Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu is everything Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hates. He is a disillusioned former Islamist, a member of Parliament from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and a human rights defender. Hence the jail sentence of two years and six months against him for a 2016 Twitter post advocating peace. Last week, Turkey's top appeals court approved the jail sentence against Gergerlioğlu for spreading terrorist propaganda five years after his Twitter post, paving the way for him to be barred from Parliament. Gergerlioğlu is defiant. “I am not afraid,” he said in a recent phone call, but he should be. He has ruffled feathers in Erdoğan’s circles as well as among the country’s prison authorities when he shared stories on the floor of Parliament of men and women being strip-searched by police. Gergerlioğlu’s decision to give voice to the strip-search allegations prompted scores of men and women, including opposition deputies, to share stories of their own similar experiences on social media. After a nationwide uproar, Turkey’s prisons and detention authority hit back, defending its controversial use of strip searches, while Turkey’s interior minister accused Gergerlioğlu of being a terrorist.
The story of Gergerlioğlu is the story of everything that has gone wrong with Erdoğan’s “new Turkey.” Gergerlioğlu was born into an Islamist family. Like Erdoğan, he attended İmam Hatip schools, which were originally founded by the state to train young men to serve as imams and preachers. He tells me that as a pious Muslim, he was drawn to Islamism’s concern with justice and supported Islamist parties all his life. The Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rise as a “conservative democratic” party with a pro-reform agenda in 2002 excited him. He became a staunch supporter. Between 2009 and 2011, he served as the head of a prominent Islamist human rights association, which was founded in the 1990s to defend the rights of the country’s Islamists, who felt oppressed by its secularist establishment. He even ran for office on the AKP list in 2011, but did not win a nomination. Today, he is glad he didn’t.
2011 marked a turning point, not just for Gergerlioğlu, but also for the country. Erdoğan had already sidelined his secularist opponents, including the military, and set his eyes on his next target: establishing an à la Turca presidency that would grant him sweeping powers. Erdoğan “the conservative democrat” was gone, along with his pro-reform and pro-EU agenda that marked his early years in power. Erdoğan, the Islamist, was back — and with a vengeance, reinforcing the secularists’ view that despite all the sweet talk, he was an Islamist in disguise all along. From 2011 on, to bolster his Islamist credentials and legitimize his efforts to grab more power, Erdoğan embarked on an Islamization project. Through a series of policy changes, he sought to construct an Ottoman, Sunni-Muslim nation, which he thought would back the sultan-like powers he sought for himself. Erdoğan’s decision to drop the reform agenda and his use of Islam to legitimize his authoritarian practices made Gergerlioğlu question not just Erdoğan’s democratic credentials, but also the dangers of mixing religion and politics. He decided to break with the AKP.
The Gezi protests and their aftermath
Then came the Gezi protests in 2013. Erdoğan saw Taksim Square, a central district on the European side of Istanbul and a historic site of contestation between different visions for the country, as a place to present his Ottoman-Islamic vision. Millions of people across the country took to the streets to register their opposition. What started as a sit-in at one of Istanbul’s rare green spaces — Gezi Park — to protest Erdoğan’s plans to demolish the park and replace it with a replica of the Ottoman-era Taksim Military Barracks turned into the biggest popular resistance to Erdoğan’s Islamist vision. Protesters were opposed to all forms of authoritarianism, Kemalist and Islamist alike.
Some Islamist NGOs were there too, criticizing what they saw as Erdoğan’s abuse of Islam to justify corruption and democratic backsliding. Gergerlioğlu joined them, signing a statement condemning the brutality of the police response to the overwhelmingly peaceful protests. The few leftists and liberals that had remained in Erdoğan’s camp in the hopes that he would bring about a peaceful resolution to the country’s Kurdish problem also abandoned him after Gezi. Even the Kurds, who had largely remained on the sidelines of the protests so as not to jeopardize the ongoing peace talks with the government, started questioning the wisdom of relying on Erdoğan, who demonstrated zero tolerance to even to the slightest criticism of his authoritarian rule, to solve their problem via democratic means.
Gezi became a turning point for Erdoğan as well. It reinforced his deep-down conviction that democracy was a vulnerability. Further oppression of dissent, criminalization of legitimate opposition, and a shrinking space for civil society followed. Things got worse in 2015. Erdoğan lost his parliamentary majority when the pro-Kurdish HDP captured a historic 13% of the vote in the parliamentary elections. The post-2011 Islamist agenda he pursued to achieve his dream of presidentialism had not done the trick. Nor had the Kurds backed his efforts to establish an executive presidency. When the HDP’s now-jailed former Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaș declared that “we will not make you president,” Kurds and Turks lined up behind him to deny Erdoğan unchecked powers.
Erdoğan would not take defeat lying down, however. He turned to the Turkish nationalists, striking an alliance with the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the neo-nationalists on the left. The peace process with the Kurds, which had long been criticized by the nationalists, came to a halt. The few years of relative quiet that started when the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, struck an agreement with the government and asked the PKK to start withdrawing from Turkey in return for steps by the Turkish government to address Kurdish grievances in 2013, had ended. The return of violence frightened millions of voters and they gave Erdoğan back the parliamentary majority in the elections held a few months later.
