are politically motivated,” said Ahmet Tatar.

Tatar’s elder brother Ali, a navy commander, was found dead in his house in 2009 after an Istanbul court issued an arrest warrant for him over his suspected links to Ergenekon, a shadowy network accused of plotting to overthrow the AKP government. A verdict in that coup trial, involving 275 defendants including top military figures, is expected within weeks.

Earlier this month, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone fired off a strident attack on the country’s justice system in an interview with local media, speaking out against the jailing of military and political figures.

“You have your military leaders, who were entrusted with the protection of this country, behind bars as if they were terrorists,” Ricciardone said, noting that a number of lawmakers had also suffered the same fate.

The comments angered government officials who told Ricciardone to stop meddling in Turkey’s domestic affairs, adding further tension to his already uneasy relationship with Turkish authorities.

But according to the protesters, the American was only articulating what many Turks are thinking.

“Generals combatting terrorism are behind bars,” said protester Halil Yapagili, a teacher. “We are standing behind (our) soldiers,” he added.

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