GS Speaker Spotlight: Q&A with Yavuz Aydin (GS’20)

“I went to bed a judge and woke up a terrorist,” says Turkish jurist Yavuz Aydin on when he was purged by the Erdoan regime on the day of the failed coup on July 15, 2016.

Editor’s Note: On July 15, 2016, the day of the failed coup attempt in Turkey, there were 14,500 judges and prosecutors. One of them was Yavuz Aydin (GS’20) who, among 4,500 other jurists, was purged by the Erdogan regime, smeared as a terrorist, and ultimately exiled—all for the crime of upholding democracy and the rule of law. To mark the 5th anniversary of the failed coup, I spoke with Aydin about what actually happened on the day of the bloodiest failed takeover in Turkey’s political history, and how the fall of Turkish democracy has occurred in lockstep with the ascendance of Erodgan and authoritarianism. Despite everything, Yavuz explains how he is fighting back and is more committed than ever to restoring rule of law and an independent judiciary in Turkey. 

We’re speaking on the eve of the 5th anniversary of the failed coup, which has become known as the bloodiest failed takeover in Turkey’s political history. In the aftermath, thousands of military officials, pilots, police officers, civil servants, academics, teachers and judges were purged from their jobs for alleged links to terror. You were among those who were sacked. At last year’s Geneva Summit, you had a notable line describing what the coup was like as it was happening: “I went to bed a judge and woke up a terrorist.” Tell us in more detail: What do you remember about July 15, 2016? 

About that day, what I can remember, in one word, is shock. It was a shock. Like millions of others, I was also shocked. The coup attempt itself was shocking.It was like a prime-time program. At nine or ten PM, jets were flying over the Bosphorus Bridge which was closed one-way by a handful of soldiers and two tanks. It was really interesting to see those things and it took some time to comprehend the real situation. Like many others, I saw that there was something really bizarre going on. 

Maybe we will learn some other details in a few years, but the details we have been able to see in the last five years show us that that was not something that is called a coup attempt. We now have evidence that during the coup, the Prime Minister, the President, and the top intelligence chief had information about what was going to happen well before the attempt. They won’t be able to hide these realities forever. Because now there is no free media, no free judiciary and no lively civil society, the regime, to an extent, can cover up some things. But even under these circumstances, the things we know now about July 15 are enough to keep the people responsible for the death of more than 250 citizens and the beheading of soldiers. They were not officers or high ranking commanders. They were privates, who were just about to be sent home in a few days if this event had not taken place. Those privates were beheaded on Bosphorus Bridge. Those people who beheaded these innocent privates were not brought before a court or law. 

In the end, I believe things will be more clear in time. We will have a chance to look into the details of this and determine if it was a pure set up, or if it was used as an opportunity by those in power, or if it was speculated to have benefits in the end because, as I said in January 2020, Erdogan, the president at the time of the coup and who is still president, did not say it for nothing when he called this attempt, “a gift from God.” His fellows and his companions, the ministers next to him, were smiling while hundreds of people were dying on the streets.

Do you remember fearing for your life that day, or feeling especially concerned for your family’s safety? 

Yes. Not at the beginning, but after midnight, there was really interesting rhetoric coming from the ministers. They were pointing to a particular group called “Gulenists” and so any civil servants, judges, prosecutors, army officers, or police officers who were accused of being close with Gulenists, were named and shamed as a parallel state structure that needed to be eliminated. This profiling was made on the basis of not being loyal to the government, the ruling party or the prevailing ideology. We, as opponents of this regime, as judges and prosecutors, those who were willing to defend judicial independence until the end of our lives, were therefore profiled as Gulenists

That was a perfect pretext and a perfect excuse for the regime to use against us. This also explains why Erdogan described the coup attempt as a “gift from God” because he could really purge tens of thousands of civil servants, judges, army officers and even teachers, engineers, doctors and nursery teachers, by putting them all in the same basket, using the same pretext. When they started to weaponize this rhetoric, when in reality we had nothing to do with Gulenists, I feared that my family would be in danger because they were not with me. They were in our home town with my wife’s parents. We were constantly in touch on the phone. She was telling me that there were gunshots around, and people were going crazy. The supporters of Erdogan were on the streets and they were shouting that there will be revenge and there will be bloodshed. I was really anxious and I was afraid of my family’s security. I told them not to be outside, to get inside and turn off all the lights. That night was the longest night of my life. 

