ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Several hundred academics, students and union members staged a protest under the watchful gaze of Turkish riot police on Thursday against a purge of thousands of educational staff since an attempted military coup in July.
Turkey accuses U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen of orchestrating the July 15 putsch and has dismissed or suspended more than 110,000 civil servants, academics, judges, police and others over suspected links to the preacher.
“Shoulder-to-shoulder against fascism”, “we will win by resisting”, the crowd chanted in front of Istanbul University as dozens of police wearing gas masks looked on. There were also emotional scenes, with teachers who have lost their jobs crying and hugging students.
Among those suspended or removed in the purges since July are nearly 50,000 academics, teachers and other education staff. Under the coup investigation, some 37,000 people have also been jailed pending trial.
“We are facing a period worse than the coup,” said Tahsin Yesildere, head of a university teaching staff association.
“In our country, which is being turned into a one-man regime through the state of emergency (declared after the coup), all those in opposition resisting this trend have become targets,” he told Reuters, referring to President Tayyip Erdogan’s rule.
The scale of the crackdown has alarmed Turkey’s Western allies and foreign investors, while human rights groups and opposition parties say Erdogan is using the coup as a pretext to muzzle all dissent in the European Union candidate nation.
Officials say the measures are justified by the threat they say Gulen’s followers pose to democracy. More than 240 people were killed in the coup, when rogue soldiers commandeered tanks and fighter jets, opening fire on parliament and other key buildings.
“We won’t surrender”, said one banner held up by protesters, echoing a headline in the secularist opposition daily Cumhuriyet, whose editor and senior staff were detained this week on accusations that their coverage of events in Turkey had helped to precipitate the coup.
“Our dismissal comes as part of the tyranny that is being built,” Levent Dolek, who was a research assistant in economics at Istanbul University before his dismissal last week.
“Our removal is just a detail considering the darkness Turkey is drifting into,” he added.
The interior ministry said on Thursday it had suspended 1,218 gendarmerie personnel, including more than 1,000 officers, on suspicion of links to the Gulen movement.
In a sign of how broad and at times confused the crackdown has become, one of Cumhuriyet’s lawyers said on Wednesday that a prosecutor handling the case against the paper, Murat Inam, was himself a defendant in a case against suspected Gulenists.
Asked about the allegation by an opposition lawmaker in parliament on Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said the prosecutor was indeed a defendant in that case but had not been suspended or expelled from the profession.
On Wednesday, Turkish media broadcast video footage of what they said were the two putsch ringleaders arriving at Istanbul’s main airport two days before the coup after one of several visits to the United States.
Chief Ankara prosecutor Harun Kodalak told state-run Anadolu Agency that the two, Adil Oksuz and Kemal Batmaz, were judged to be key figures in the plot. He said court cases against coup suspects would begin to be opened at the start of 2017.
Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999, has denied involvement in the coup.
Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Gareth Jones