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8th May 2021

Erdoğan jails hundreds for life, as EU weighs relations

  • Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (r) with EU Council president Charles Michel (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Turkey has jailed hundreds of people for life for taking part in the failed putsch in 2016, as EU leaders prepare to decide on future relations.

The mass-sentencing took place in Ankara on Thursday (26 November) after a three-year long trial.

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It saw 337 people, most of them young air-force officers from the Akinci air-base, imprisoned for life.

The Turkish trial also charged Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric living in exile in the US, with masterminding the failed attempt to kill president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

"The Turkish justice system is continuing to bring the treacherous coup-plotters to account," Turkish justice minister Abdulhamit Gül tweeted on Thursday.

The EU did not comment on the latest step in Erdoğan's crackdown, which has seen tens of thousands of people, including human rights defenders, artists, and opposition MPs, detained and more than 2,000 life sentences handed out already.

But the European Commission gave a withering assessment of Erdoğan's courts in a report in October.

There was "systemic lack of independence of the judiciary" and "political pressure on judges and prosecutors" to hand out pro-government verdicts, it said.

Meanwhile, EU diplomats never believed Erdoğan's story on the Gül plot, according to a leaked intelligence assessment from 2017.

And other leaks have indicated Erdoğan stage-managed aspects of the putsch to help impose his one-man rule.

The mass-jailing comes as EU leaders prepare to discuss future Turkey relations at a summit in December.

Some, led by Cyprus and France, were already calling for EU sanctions over Erdoğan's aggressive behaviour in the eastern Mediterranean.

The US has also threatened sanctions over Turkey's purchase of a Russian air-defence system in a further rift with the West.

But for Numan Kurtulmuş, the Turkish ruling party's deputy chairman, there was still time for last-minute deals.

"The US president will most likely watch the balance in the Middle East very carefully for US interests, and will not want to continue the tense ties with Turkey," Kurtulmuş told the Reuters news agency.

"I believe they [the incoming administration of US president-elect Joe Biden] will take positive steps," Kurtulmuş said.

"We act by thinking about what reforms we need, what steps to democratisation will benefit our people and move on that path, not by thinking what act or rhetoric would please them [the EU]," Kurtulmuş also said, referring to the potential EU sanctions.

Turkey expected the EU to impose symbolic or "toothless" measures only in December, according to Asli Aydıntaşbaş, from the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR) think-tank in Istanbul.

No one believed Turkey was still on course for EU membership, she recently told EUobserver.

"[But] Turkey sees Europe is divided ... and that France and Germany have major differences in how to deal with it," Aydıntaşbaş said, after German chancellor Angela Merkel had worked the phone with Erdoğan in recent weeks to try to soothe tensions.

Turkish diplomacy

Many Turkish military officers and diplomats posted to EU capitals had suffered in Erdoğan's post-coup crackdown, according to Jamie Shea, a former Nato official who now works for British think-tank Chatham House.

"Lots of Turkish bilateral military attachés sought asylum" in Europe due to Erdoğan's purge, Shea recently told this website, in what he called "very difficult circumstances".

But relations remained good at the institutional level, Shea added, even if political ties had deteriorated in recent years.

Turkey still posted "first-class military officers to Nato command," Shea, who left the Nato HQ in Brussels in 2018, said.

And "the [Turkish] diplomatic service continues to function very well. The quality of Turkish diplomacy, and I've worked with a lot of Turkish diplomats, is very high," Shea said.

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