On state TV channels and pro government TV channels, some crazy-minded people were shouting and threatening to harm the wives and daughters of “traitors” like me. According to the jihadists, the wives and daughters of those who fight against you are in your possession. They were stating this openly. So, I really feared for the security of my wife and daughter. 

As a jurist, you’ve dedicated your life—until you were purged and exiled—to promoting and protecting the rule of law in Turkey. In early May, an Erdogan ally proposed a draft for a new constitution that would overhaul the judiciary. Can you explain what remains of the rule of law in Turkey? 

There are the ruins of rule of law in Turkey. Erdogan used the coup as a pretext to repress rule of law. And so, from this point of view, I do not think that was a failed coup attempt. It was a successful coup, by Ergdogan and his regime. With this crackdown on the 20th of July, five days after the failed attempt, the regime declared a “state of emergency” and derogated from all international human rights conventions, including UN and CoE (Council of Europe) conventions. 

What you mentioned happened this May was not the latest constitutional amendment. After the crackdown—and after the purging of more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors, 20,000 army officers and thousands of high ranking army officers among them pro-NATO officers— the army adopted a new Eurasian mentality. There were no judges or prosecutors left to defend the rule of law anymore with the chilling effect of the purge. These army officers and many others formed a total of 152,000 people who were purged from the public sector. 

he media was also decimated; no free media remains in place. All the media access was confiscated. More than 900,000 people have been detained in a few months. More than 300,000 of them have been arrested. In time, some of these people remain in prison for one year and some of them for three years, but still now, after almost five years, there are more than 35,000 of regime victims  in prison. This number will not go down, but up. Because the sentences given by the court are now being upheld by this puppet judiciary, by the higher courts. Those who were released conditionally, after being jailed for several years, were released for some time until the high courts got a handle over their case. Now the cases are being dealt with by the highest courts which are determined to keep dissidents and regime critics in prison. 

Today, there is no rule of law, there is no free press and there is no democracy so there is no security for any citizens in Turkey. This is the reality. 

When Erdogan took office there was hope for democracy, but he’s since proven to be a ruthless authoritarian dictator. Are there any signs that democracy can be realized in Turkey? 

It is always possible. Maybe I am a dreamer. I call myself an optimist more than a dreamer. The cost is rising every day. That is the bitter truth. But, I agree with you that Erdogan was once seen as a proponent for democracy. And also, not everything he had done in recent years was bad. Actually, Erdogan did really good things in the first few years of his power. He was praised by the UN, the Council of Europe, and the EU in many reports. The facts and figures are still available. During those years, there was a huge democratization in Turkey because the standard of democracy and rule of law was already so low. There was a steady increase in standards. That was why I really enjoyed working for the rule of law, and the harmonization of the Turkish judiciary and family and monetary rights with the EU standards. Those were the best years of my life. 

But, eventually, just as we have seen occur in Hungary, things changed. It can be explained by this car tire commercial in Turkey that was popular when I was a child. The motto of the commercial was: “uncontrollable power is not power.” It is another way of saying: “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

With this incredibly increasing public support and the support from Europe and the EU, Erdogan saw an opportunity to consolidate his power. Most Turkish people realized this as of May or June 2013, when there were Gezi Park protests in Istanbul and other demonstrations spreading throughout Turkey. Erdogan saw these protests as a threat, which became even more pronounced when prosecutors went after him and the ruling party on charges of corruption in December 2013. 

I think these forces, the protests and the corruption investigations, forced Erdogan to make a choice; he could turn to democracy as it was the case years ago, before 2013, or he could consolidate his power in an authoritarian way in order to save his future. He chose to save his future and his power. He had no other choice than deepening this crackdown and increasing its violence. These decisions paved the way to July 15, 2016. He needed this “gift from God” in the form of the coup attempt. But, I do not believe that the coup was a gift from God. The evidence proves that Erdogan created this gift, and he used it relentlessly. 

Erdogan is under severe domestic pressure. The coronavirus pandemic and his mismanagement of the economy have caused soaring inflation, unemployment and a dangerously weakened lira that could set off a debt crisis. What do these mounting domestic strains portend for the Erdogan regime ahead of the 2023 presidential election? 

