ANKARA, March 20, (Agencies): Turkish authorities detained more than 2,000 people over the last week for suspected links to militant groups or last year’s failed coup attempt, the interior ministry said on Monday. Turkey, which faces multiple security threats, including the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Islamic State militant group, has also widened a crackdown on alleged supporters of the July coup attempt. In a statement, the interior ministry said 2,063 people had been detained for questioning in the past week.
A total of 999 of those were suspected of links to the autonomy-seeking PKK, which has carried out a three-decade insurgency against the government and is considered a terrorist organisation by the United States, Turkey and Europe. Another 966 were detained for suspected ties to the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames for orchestrating an attempted coup in July. Gulen denies any involvement and has condemned the coup. Seventy people were detained over alleged links to Islamic State, while 28 more were held for suspected ties to “leftist terrorist groups”, the ministry said.
The ministry also said 24 militants had been “neutralised” in operations over the past week, and of those, 13 killed. It did not give further details. Following the July 15 coup, Turkey has arrested more than 40,000 people and sacked or suspended more than 100,000 in the military, civil service and private sector.
Meanwhile, Turkish protesters on Monday demanded the death penalty, abolished in Turkey more than a decade ago, for 18 alleged coup plotters on trial for the killing of a military officer who resisted an effort to overthrow the government.
The demonstrators jeered as security forces escorted the defendants into a courthouse in the Turkish capital, Ankara. The crowd also displayed an effigy of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric based in Pennsylvania who is blamed by Turkey for the failed coup attempt on July 15.
The effigy had a noose around its neck. Gulen has denied involvement in the uprising. Turkey abolished the death penalty as a campaign to join the European Union gained momentum, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said since the coup attempt that Turkey could hold a referendum on reinstating it if parliament fails to pass such a measure. European leaders say any talks on Turkey’s bid to join the EU, which faltered years ago, would end if Ankara restores the death penalty. Relations reached a new low this month because of Turkey’s anger over the refusal of some European countries to let Turkish Cabinet ministers campaign for diaspora votes ahead of an April 16 constitutional referendum on increasing the powers of the Turkish president.
Supporters of the measure say a more centralized leadership would help Turkey deal with security, economic and other challenges; critics say its approval would fit a pattern of increasingly authoritarian behavior by Erdogan. The suspects who appeared in court in Ankara are accused of involvement in the shooting of Omer Halisdemir, an officer who was killed after he shot dead Semih Terzi, a renegade military commander who allegedly tried to take over the special forces headquarters in the capital during last year’s uprising by some military units. Suspect Ahmet Kara, who was Terzi’s military aide, testified last month that he was duped into participating in the rogue operation without understanding that it was an attempt to overthrow the government.
The defendants, whose trial began in February, face life imprisonment if convicted of murder and other crimes. The Turkish government has described Halisdemir as a “martyr;” staterun media have reported on people who paid tribute at his grave, and many children across the country wrote letters addressed to him in a school activity organized after his death. A documentary film was made about Halisdemir, and some families named newborn babies after him. More than 270 people were killed in the coup attempt. Over 150,000 people have been taken into custody, fired or forced to retire from Turkey’s armed forces, judiciary, education system and other public institutions since the thwarted insurrection.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday accused a jailed Turkish-German journalist of being a terrorist agent in comments likely to cause further unease in Berlin over the incident. Erdogan, who was speaking at a meeting of an Islamic foundation in Istanbul, said the reporter, Deniz Yucel of Germany’s Die Welt newspaper, would be tried by Turkey’s independent judiciary. Authorities arrested Yucel, a dual Turkish and German national, last month on charges of propaganda in support of a terrorist organisation and inciting the public to violence. He was initially detained after he reported on emails that a leftist hacker collective had purportedly obtained from the private account of Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s energy minister and Erdogan’s son-in-law.