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Why did the Turkish judiciary take lynching attempt so lightly?

An attack on the CHP's main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu attracted strikingly diverse reactions. Some saw it as a protest of his political stance. Others thought it was a premeditated attempt at a lynching.
Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu attends a news conference in Ankara, Turkey June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RC14C7E2BF70

An attempt to lynch Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), occurred April 21 during a funeral in Ankara for soldiers who were slain in clashes with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq. The crowd first booed Kilicdaroglu. Then he was pushed, shoved and punched in the face. He took refuge at a house in the village, as his bodyguards thought it was too dangerous to take him out of the village in a car and through the angry crowd.

Kilicdaroglu was in the house for at least an hour because the crowd refused to disperse in spite of demands by security forces. Some people tried to break into the house, and a woman called on the crowd to set the house on fire. Meanwhile, his minivan was pelted with large stones and seriously damaged.

Kilicdaroglu could only leave the house in an armored vehicle that was brought in at the insistence of the director of the General Directorate of Security, Celal Uzunkaya, who also addressed the crowd. "You need to lynch me first to harm anyone here," he said. Uzunkaya's strong words seem to have played a role in deterring the group.

More than a thousand people had surrounded the house, but only nine people were taken into custody. The prosecutor released three suspects, and five suspects were freed by the magistrate judge. Only one suspect, Osman Sarigun — who punched Kilicdaroglu — was detained and then released and placed under judicial control.

Given the fact that people sometimes quickly find themselves in prison pending trial for even mild criticism of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, it was evident that this attempt at lynching Kilicdaroglu was taken very lightly by the Turkish judiciary. No one got arrested, and there is no sign of a serious case that might be brought against the attackers.

Having heard the remarks of Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu on the first day the suspects were in custody, when he said there was no evidence of an organization being behind the attack, the results were not surprising — Soylu's hasty announcement about the crime set the tone for the investigation.

Not only the interior minister but also other senior officials from the president’s office sent messages attempting to turn a serious crime into a legitimate protest. Presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun said, "We can't accept our citizens who protested the opposition leader's language and the alliance he formed to be treated as if they are an angry crowd or an organized crime gang." He added, "The right to protest in our country is protected by the constitution."

Devlet Bahceli — leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which partnered with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to form the "public alliance" coalition in the local elections, placed almost all the guilt on Kilicdaroglu's shoulders. He asked, "What did you do to that man to make him punch you?"

After high-profile people portrayed the lynch attempt as a "reaction" and downplayed the near lynching itself by focusing on the possible and so-called "justified" reasons behind it, Sarigun received a hero's welcome when he was released. AKP supporters visited Sarigun in his village in Ankara and posed for a picture with him, kissing his hands as a gesture of respect.

Enthusiastic welcome to Mr. Sarigun extended to all different circles. 800 lawyers have offered their service pro bono for him.

Not everyone agreed with this hero’s welcome. Some think the attack on Kilicdaroglu was a grave crime. The Ankara Bar Association filed a petition with Cubuk's prosecutor, complaining about the provocative publications of pro-government Gunes daily. The bar said the newspaper — among others — should be tried for "crimes against humanity."

Kilicdaroglu and his party have a completely different view of the attack. Kilicdaroglu said it was a pre-planned, organized attempt to lynch him. "We see this clearly. Everything was somehow planned ahead of time," he said.

Some signs do show the attack might have been pre-planned and may have ulterior motives. CHP parliament member Levent Gok — who was with Kilicdaroglu when the attack took place — said they were "steered toward those aggressive groups." He added, "It was a very organized action. The group was positioned in three or four different places.

CHP parliament member Yildirim Kaya stated they received information suggesting that the Ankara arm of the Cubuk Grey Wolves organization — which is an extension of the MHP — was behind the attack and brought their militants to the village in three buses.

Haber Turk writer Nagehan Alci wrote that the funeral was originally going to take place in the Cubuk district, where the police had taken serious measures for Kilicdaroglu's security. But it was moved to a village under the gendarmerie's responsibility — the gendarmerie was not even aware that Kilicdaroglu would be attending the ceremony.

A report prepared by a CHP investigation team presents some unmistakable signs of a premeditated crime. According to the report, 15 people who were not from the nearby village were talking to other attendees in an effort to provoke them. Stones had been piled along Kilicdaroglu's route beforehand, and large plastic cans were placed to establish barricades. Also, a man was seen piling up batons on the roof of a house along Kilicdaroglu's route. The report also said that some 300 gendarmeries and 152 members of the police did not intervene for 30 minutes while Kilicdaroglu was pushed, shoved and assaulted. Small groups of five to six people kept moving around in the large crowd to provoke the others.

In the broader picture, the attack could be seen in the light of political developments in Turkey. It took place just after Erdogan's first conciliatory messages after the elections. "We 82 million [Turks] have to unite and act jointly as a Turkey Alliance on the issues concerning the future of our country, putting aside all our political differences," Erdogan said in a Twitter message. Just a few days later, Bahceli responded to these remarks. "Talking about ‘Turkey's Alliance' has raised question marks. … Our alliance is with the republic. Our alliance is with our brothers in the AKP who are patriots," he said.

Not all messages from within the AKP condemned Kilicdaroglu. Some senior officials in the party harshly condemned the attack and said they were very sorry for what happened.

Maybe it is possible to say there are different camps within the AKP and — when reacting to the events — they were also expressing their position to Turkey's Alliance.

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