Thirty years ago this month, Ilhan Erdost, a leftist Turkish publisher, was beaten to death by soldiers in Ankara's Mamak military prison. He had been detained by the military regime, which had just taken power in a coup d'état. His crime was publishing a book by communist theorist Friedrich Engels. He was 35 years old.
Erdost's widow, Gul Erdost, marked the anniversary by announcing that she planned to file a lawsuit against those she holds accountable for the killing: the generals who staged the Sept. 12, 1980, coup.
Gul Erdost has Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to thank for the chance to finally challenge the military. Thirty years to the day that tanks rolled through Turkish cities, giving rise to arguably the most brutal and anti-democratic period in the country's history, voters approved a package of amendments to the constitution drawn up by the former military rulers. These changes included removing the article that granted the military rulers perpetual immunity from prosecution.
Yet to hear many U.S.-based analysts tell it, Erdogan is tearing down Turkey's democracy, not building it up. These critics -- out of either willful disregard or sheer ignorance -- misrepresent what Erdogan has accomplished and why voters continue to support him. They depict Erdogan's government as an ominous departure from Turkey's past -- ignoring the abuses that occurred under the country's previous governments.
The constitutional reforms are only one of many ways that Erdogan's government, now in its eighth year of power, has worked to strengthen respect for human rights and the rule of law. The prime minister has successfully implemented legal and economic reforms needed to join the European Union. He has approved changes, however limited, giving Turkey's Kurdish population greater cultural rights. He has also done away with state security courts, whose mix of civilian and military judges ruled on alleged offenses against the state. (Full disclosure: In 1995, as a Reuters correspondent, I was tried before such a court for an article I wrote detailing military attacks on Kurdish villages.)
Turks, clearly, are pleased with Erdogan's efforts. In 2007, they returned Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) to office, five years after the party first swept to power. And with Erdogan's support, the recent referendum on the constitutional amendments passed by more than 15 percentage points.
Anti-AKP critics are not convinced. They portray Erdogan as a power-hungry Islamic radical intent on turning Turkey into an authoritarian, fundamentalist state. They claim that the government has concocted an "elaborate political fiction" that the Turkish armed forces planned a coup in a plot dubbed "Ergenekon." The arrest of some 60 military officers and civilian supporters for allegedly planning this coup, they say, was done solely to harass and stifle their opponents. Allegedly, the evidence against the military officers and civilian backers has been fabricated, creating a "climate of fear" for secular Turks.