Erdogan is actually sensing and feeling this pressure. He does not feel secure. Since 2015, Erdogan’s AKP party has been in an alliance with the MHP, the Nationalist Movement Party. Despite this partnership, they do not have the majority to change the constitution. Therefore, Erdogan is aware of the fact that the public support is decreasing, day by day. He is definitely a street-smart guy, and since this is a matter of life and death for him, he is putting in all the energy to survive, and to manage not only the electorate but also the EU and all other international monetary circles and financial bodies.

He has to fight on many frontiers. Because he has no other choice. This is a one-way ticket of corruption and madness of power. He’s been leveraging populist rhetoric and fascist techniques, in particular by taking control over the media and film industry. Historical TV shows, soap operas, and movies all in the last five years have been spreading the same message: Turks and Muslims have always been under attack by the Crusaders and by the West, and we need to defend ourselves from traitors today within our borders. Erdogan is driving home the point to the Turkish people that history is repeating itself in real-time today. He is conveying that Turkey is in war, and its a matter of life or death for the Turkish nation and for Islam. He is using this narrative to blame all external forces, like financial lobbyists, the US, the EU and other foreign powers, for weakening the country and crushing Turkish values represented by the regime. All of this is to deflect blame and responsibility. 

Erdogan is manipulating the people, the media and public power that he has to blame anyone and everyone else. Yet, he is the one who is robbing these people and destroying their freedoms and their future by destroying democracy and the rule of law despite presenting himself as Turkey’s savior and the embodiment of Turkish values and Islam. This is indeed Orwellian.

A few weeks ago, President Biden and Erdogan met in Brussels for a critical NATO meeting. You’re now exiled in Brussels, so you have a unique perch from Europe to evaluate the West’s relationship with Erdogan. How would you describe Erdogan’s current relationship with Western leaders? Would you describe Western policy with Turkey as a policy of appeasement, or in other terms? 

Definitely, appeasement is the key word here. I would also say that this is like sacrificing the values for the sake of mere politics. They, mainly the EU and the Trump administration—we do not have enough data to assess the Biden administration yet—think that this appeasement affects only Turkey and the Turkish people. But, they could not realize that they were undermining the very Western values upon which the European and American civilizations were built. 

This appeasement has also given rise to problems related to the rule of law within the EU itself. Just look at the populists in Hungary, or in Romania, or in Poland. Keeping the status quo is very important to EU leaders, so when populist forces in these countries have threatened Western values they’ve not responded in a meaningful way. In general, the West, or at the least the EU, imported this contagious problem to its body by failing to react to the situation in Turkey, because Turkey is not Belarus or Russia or Ukraine. 

Turkey has been an EU candidate country for years now, and is a unique player. For political reasons, there was, and still is, this migration card played brilliantly by Erdogan. This migration card is very strong and it gave rise to populism in Europe itself. Even under the current circumstances, even when the European politicians and the EU have been appeasing Erdogan for the sake of keeping millions of Syrian migrants out of Europe, even the fears of these millions of Syrain people, gave rise to populism and the far-right in European politics. In 2007, the share of far-right parties in the Netherlands or in Germany, was not more than 4%. Today, they have reached almost 16%. Only fear of one million Syrian refugees for the whole of Europe gave birth to such fervent nationalism, the far-right and populism throughout the continent. 

As a jurist, I need to be fair. I can say that I understand that decision makers in Europe realized the migration issue as a real threat. They had to choose between bad and worse. But, jurists and judges do not have the luxury to choose between good, bad, worse or worst. They have to point to the right thing, towards justice. So when Erdogan is abusing human rights, the judges are more likely to call this out than the bureaucrats and politicians. The thing is that even the politicians are not aware of the fact that the more they appease Erdogan, the more Erdogan will abuse them. This guy does not have any principles. This guy does not have any reason to stop within the ethical limits. That is what they fail to see. 

How do you believe that Western leaders, the United Nations, and other relevant stakeholders should hold the Erdogan regime to account for its serial rights abuse—both at home and abroad?

They should do the same thing they have done against the Belarusian dictator: targeted sanctions. But, to be fair, I have to add that these people in Brussels are not stupid. They know what is at stake for Erdogan is himself, and they know that he is making everyone around him corrupt. He is not a simple, stand-alone dictator. He knows how totalitarian regimes work. 

