The violence began Friday night as military tanks rolled down the streets of Ankara and Istanbul. Dozens were killed in the first hour. The death toll has reached 290, but it’s hard to be sure. An estimated 1,400 people were injured.
The Turkish President barely escaped with his life as F16s harassed his plane and helicopters blasted several locations he had recently visited.
Turkey has a long history of military coups. In most cases, the violence has destructive consequences for human rights. Already, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is considering reestablishing the death penalty – a move that would prohibit Turkey from joining the EU. “We can’t ignore the people’s request in a democracy – this is your right,” said Erdogan as crowds called to hang the insurgents on Saturday.
President Erdogan vowed to purge the Turkish armed forces before the coup attempt was over. “They will pay a heavy price for this. This uprising is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army,” he said.
Erdogan has labeled the attempted coup “treason” and is showing no mercy. More than 7,000 people, including a full third of the general-rank command of the nation’s military, have been arrested. Over 8,000 officers have been removed from the Turkish Interior Ministry, and nearly 30 towns have been left without governors.
Former air forces commander AkÄ±n Öztürk is believed to be the mastermind behind the attack, but Erdogan places much of the blame on the followers of Fethullah Gulen, accusing them of trying to create a “parallel structure” within courts, armed forces, police, and media that would eventually topple the state.
Gulen, who has hotly denied involvement in the coup, is a US-based Turkish cleric with considerable influence in both judiciary and police forces in Turkey. “As someone who suffered under multiple military coups during the past five decades, it is especially insulting to be accused of having any link to such an attempt. I categorically deny such accusations,” says Gulen.
President Erdogan’s response to the coup has Turkey’s allies on edge. Secretary of State John Kerry supports Erdogan’s government but begs the Turkish President to “uphold the highest standards of respect for the nation’s democratic institutions and the rule of law.”
“A number of government officials and ruling party representative have spoken in favor of reinstating the death penalty, itself a tool of past military rulers. This regressive step should be avoided, as should further restrictions on legitimate dissent,” states Amnesty International.
Many Europeans are also uncomfortable with Erdogan’s decisions. “We want the rule of law to work fully in Turkey,” says French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. The attempted coup “is not a blank cheque for Mr. Erdogan. There cannot be purges, the rule of law must work.”
Turkey outlawed the death penalty in 2004 as part of a new bid to join the European Union, but EU ministers have confirmed that Turkey will not be allowed to join if it reinstates the death penalty. Furthermore, using the coup to restrict basic rights in Turkey is a move that directly violates the EU’s democratic principles. “He (Erdogan) would strengthen his position domestically, but he would isolate himself internationally,” says European Commissioner Guenther Oettinger.
Turkey has been trying to get into the EU since 1987, but is only being reconsidered now after making a deal with the EU to stem the flow of Europe-bound migrants crossing from Turkey into Greece.
Turkey is an important US-ally in the fight against ISIS, an important barrier between war-torn Syrian and Europe, and is already struggling to contain Kurdish separatists. A successful coup would have proved detrimental to these fragile relationships, but as Erdogan responds to the coup with no mercy, Turkey must now decide what kind of democracy it wants to have.