The trial of 31 journalists, writers and executives from the shuttered Zaman newspaper started at the courthouse of the maximum-security penitentiary in Istanbul’s Silivri district Sept. 18. The defendants are accused of membership in the network of Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gulen to which many Turks refer as the Fethullah Gulen Terror Organization, or FETO. The Turkish government is accusing Gulen of instigating last summer’s coup attempt.
The story of Zaman, founded in 1986, parallels the rise and fall of the Gulenist network. Just like Gulen and his followers, Zaman rose to prominence in the 1990s as a moderate voice of conservative Muslims in Turkey. In the 2000s, thanks in no small measure to the ascendance of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the ruling party’s good relations with Gulen, Zaman became Turkey’s highest-circulated daily newspaper. Meanwhile, Gulen’s influence within the Turkish state — especially in the judiciary, the police and the armed forces — expanded.
But in the wake of the fallout between the AKP and Gulenists in 2013, Zaman first came under the control of government-appointed trustees in April 2016 and then was permanently closed on July 27, 2016 — 11 days after the failed putsch. Around the same time, the authorities arrested scores of Zaman-affiliated journalists for membership in FETO and aiding the coup attempt.
The defendants in the Zaman case, 22 of them in pretrial detention, are something of a who’s who of Turkish intelligentsia. They include political scientists Sahin Alpay and Mumtazer Turkone, veteran journalist Nazli Ilicak, theologian Ali Bulac and human rights lawyer and Al-Monitor writer Orhan Kemal Cengiz.
Turkish and international news outlets reported that during their opening defense statements, many of the defendants expressed regret for their past affiliation with Gulenists. Alpay apparently said, “I must confess that until [the day of the coup] I was not aware that [Gulen’s] movement had a side that could be involved in illegitimate affairs. That members of the Gulen movement were involved in the July 15 coup … shocked me and threw me into a deep sense of error.”
While Turkone pointed out that he always opposed coup attempts and July 15 was no different, Bulac wondered how the defendants could have known FETO’s true intentions when “those who ran the state — [President Recep] Tayyip Erdogan, [former Deputy Prime Minister] Bulent Arinc, [former Prime Minister] Ahmet Davutoglu and [Prime Minister] Binali Yildirim — could not.” Bulac added that had he really been part of FETO, he would have fled abroad like its prominent members. Those defendants who have had their day in court expressed regret for their past affiliation with Gulen, but reminded everyone that they were not the only ones with such a history.
Indeed, Gulenists dominated so much of Turkey’s political, economic and social life in the 2000s and early 2010s that it was impossible to do anything without them. In the media, education, foreign trade and the state bureaucracy, followers of Gulen and their sympathizers were everywhere. For many people in the public and private sectors, working with Gulenists was not just expected, but mandatory. The orders to do so came from the very top of the state.
In addition, accusations of “aiding and abetting FETO” and “membership in FETO” have become something of a boogeyman that some people use to get those they dislike into trouble. As Al-Monitor writer Kadri Gursel (who is in custody himself for another case) wrote in August 2016, Turkish drivers with the letters “FG” in their license plates rushed to change their registration while authorities sometimes detained relatives of Gulenists who were not themselves affiliated with the network at all. What started as a necessary purge after the coup attempt eventually turned into a witch hunt.
The Zaman trial — like other cases in which the defendants did not have much political power to begin with — gives the impression that the AKP government is only strong enough to go after minor players or only interested in punishing those who oppose it. Meanwhile, the “big fish,” Gulen, remains at large.