Turkish police detained the editor and a dozen senior staff from the main secularist opposition newspaper on Monday, a day after 10,000 more civil servants were sacked over suspected links to a failed July coup.
Turkey’s crackdown since rogue soldiers tried to seize power on July 15 has alarmed Western allies and rights groups, who fear President Tayyip Erdogan is using the coup attempt to crush dissent. More than 110,000 people have been sacked or suspended and 37,000 arrested over the past three and a half months.
The Istanbul prosecutor’s office said the staff from the Cumhuriyet daily, one of few media outlets still critical of Erdogan, were suspected of committing crimes on behalf of Kurdish militants and the network of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based cleric. Turkey accuses Gulen of orchestrating the coup attempt, in which he denies any involvement.
Cumhuriyet said on its website that 12 of its staff had been detained and some had their laptops seized from their homes. Footage showed one writer, Aydin Engin, 75, being ushered by plain clothes police into a hospital for medical checks.
Asked by reporters to comment on his detention, Engin said: “I work for Cumhuriyet, isn’t that enough?”
The government has said its measures are justified by the threat posted to the state by the coup attempt, in which more than 240 people were killed. Erdogan says the crackdown is crucial for “cleansing” the state apparatus of Gulenist influence.
“An investigation was launched…due to allegations and assessments that shortly before the attempted coup, material was published justifying the coup,” the prosecutor’s office said.
On Sunday, 10,000 civil servants were dismissed and 15 more media outlets ordered closed over suspected links to Gulen’s network and militant groups. A court also jailed, pending trial, the co-mayors of the largely Kurdish city of Diyarbakir.
Before turning himself in, veteran cartoonist Musa Kart told reporters outside the Cumhuriyet’s offices that he was not frightened by the crackdown.
“This is a comical situation. I would like to say that you won’t be able to frighten anyone with pressure. It is not possible for people with a conscience to accept this. You can’t explain this to the world. I am being detained solely for drawing caricatures,” he said.
Cumhuriyet’s previous editor, Can Dundar, was jailed last year for publishing state secrets involving Turkey’s support for Syrian rebels. The case sparked censure from rights groups and Western governments worried about worsening human rights in Turkey under Erdogan.
Cumhuriyet said Dundar, who was freed in February and is now abroad, was one of those facing arrest.
“They are attacking ‘the last bastion’,” Dundar wrote on his Twitter account as news of the operation emerged. A month after the failed coup, Dundar told Reuters in an interview that he feared the government would attempt to link him to the putsch.
Since the attempted coup, 170 newspapers, magazines, television stations and news agencies have been shut down, leaving 2,500 journalists unemployed, Turkey’s journalists’ association said in a statement protesting the detentions.
“This operation is a new coup against freedom of expression and of the press,” it said, adding that 105 journalists were in jail pending trial and the press cards of 777 journalists had been cancelled.
Opposition groups say the purges are being used to silence all dissent against Erdogan and the governing AKP party in Turkey, a Nato member which aspires to membership of the European Union.
“The AKP’s coup against democracy is continuing,” Sezgin Tanrikulu, a lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, wrote on Twitter.
“This is an operation targeting the corporate identity of this paper. It is an effort to punish the critical publications of this paper, which is as old as the Republic itself and one of its biggest symbols,” he said.
The government this month extended a state of emergency imposed after the coup attempt for three months until mid-January. Erdogan said the authorities needed more time to wipe out the threat posed by Gulen’s network as well as Kurdish PKK militants who have waged a 32-year insurgency.
Ankara wants the United States to detain and extradite Gulen so that he can be prosecuted in Turkey on a charge that he masterminded the attempt to overthrow the government. Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, denies any part in it.