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Protest, get arrested, get released, then start again: One woman’s fight against Turkey’s crackdown on dissent

Nuriye Gulmen (third from left, orange vest) and Semih Ozakca (fourth from left, orange vest) chant asking for their jobs back as part of their daily protest in Ankara, Turkey.
Nuriye Gulmen and Semih Ozakca, in orange vests, chant asking for their jobs back as part of their daily protest in Ankara, Turkey.
(Umar Farooq / For The Times)

Light snow fell as Nuriye Gulmen carefully rested a whiteboard next to Ankara’s Human Rights Memorial, a statue of a seated woman reading a book. 

“Day 48. We want to return to work,” she wrote with a marker on the board, as a dozen protesters glanced at the pedestrians around them, looking for plainclothes police who might thwart their demonstration.

Since a failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, the government has imposed a state of emergency, granting itself power to suspend or fire state employees, impose restrictions on news media and art shows, and hold suspects without charge for 30 days.

Protests are banned, but Gulmen is among a small number of people in Turkey who have taken to the streets to defy the crackdown, inspiring others but putting their own freedom at grave risk.

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The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says it is engaged in a war on terrorism, against not only the followers of the cleric Fethulleh Gulen, whom it accuses of being behind the coup attempt, but also Islamic State and the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, groups whose attacks have killed hundreds in Turkey in the last year.

A lot of people can do this, and I suppose it annoys the government.
Turkish protester Nuriye Gulmen

More than 40,000 people have been detained, and 125,000 public employees fired or suspended from work, accused of ties to the PKK or to the Fethullah Terror Organization, or FETO —  the government’s name for the cleric’s followers. 

On Oct. 3, Gulmen, a postdoctoral student of comparative literature, was given notice that she was being suspended from the public university where she was doing research. She was accused of ties to FETO.  A secular leftist, she was handed a list of 42 questions: Are you a member of Gulen’s movement, Hizmet? Do you have an account in Bank Asya, a bank connected to Hizmet? Were you involved in the July 15 coup? Do you regret being involved?

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“I refused to answer the questions individually; instead, I wrote a one-paragraph reply,” Gulmen said during her protest as she accepted a cup of tea sent by an anonymous sympathizer.  “I said I am a socialist, I have nothing to do with the coup, these questions are about my private thoughts, and I have a right not to answer.”

On Nov. 9, Gulmen asked a few leftist journalists to come to a news conference at the memorial in Ankara, but the group found itself quickly surrounded by dozens of plainclothes police officers, two-way radios in hand, who warned them not to unfurl a banner reading, “The state of emergency must be lifted.” 

As Gulmen tried to open the banner, police arrested her, dragging her and the other protesters away as a crowd silently watched.  

Gulmen was charged with a misdemeanor for disobeying police orders, along with breaking a law that prohibits demonstrations threatening national security, and spent most of that day in detention, but was later released. The next day, she returned to the memorial, and was arrested again as soon as she tried to unfurl the banner. 

For 21 days, Gulmen went through the same routine, the daily spectacle becoming a fixture in the neighborhood, as crowds gathered each time to watch police drag her away, along with a growing cadre of rotating protesters. Among those arrested were high school students and people who were watching the protest and happened to get too close. Collectively, they face more than 60 charges.

“They kept releasing me because they just wanted to take me away from this place,” said Gulmen.  “A lot of people can do this, and I suppose it annoys the government.”

The police still show up, but they have not detained anyone in two weeks. There have been rallies in Turkey against the purge of civil servants, but they have been largely muted, quickly broken up by police with water cannon and tear gas. 

Gulmen’s daily protest is one of the only continuous acts of defiance against the government in Turkey today, and it has drawn others affected by the purges since the failed coup. 

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“People accused of being Gulenists come and recall their stories to me,” said Gulmen. “A woman came, saying both her father and mother were in prison, accused of being FETO members. A doctor came and told us how people are dying in prison, how he treated someone who died from an internal hemorrhage.”

Semih Ozakca, a primary school teacher, has been detained nine times. 

“I am not political, but I have my own world view. I am a revolutionary democrat,” Ozakca said. “I have nothing to do with FETO.”

A month after being suspended from work, Ozakca learned he was being fired. He found out because his name was listed in an official decree —  a document posted on a government website that lists measures being taken under the state of emergency. 

“In one night, everything changed. I found my name among thousands listed, under a heading that just said we are accused of belonging to ‘FETO or other terror organizations,’” said Ozakca, a member of the Alevi minority, a distant faith that Fethullah Gulen has labeled heretical in the past.

“The government has historically used accusations like connections to terrorist groups against critics,” said Gulmen, who spent 109 days in prison in 2010 before being cleared of being part of a banned leftist group. Her problems have continued, and over the years she has been detained for a host of charges, including singing in the corridors of government buildings.

“Erdogan was friends with Gulen for decades,” said Gulmen.  “If they want to prosecute FETO, they should start with themselves.”

Farooq is a special correspondent.

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