Turkey’s culture of impunity

Mahir Zeynalov

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In traditional societies, political and economic security come with loyalties in various forms. Turkey is no exception. What is unfortunate in Turkey’s case is that it has been struggling to join the EU and reform its bureaucracy and economic structure in line with Western standards. Despite significant progress initially, that dream has long gone.

In the United States, for instance, many believe that the path to success is through hard work because there is equal access to opportunity for almost everyone. In Turkey, however, loyalty to one group or another is considered a sure path to success. Displaying political allegiance is rewarded. This mentality has the potential to disrupt media, bureaucracy, judiciary and even civil society groups. Fear of breaking laws is replaced with fear of losing lucrative goodies.

High-level government officials and local authorities are acting with impunity. They understand well that political loyalty is more important than complying with the law.

Mahir Zeynalov

Before anti-government protests that rocked Turkey for a month two years ago, the government at least tried to remain within the law, even if its actions were considered illegitimate. This is not the case anymore. High-level government officials and local authorities are acting with impunity. They understand well that political loyalty is more important than complying with the law.

This harmful atmosphere has created a large segment of disadvantaged people, who are disillusioned with the rule of law in the country. This deepens societal divisions and reinforces identity politics.


On Saturday, for example, a horrific video surfaced on social media that enraged the entire society. It showed the body of an alleged militant linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) being dragged in a street. A member of the Turkish special forces is heard swearing at him, a reflection of deep-seated hatred against Kurdish separatists that is still prevalent in some segments of Turkish nationalists.

The government and pro-government media have significantly escalated their sometimes-racist rhetoric against Kurds since the June 7 parliamentary elections. Pro-government newspaper Sabah even ran a story that characterized the incident as a “routine practice” to check if the body is strapped with explosives.

The rise of the PKK in the 1990s was largely due to inhumane treatment of Kurds in the southeast. Twenty years ago, Turkish special forces burned down villages, tortured dissidents and killed suspects in cold blood. It seems the authorities failed to ensure that troops and special forces take extra care in using their power while fighting the PKK. Every army has rogue officers, but a responsible army punishes wrongdoers.

The idea that special forces drag the body of a militant in Kurdish-populated residential areas, openly swear at him, film the incident and share it online indicates how certain they are that their actions will go unpunished.


Just hours before the incident, another special-forces member was caught on camera threatening a journalist at gunpoint. This is an everyday ordeal for Turkish journalists. It is naive to expect law-enforcement officers to respect journalists when President Recep Tayyep Erdogan is openly threatening journalists in public rallies and promising to jail more of them.

I doubt that a police officer could dare put a gun to a journalist’s head if the authorities made sure journalists were free to do their job. The environment is enabling such rogue officers to abuse their power.

There was even more cause for concern when four thugs beat up prominent journalist Ahmet Hakan outside his house last week. This is a chilling signal to every critical voice in Turkey that they may face a similar fate. Suspects who attacked the journalist confessed that the intelligence and “reis” - a Turkish euphemism for Erdogan - were involved in the incident. In what type of democracy are mercenaries sent to beat up a journalist?


Nothing could depict this culture of impunity more than a judge posting unbelievably partisan and obscene messages on Twitter. Many were shocked to see the judge using a real profile photo, name and bio.

In his posts, he feels confident trolling journalists and activists on Twitter, posting partisan tweets and swearing at anyone who criticizes the government. In what type of democracy can a judge act in such a blatantly partisan way? Perhaps he thinks that being a government apologist will save him.

The judiciary is slowly becoming partisan. Because standing by the government is a shortcut to promotion, judges and prosecutors do whatever it takes to earn the government’s favor. For example, a prosecutor prepared a 1,453-page indictment last week, claiming that those who carried out twin corruption investigations targeting Erdogan’s inner circle attempted “to stage a coup.”

Jurists mocked the prosecutor, saying the document was almost completely fabricated. In what type of a democracy can a prosecutor prepare such a farcical indictment? Perhaps he thinks it is a way to climb up the ladder.

The rule of law is a significant ingredient of any functioning democracy. It does not only ensure the proper punishment of violators, but also helps eradicate a mentality that believes breaking the law is permissible as long as there is a reward.
Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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