In 2016, factions within the Turkish armed forces attempted a coup against the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Citing erosion of secularism, democracy, rule of law, human rights, and freedom they sought to take back their country from a man that is described by many as a dictator in all but name.
Since then, Erdogan and his government have tightened their iron-clad grip on the country, imposing autocratic rule and eliminating anyone that they think could pose any sort of threat to their absolute and totalitarian power.
Then, on 15 July, the Municipality of Tirana built a memorial in the Tirana Lake Park for the victims of the failed coup. In what could possibly be the first memorial outside of Turkey to commemorate this event (in support of Erdogan), the municipality also bought 251 (the number of those that died) trees from Turkey and planted them on a road that will be called “Martyrs of 15 July”. Before the inauguration ceremony that the Albanian authorities tellingly kept off social media, a march called the “Triumph of Democracy March” took place through the city, towards the memorial.
I am not quite sure I would call the current situation in Turkey, a “triumph of democracy”.
Turkey is now besieged by a climate of media censorship and the repression of anyone the government thinks could be an enemy, or who dares to levy criticism against them. Journalists, academics, teachers, artists, activists, civil servants, Kurds, and opposition members have been herded up an imprisoned, others have met even more sinister fates.
At the time of writing more than 130,000 public officials had been dismissed, accused of alleged associations with terrorist groups. Nearly 50,000 prison inmates are being held under trumped up charges.
The largest jailer of journalists on the planet, an estimated 175 media workers are behind bars and thousands more are facing trial and living in fear. Trials and charges are politically motivated, often lacking any evidence or reason, and Kurdish journalists are often jailed just because of their ethnicity. Those that are facing trial are held in prolonged pretrial detention which can be considered a form of summary punishment.
Hundreds of thousands of websites are blocked including Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram pages, as well as news sites and human rights platforms and thousands of books have been removed from schools. Critical reporting is systematically restricted and condemned and thousands of citizens are facing criminal prosecution for social media posts.
The government is also cracking down on online video services, even of those broadcasting from outside of the country.
Ranking last in Reporters Without Borders Media Freedom Index, the authorities are criticized for “tightening the vice on what little is left of pluralism” by censoring and imprisoning those who dare to differ with Erdogan.
The Office of the UN High Commission for Human Rights published a report on violations that have taken place since the coup, including the detention of over 600 women and children in connection with their husbands’ alleged associations with those behind the coup.
After previously accepting millions of refugees, it seems the table is now turning. Reports suggest that refugees and asylum seekers have been abused as well and border guards have been accused of shooting some that have tried to enter the country. High incidences of child labour, slave labour are observed and the majority of child asylum seekers are not able to attend school.
Over 1500 lawyers, including human rights lawyers are on trial on spurious terrorism charges and continued reports for torture prevail. Activists have fallen victim to alleged kidnappings, abductions, and enforced disappearances, their families resolute that they will never get justice.
The United Nations reported that those arrested and imprisoned after the coup face torture and inhuman treatment. Amnesty International said that detainees face beatings, rape, and sexual abuse. Police were accused of denying food and medical treatment, holding prisoners in stress positions, and tying plastic zip-ties too tightly, leaving wounds on their arms. Reports of prolonged blindfolding, denial of legal and familial rights, and not being informed of charges against them are common.
Prisoners are often sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of appeal or a pardon. Effective legal recourse and the chance at a fair trial is almost unheard of.
Then in November 2017, the Ankara governor banned public events by LGBTI individuals, a move that was replicated across other cities and municipalities before being repealed in Ankara in 2019. Then in July, the governor of Istanbul banned the annual Pride march for the fourth year in a row, stating a supposed threat to public security. Some LGBTI individuals marched anyway and the authorities responded by firing tear gas at them.
Not content with persecuting those within their borders, the Turkish government are attempting to extradite those it believes are linked to the coup from various countries around the world. A large number of these are teachers and academics, and without adhering to due process, a number have been transferred back to Turkey from Kosovo and Moldova where they sought refuge.
Not content with abusing citizens, the authorities have set their eyes on the last remaining shreds of democracy. The government has continued its repressive measures against mayors and parliamentarians from pro-Kurdish parties, and many from the People’s Democratic Party have been detained on politically motivated terrorism charges.
In the South East of the country, 50 co-mayors from opposition political groups remain in prison on false terrorism charges after being removed from elected office and being replaced by government appointees.
Turkey’s current state of democracy can be summed up by the statement “you vote, I win”.
Despite being a member of NATO, Erdogan is becoming increasingly aligned with Russia. In Syria for example, he has backed both Tehran and Moscow in pursuing a settlement that keeps Bashar al-Assad in place. For many, Turkey is on the wrong side of a global argument between freedom and control.
This is what the memorial in Tirana’s lake part is supporting. It has nothing to do with the memorial of the people that died during the coup and everything to do with supporting a xenophobic, homophobic, autocratic, neo-islamist, Europhobic, violator of human rights. Turkey under Erdogan is unashamedly anti-Western, anti-EU, and anti-democracy, and each day the situation there gets worse.
By placing this memorial in Tirana, we are giving a vote of confidence to a regime that is persecuting hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, each and every day.
This memorial is a sign of support for Erdogan and it is a visual representation of the government turning a blind eye to the arrest, detention, torture, disappearance, rape, silencing, and abuse of thousands of innocent people over the last three years.
Whilst it is no secret that Turkey wields an undue and illegal influence in Albania, and that Prime Minister Rama is taking tips from Erdogan’s Dictator’s Handbook, the Albanian people should not take this lying down. What is happening in Turkey, is starting to happen here and our rights are being chipped away in the same way that they have been there over the last few years.
Accepting this memorial is accepting this, and supporting it is supporting a political figure that will go down in history as a tyrant, not a hero.