Turkey has been under a state of emergency since the abortive coup attempt on July 15, 2016. During this period, 150,000 people have been arrested and 50,000 remain behind bars, including journalists, academics, students, public servants and even shopkeepers. Absent from this long list of alleged supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the US-based cleric accused of masterminding the putsch, are political figures who made no secret of their sympathy for Gulen in the past. This has long stirred controversy and sparked accusations that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is protecting its own.
In September 2016, two months after the coup attempt, the arrest of businessman Omer Kavurmaci — the son-in-law of Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas — led many to believe that the operations would extend to political quarters, since the Topbas family’s sympathy for Gulen was no secret. The expectations, however, did not materialize. Moreover, the judiciary made a surprise decision in May 2017 to release Kavurmaci while pending trial, on the grounds he suffers from epilepsy and sleep apnea.
Then, in June 2017, the authorities arrested Ekrem Yeter, the son-in-law of AKP co-founder Bulent Arinc. An associate professor in medicine, Yeter was among hundreds of academics expelled from universities through legislative decrees that the government used to its advantage under the state of emergency. Yeter became a suspect because the health association that he chaired was shut down after the coup attempt for alleged affiliation with the Gulen community, which the government has since rebranded as the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization.
Yeter reportedly testified that he had joined the health association after his father-in-law advised him to contribute to the association. He testified that AKP heavyweights such as Labor Minister Mehmet Muezzinoglu and Agriculture Minister Faruk Celik had attended the health association’s events. Given the zeal with which prosecutors pursue alleged Gulen sympathizers, one would have expected that a testimony providing fresh names would lead to an expanded investigation. But this did not happen. Moreover, Yeter walked free after a few days in jail when a court ruled he had a permanent residence and therefore he could report to the police regularly and was not a flight risk.
The release of the two men was seen as special treatment, leading social media users to coin the term “sons-in-law law,” which politicians and journalists were quick to adopt. Pro-government columnist Abdulkadir Selvi, for instance, wrote, “Along with criminal law, civil law, commercial law and international law, there is now a new bunch — 'sons-in-law law.'"
The contrast between the treatment of different suspects was inescapable. The evidence prosecutors have against the sons-in-law and the evidence used to imprison journalists is beyond comparison. Kavurmaci, for instance, stands accused of financially supporting Gulen even after the coup attempt. Yeter is accused of implementing Gulenist projects via ministries and medical faculties. Cumhuriyet and Al-Monitor columnist Kadri Gursel, meanwhile, has been in jail since November 2016 for alleged links with Gulenists, the supposed evidence for which is telephone records showing that individuals who downloaded the ByLock application — the alleged secret communication channel used by Gulenists — had called or texted the journalist. Moreover, the bulk of those calls and text messages remained unanswered. The charges against other Cumhuriyet writers and journalists still in jail are of a similar nature.
“More than 150 journalists remain in jail, including some with a lifelong record of opposing [the Gulenists], while the sons-in-law walk free,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), at a June 13 CHP meeting in parliament. In a sarcastic tone, he added that perhaps “mothers are to blame because they have failed to find the right fathers-in-law for their sons.”
The Kurdish-dominated Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is also incensed, as two of its co-chairs and 11 of its lawmakers are in jail. “Is our co-chair, Selahattin Demirtas, without a permanent address? The law is being applied differently to different individuals,” said HDP spokesman Osman Baydemir during a June 13 HDP meeting in parliament. During a parliamentary session, CHP lawmaker Eren Erdem directed a written question to the justice minister: “The 150 journalists in prison, are they being denied release because they are nomads living in tents?”
The public outcry over “the sons-in-law law” was not limited to AKP opponents. Selvi, the pro-government columnist, wrote that the release of Kavurmaci and Yeter had led to a “great rupture” in society, warning against “creating the perception that some people enjoy protection.” Devlet Bahceli, the head of the Nationalist Action Party, also warned against double standards.
Along with the 50,000 people in jail, the toll from the post-coup crackdown includes 130,000 people expelled from public service. The investigations, however, have yet to shed light on the political support that the Gulen community enjoyed in the years it was the AKP’s main ally. The public outcry over the release of the sons-in-law was the reflection of growing misgivings, both in opposition and pro-government quarters, that the political leg of the affair is being covered up. Kavurmaci was eventually re-arrested on June 17, but the misgivings are far from being allayed. What the public expects is a clean-up, not only in public institutions but also in the AKP’s own ranks.