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Turkey engaging in 'witch hunt' on judiciary after coup attempt, analysts say

Last Updated Jul 19, 2016 at 9:20 am EDT

OTTAWA – The Turkish government faced accusations Monday of engaging in a “witch hunt” for arresting or firing thousands of judges and prosecutors following the weekend’s failed coup.

A pair of Canadian academics used the term separately, saying President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was falsely blaming the failed uprising on Turkey’s so-called Gulen movement. Its leader is the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally.

“This coup attempt was staged in no uncertain terms by the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization,” Erdogan’s government said in a statement Monday.

“Our government has been constantly exposing the real motives of this terrorist group and its leader.”

The Turkish government said Monday it detained 755 judges and prosecutors and 650 civilians as well as more than 6,100 members of security forces.

“It’s a witch hunt. They’re going after not just real enemies but perceived enemies,” Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said in an interview.

She said the arrests simply can’t be seen as a credible government response to its national security. There’s no evidence Gulenists conspired with the coup perpetrators, although Gulen does have influence in law, police, health care and medicine, she said.

Errol Mendes, a University of Ottawa international law expert, said much is at stake for Western countries, including Canada, because Turkey is a key ally in the fight against Islamic militants in the Middle East. But they must take a firm stand with Erdogan in the wake of the failed coup.

“They (the Turkish government) are gravely violating fundamental principles of the rule of law by arresting thousands of judges and prosecutors and anyone who can vaguely have the label of Gulenist attached to them,” he said.

“It’s become a witch hunt.”

Erdogan has butted heads in the past with his country’s judiciary.

In its most recent report on Turkey, Human Rights Watch decried the decline there in 2015 in freedom of expression, association and assembly because of the government’s targeting of journalists, judges, prosecutors and police with ties to Gulen.

The United States, as well as the European Union and NATO, also warned Turkey on Monday not to backslide on human rights and democracy in its attempts to restore order.

The head of NATO, the 28-member alliance that includes Canada, issued a sharp reminder for Turkish leadership as it moves forward.

“Being part of a unique community of values, it is essential for Turkey, like all other allies, to ensure full respect for democracy and its institutions, the constitutional order, the rule of law and fundamental freedoms,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion said Monday the minister urged restraint during a weekend phone call with his counterpart, and “stressed the importance of respect for human rights and the rule of law in prosecuting those allegedly involved in the coup.”

For now, Momani said Canada and its NATO allies have to walk fine line.

“As long as the Erdogan government seems to have control of the situation, all that Canada can do is to wish them well and ask for them to respect civil liberties,” said Momani.

“Turkey is a valued NATO member, and Canada wants to see it fully participate in the war against ISIL, so this will shape our view of Turkey first and foremost.”