The 2016 coup attempt against Erdoğan by a Gulenist-led clique within the Turkish military was the icing on the cake for Erdoğan. What began as a purge of Gulenists from state institutions turned into a widespread witch hunt targeting all dissident voices. The state of emergency declared after the coup attempt led to severe human rights violations and increased suppression of the opposition.
A constant voice
Through all this, Gergerlioğlu kept on advocating for human rights. On World Peace Day in 2016, Gergerlioğlu, a practicing medical doctor in a city 100 kilometers east of Istanbul at the time, posted a photograph of a peace demonstration on Twitter with a comment calling for an end to the decades-old war between the PKK and the Turkish military. “We would rather see our children alive, side-by-side, than side-by-side in coffins,” his message said. What harm could there be in a message advocating peace, Gergerlioğlu thought. After all, only a year earlier Erdoğan had held talks with the PKK to end the conflict.
But times had changed. After that Twitter post, Gergerlioğlu’s life was turned upside down. In 2018, the Kocaeli 2nd High Criminal Court sentenced Gergerlioğlu for his anti-war comments posted on social media on charges of spreading terrorist propaganda. He lost his job, he was fired from the board of many charitable organizations, and he was even kicked out of the parents’ association at his 12-year-old son’s school.
But something good happened to him that same year as well. He was elected to Parliament on the pro-Kurdish HDP ticket in the June elections, when Erdoğan got reelected as president under the newly established presidential system. A former Islamist’s nomination on the HDP ticket was part of the pro-Kurdish party’s efforts to address the wide-ranging problems of Turkish democracy, not just the Kurdish question, and appeal to a broader constituency.
At a time when Parliament mattered little in Erdoğan’s powerful presidential system, Gergerlioğlu made a difference. He used his seat in Parliament as a platform to press the government on human rights abuses, which won him widespread praise from across the country. He defended the rights of the LGBTQ community and people with alleged ties to the Gulen movement who were mistreated or tortured in police custody; he reported tens of individuals who had disappeared or were the victims of politically motivated kidnapping attempts; he pressed the Ministry of Family, Labor, and Social Services to address the increasing number of femicides and violence against women; and he defended the rights of Uighurs prosecuted by China. But the act that attracted the most attention has been Gergerlioğlu’s condemnation of police strip searches of female detainees. He brought the matter to the Parliament floor after a group of female prisoners in the Aegean province of Uşak claimed they had been forced to undress before being searched. The issue prompted scores of others, including men and veiled women, to share similar stories. Gergerlioğlu won nationwide praise.
AKP MPs, including the interior minister, hit back, accusing Gergerlioğlu of being a “terrorist.” The last straw came when the human rights defender criticized a failed Turkish military operation designed to free 13 Turkish soldiers and police officers abducted by the PKK years ago. The bodies of the victims were found in a cave complex in Gare in Kurdish-run northern Iraq; 12 had been shot in the head and one died from a bullet wound to his shoulder, according to Turkish officials. The PKK said the hostages had been killed in Turkish airstrikes. Gergerlioğlu said on Twitter that the victims who were killed by the PKK could have survived if the government had made efforts to rescue them. Other opposition parties joined Gergerlioğlu in criticizing Erdoğan for not doing more to rescue the abductees and trying to shift the blame. More than 700 people, including members of the pro-Kurdish HDP, were detained following the killing of the 13 Turkish captives. The government is now seeking to lift the parliamentary immunity of nine lawmakers from the HDP, including the party’s co-chair, on charges that they incited street protests in 2014.
The crackdown on the HDP
After last week’s incidents, Turkey’s top appeals court approved the jail sentence against Gergerlioğlu. The sentence comes against the backdrop of Erdoğan’s increasing clampdown on the pro-Kurdish HDP. The party’s former co-chair, Demirtaș, and many other HDP members remain in jail on trumped-up terrorism charges. The party’s local branches are being targeted systematically. In Kocaeli alone, where Gergerlioğlu was elected as an MP, six members of the local HDP branch have remained behind bars for over a year. Losing ground in the polls, Erdoğan’s nationalist ally and MHP head Devlet Bahçeli has been calling for the party’s closure. Erdoğan does not have to shut down the HDP when he has de facto crippled the Parliament’s third-largest party by jailing its democratically elected members and appointing trustees in their place. He is considering other measures as well to deal a further blow to the HDP, including stripping the party of state funding. But according to Gergerlioğlu, Erdoğan might still heed his ally’s calls, which would disenfranchise the 6 million people who voted for the party in the last elections.
In a flurry of statements after the court sentence, human rights organizations, LGBTQ groups, public intellectuals, opposition politicians, NGOs, and victims of human rights abuses defended the man who risked so much to defend their rights. Many on social media call him “Turkey’s conscience.” Both the injustice Gergerlioğlu voiced throughout his long career as a human rights activist and the injustice he himself suffered are emblematic of the moral, legal, and political crisis Erdoğan’s new Turkey faces today. Jailing him, and many other human rights defenders like him, will only deepen it.