In the legal and political literature, Turkey has been said to be using “autocratic legalism” and called an “electoral autocracy.” These two terms have been used to classify Turkey. Autocratic legalism means there is no rule of law, democracy, checks and balances, independent judiciary, or control by the lawmakers. There is just a ballot box and there are laws. It is like a police state. There is a one-man rule, but through laws. He is strengthened by the courts and the judges. Electoral autocracy refers to essentially the same thing. There is a ballot box, but Erdogan is manipulating the electorate and misusing his power in the judiciary, the high courts, and the electoral board. He can change the rules on the day of the election, just before the election time ends. 

That is exactly what Erdogan did in 2017 for the constitutional referendum. Afterwards, in the Istanbul municipal elections, he did the same thing but the HDP, the Kurdish party, was wise enough to combine its power with other opposition parties to triumph against Erdogan in the Istanbul municipal elections. That is why the government has been trying to demonize HDP, and that is why the co-chairs of HDP are still in jail for more than four years now, despite the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. 

Today we are seeing a huge crackdown on the HDP and the Kurdish opposition because they pose the biggest threat to Erdogan’s nationalist wave and populist rhetoric based on Turkish patriotism. Absurdly, Erdogan is going after the Kurds who are fighting against ISIS. Erdogan is literally sending firearms and his secret army to ISIS in Syria. This intelligence information was the reason why world renowned journalist, Can Dündar, was accused of treason and espionage. That case is the reason why many good judges and prosecutors have been put in prison since 2014. Even before the 2016 coup, the regime had started to arrest innocent prosecutors. The first wave was against prosecutors who revealed this crime of sending firearms to ISIS, and now there are no independent and brave prosecutors. There are some good people in the judiciary who I know personally, but they are so afraid to act and are appointed to work only on some petty crimes and civil cases, like inheritance cases or administrative cases. Even if they had the chance, I do not know if they still have the courage to reveal such things and prosecute. 

And so Erdogan has been governing the country as a mafia, rogue state, abducting his own citizens from third world countries or the Balkans. With these waves of mass arrests, it is really important that the UN group working on arbitrary detention (UNWGAD) has recently defined these arrests as “crimes against humanity” (UN WGAD Opinions 2020/47, 2020/51, 2020/66, 2020/67). 

Just months ago in September, Turkey was elected to CSW despite its dismal record on women’s rights, ranking 130 out of 152 in the 2020 Global Gender Gap Index. In 2014, President Erdogan declared: “Women and men cannot be treated equally. It is against nature.” 

This is where we are now in Turkey: a country that has withdrawn from the Istanbul Convention. The informal name of that convention on violence against women and children is the “Istanbul Convention.” Turkey was the host of the convention and it was the first country to ratify it and it is also the first country to withdraw from it. This is not just about minority rights, it is about women’s rights and children’s rights. He will not stop until he consolidates all of his power. It’s absolutely absurd.

Erdogan also claimed that Biden’s recognition of the Armenian genocide would “harm ties” between the two countries. Do you think this is just a brief, harsh rhetorical exchange or something to take more seriously?

For several reasons, the Armenian genocide issue has been a taboo subject in Turkey for a hundred years. The Turkish republic is now almost a hundred years old. From the very beginning, it has been taboo because the Armenian assets and the earnings of the Armenian people were transferred to the elites of new Turkey. It is a taboo for most of the people who call themselves social democrats, and those who call themselves Kemalists. The reason is that it puts into question the civilization that they built. Even more than it being about Turkish pride it’s also about assets, money, companies and many other things. So this is a real and serious issue. 

Also, Turkey is a signatory state to the Rome Statute, but one of a few states which did not ratify it into domestic legislation. In Turkey, you need to have international law ratified in order to have an effect on domestic law. Tukey did not do that, and this is one of the few points of agreement among ultra-nationalists, Islamists and those who call themselves “social democrats” because it would put Turkey’s main ideology and the founders of the new republic under question. It is a very delicate issue. 

