Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin struggled to justify Turkey’s controversial policies regarding the operation in Syria, ousting of pro-Kurdish mayors, alleged torture in Turkish prisons, purges over the attempted coup and media freedom.
Kalin on Thursday attended the Conflict Zone program of Deutsche Welle (DW)’s Tim Sebastian as a guest at the Foreign Policy Forum in Berlin and answered his questions about issues he defined as “Turkey’s highly controversial policies at home and abroad.”
Referring to Turkey’s military offensive in Syria, Sebastian said that Turkish President Erdogan’s visit to the US failed to change influential minds and that Senator Lindsey Graham defined the operation as an “invasion” during a meeting with Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“What did you expect? The reason for that [wording of invasion] is because that’s exactly what you did,” the journalist argued.
Turkish military early in October launched an incursion into northeastern Syria with a stated aim to clear its border area from the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) which it regards as a terrorist organization.
Kalin said they don’t want to see any terrorist elements taking over a piece of land, ruling over people in Syria, whether by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Kurdish separatists at home that Ankara claims has links to the YPG, or the Islamic State (ISIS).
“That’s exactly the effect of what you’ve done, according to the Pentagon,” the journalist said.
The aide said that it was the YPG that released about 800 ISIS terrorists in prison to show that the fight against ISIS will be unsuccessful without them.
“Eminently foreseeable that that would happen. This is the result [of your operation there,]” Sebastian also said.
“You have a right to make your border area safe from terrorism. … But very few countries are buying this line. And if the job of a presidential spokesman is to sell the president’s line, you’re not having much success are you?” he further asked.
The journalist also reminded US warnings against possible human rights violations in Syria during the operation and asked how many investigations were launched into the suspected human rights abuses in the region.
“A number of investigations by our military have been launched,” Kalin said.
He added after Sebastian’s persistent questioning of the number of the investigations, that he would rather not share further information since they are “operational details.”
“[Normally,] you can tell me if there are any human rights investigations going on, can you not? You don’t know, do you? This is just a blanket excuse,” the journalist said, interpreting Kalin’s discretion on the issue.
Sebastian then moved on to the alleged torture cases in Turkish prisons, referring to the UN Committee against Torture’s Review of Turkey in 2016, which cited “credible reports of Turkish law enforcement officials engaging in torture and ill-treatment of detainees.”
Underlining that the UN report said impunity enjoyed by those officials who committed such acts, the journalist asked: “Impunity doesn’t suggest doing much investigation into those things, does it?”
Kalin then said that Turkey has a zero-tolerance policy towards torture and the alleged cases of torture belong to a time right after the attempted coup in the country that claimed the lives of more than 200 people on July 15, 2016.
“It doesn’t license you to torture people,” Sebastian emphasized.
The spokesman stated that he does not accept or try to justify alleged torture, holding forth that those who make the claims regarding torture in Turkey’s jails are the same people who orchestrated the failed putsch.
Ankara blames the Gulen movement, led by the US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, for 2016’s failed coup attempt and deems the faith-based group a terrorist organization.
Tens of thousands of the movement’s perceived and real members have been imprisoned with some 150,000 people from the public sector being dismissed or suspended, as part of a post-coup crackdown although Gulen and his followers strongly deny any links to the putsch bid.
“Since the 2016 coup attempt, 180 media outlets have been forcibly closed, over 220,000 websites blocked. … Scores of journalists remained in jail or under travel bans. Hardly a proud record for you, is it?” the journalist also questioned.
“Yes, but [that’s what happens] when you’re dealing with PKK news outlets spreading propaganda for the terrorist network, when you’re dealing with FETO terrorists that carried out the coup attempt on July 15th, they had a media empire in Turkey,” Kalin said.
FETO is an acronym for Ankara’s designation of the faith-based Gulen movement as a terror organization.
“You fling around these accusations of terrorism. … Ok, this doesn’t take us any further,” the journalist commented on Kalin’s attempts to justify the post-coup crackdown on critical media in Turkey.
Sebastian also referred to Turkey’s accession negotiations to the EU, saying that it “effectively came to a standstill.”
“There’s fatigue in Europe, and there’s negotiation fatigue in Turkey, also. How long will it take, another century, for Turkey to be a full member?” Kalin replied.
“That’s up to you, isn’t it? If you abide by the conditions, it could happen quickly. But, you’re not interested, are you? … If you’re fed up with it, call it a day,” the journalist outlined the issue.
The European Union has accused and criticized Turkey for human rights violations and deficits in the rule of law.
The EU’s General Affairs Council stated in 2018 that “the Council notes that Turkey has been moving further away from the European Union. Turkey’s accession negotiations have therefore effectively come to a standstill and no further chapters can be considered for opening or closing.”
Recalling the post-coup purges, Sebastian stated that thousands of people who were falsely implicated in the coup attempt had to be reinstalled because the allegations against them were false.
“Not that they had the chance to defend themselves before they were fired. This is life under your [AK Party] AKP, isn’t it?” he added.
When Kalin argued that the purges are similar to those occurring during the unification of Germany in 1990, the journalist responded: “You’re trying to evade answering the question. The fact is tens of thousands of people were fired and humiliated … before finally, they were able to clear their names.”
“Your party has sat back and watched countless people’s lives ruined while you threw allegations at them that turned out to be false,” Sebastian said, to which Kalin replied by saying that there is an ongoing judicial process.
The journalist also mentioned the issue of about over 20 pro-Kurdish mayors who were removed from their posts since the March 31 local election, with some of them being arrested on terror-related offenses.
“They were, unfortunately, supporting the PKK with people’s money,” Kalin argued.
Sebastian then asked: “How many were convicted of that?”
The spokesman replied: “Out of 20? I think the court trials are still underway.”
The journalist then said that there’s nobody convicted, adding: “So what happened to the presumption of innocence? They’re just simply taken out of their jobs, removed.”
The presidential aide insisted that there is an ongoing judicial process and that they will be charged.
Sebastian emphasized that eventually everybody would be charged and that may include Kalin when the next Turkish government comes in.
“Have you ever thought of that? You used to work for a Gulenist newspaper, Zaman,” he asked.
Zaman, a major, high-circulation daily before it was seized by the AKP in March 2016, was shut down by the government two months after it was taken over by state-appointed trustees for being linked to Gulen movement.
Kalin answered that he did not work for them, he only wrote for them, arguing that there’s a difference between the two.
When asked about whether he is worried about the revolving door in Turkey, the presidential spokesman chose not to reply to the question directly and continued with another question.
“Maybe, I don’t know. Do you think in 5-10 years the Nazis will come to power and put you on trial here?” he said in a question that is described by the journalist as a “slur.”