Many people will be annoyed at me for saying this, but that’s fine with me. There is this misperception in Turkey whereby all the parameters are set wrongly from the beginning. It is like tying the wrong buttons on your shirt. If you do this, then the whole shirt is off. In Turkey, if you want to be called a social democrat, you need to be a Kemalist first. This cannot be the precondition, at least in this century. I do not think I am criticizing Mustafa Kemal Atatürk unfavorably. When you consider him within the circumstances in which he lived, I can say that he was the most democratic leader. He had the power and chance to establish a dictatorial regime, far away from democracy. Who was in Germany when Atatürk was in power? Nazism was on the rise. In Italy, who was there? Mussolini. Even in France and even in Britain, there was this exclusive nationalism on the rise. There was this authoritarianism that gave birth to the Second World War. However, Atatürk, during those years, was the only leader who inherited the remnants of an empire in the Ottomans, but he attempted to transform the country into a democracy. He himself established democratic political parties and he encouraged opposition parties to be established during those years. We are talking about the 1920s and 1930s. He was so wise and he was as democratic as he could be in those years. But the parameters of this century are totally different, so it’s difficult to judge by today’s standards. 

This is the trap that most of those who call themselves “leftists” in Turkey are falling into, which is an inability to adapt themselves to a new age. It’s a real problem. This tendency and elitism gave birth to AKP and Erdogan. He is surfing on the waves created by this Kemalist elitism in Turkey. All these things would be under question if you start to discuss the Armenian issue, so this is not only about Erdogan. Erdogan is not alone in putting forward these narratives. Personally, I defenitley believe there was a genocide, even according to the achives of the Ottomon Empire. These 300,000 Armenian were forced to die, left to die, and passively killed by being forced to go in death pits. They were deprived of their earnings, assets, money and other things and then coerced into raising their children as Muslim Turks. For all of these reasons, I believe and I defend that there was an Armenian genocide. 

I want to be very clear: When democracy collapses and when rule of law collapses, it is not only about judges or courts. It is not only about terrorism. It is not only about women’s rights, as we see with the Istanbul Convention. It is about history and the rights of Armenians. It is about the rights of Greeks. It is about the rights of Gulenists. It is about the rights of Kurds. It is about the rights of liberal democrats or independent judges who are wrongfully but knowingly named and shamed and labeled as Gulenists. It is really interesting that when you distort the truth, it is like a light. When you change the color of the light in another glass, you change the color of everything. Everything is affected. It is very important and this populism is contagious and Erdogan is a perfect and encouraging example for other autocrats, dictators and populists. 

How have you been advocating against Turkish authoritarianism as a jurist in exile? What are the various projects you are working on?

I firmly believe that the rule of law cannot allow a “state of exception,” as Carl Schmitt put it. The first exception or compromise is the first crack in the dam. If you do it, what follows is more cracks and then the collapse is inevitable. The civilization as we know it depends on values and denying any states of exception under any circumstance—be it domestic or international. So, in this regard, it is critical that I continue to advocate from abroad.

Regarding the EU, there is a very nice quote from Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. He says that “for every democratic principle that we weaken in the EU, the EU’s voice is weakened equally.” I think it is a perfect sentence which summarizes everything. 

As jurists in exile, we are already starting to fight back. We have support from European colleagues in MEDEL and the European Association of Judges, which are the two top European judges associations. They have been supporting the fight for the rule of law in Turkey, and they have been supporting us for years, and we are very grateful. With their encouragement and support, we have created a new association called Justice for Rule of Law, which just held its first General Assembly and first Executive Board Meeting last month. I am in the administration of the association, and we have leading judges from Italy, Belgium, Poland and many other European countries. I hope you will hear the name of this association in the coming days and years. 

We are not only complaining. We are trying to do something. We are trying to stimulate the potential power within the Council of Europe and within the EU and the United Nations. We are launching new complaints and submitting new reports so there is a huge amount of work on the way. In collaboration with the Turkey Tribunal, which will be held in Geneva this September, there will be civil court hearing about pressing human rights issues in Turkey where we will present reports on access to justice, abductions, torture, impunity and freedom of expression in Turkey. 

Questione Giustizia, the prestigious Italian legal journal, recently published my latest article detailing Turkey’s assault on the judiciary and judicial independence.

Also, ahead of the Turkey Tribunal, I’ve delivered a witness statement about judicial persecution in Turkey and participated in a webinar based on findings of the access to justice report featuring Diego Garcia, the UN Special Rapporteur on independence of judges and lawyers Diego Garcia. 

Like I said, there is so much work to do. We will not stop. As we say: “Let justice be done, even though the heavens may fall.”