Istanbul, Turkey – On the fifth anniversary of Turkey’s coup attempt, many Turks prepared to head to the coast or their home towns for the nine-day Eid al-Adha holiday as the memory of that bloody night fades into history.
But for Nihal Olçok, whose 16-year-old son and ex-husband were killed by soldiers on the Bosphorus Bridge, the day is one of mourning tinged with anger at what she sees as failure to root out all those associated with the group held responsible for the failed putsch.
“Of course, the memories have receded,” she told Al Jazeera. “Now, we’re only remembered when this week arrives and we feel like we’ve been exploited.”
Her son Abdullah Tayyip Olçok and his father Erol Olçok were among 34 people killed on the Bosphorus crossing, since renamed the 15 July Martyrs Bridge, as thousands of Turks rushed to the streets to take on troops and tanks mobilised by the coup plotters.
In total, 251 died and more than 2,200 were wounded resisting rogue military units, while 36 military members involved in the attempted overthrow of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were killed.
The Olçok family was close to Erdogan, with advertising executive Erol having worked as his adviser since the mid-1990s. Erdogan was moved to tears at the father and son’s funeral two days after the coup attempt.
‘A day of mourning’
Now marked as the Democracy and National Unity Day public holiday, July 15 this year falls before the extended Eid al-Adha festivities.
“For me, July 15 is not a day to be celebrated, it’s [a day of] mourning, not a celebration,” said Olçok, 43.
Erdogan and officials marked the anniversary with ceremonies at the monument to victims in Ankara and the parliament, which came under air attack on the night.
Nearly 300,000 people have been arrested for alleged links to the movement of Fethullah Gülen, labelled the Fethullah Terror Organisation, or FETÖ, by the government. Some 150,000 public officials have been suspended or dismissed from their jobs. Ankara accuses Gülen of masterminding the coup attempt.
Gülen, a Muslim leader who has been based in the United States since 1999, has denied the claims.
Five years later, mass arrests are still a regular occurrence – on Monday prosecutors in the western city of Izmir issued warrants against 229 soldiers and military cadets.
Turgut Aslan, former head of the national police anti-terrorism department, stressed the need to remain on guard. He was taken prisoner in Ankara by pro-coup soldiers and shot in the head, only recovering after five months in a coma and extensive surgery.
“FETÖ is still not over,” Aslan, now a senior adviser to Erdogan, told the state-run Anadolu news agency. “[If] it ends someone else takes over, we mustn’t stop fighting. Today it’s FETÖ, tomorrow it becomes another organisation. You have to be careful.”
Many senior military officers, business people, judges, bureaucrats and judges have been jailed over ties to Gülen, who was allied to Erdogan’s government during its first 10 years in power.
However, there are claims by government opponents that the movement’s “political wing” has largely escaped punishment in the continuing crackdown.
In the years since the failed coup, Olçok has become increasingly disenchanted with the government’s actions. “Those who subscribed to a [Gülenist] newspaper go to jail but the founders of the paper can stroll down the street,” she said.
Referring to a bank closed down a week after the attempted coup because of its Gülenist links, she added, “People are in jail for depositing money in Bank Asya but the bank’s executives are still employed by the government.”
Critics have said the purges target many of those with limited ties to the Gülen movement, as well as unconnected political opponents of Erdogan.
“Those who have been found innocent have not been reinstated to their jobs. I can give you hundreds of examples like this,” Olçok said.
Government officials have repeatedly defended the dismissals and arrests as necessary against an organisation that deeply penetrated the state.
“After the coup attempt, the process of expelling FETÖ members from the public began with the authority given by the parliament,” Erdogan’s communications director Fahrettin Altun said in an interview with Spanish newspaper El Mundo on Thursday.
“In this context, people who infiltrated public institutions on behalf of the organisation were dismissed.”
He added a commission was examining claims of unfair dismissal and reinstating those found to have been mistreated.
Speaking at a meeting of parliamentarians from his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in parliament on Wednesday, Erdogan stressed the coup-related investigations would continue.
“Just as we are carrying out our fight against other terrorist organisations decisively and without compromise, we will follow FETÖ until its last member is neutralised,” he said.
“It is not easy to clean this insidious structure in the country. We will not give credence to those who exploit this nation under the guise of religion.”
Olçok was one of the founding members of the Gelecek (Future) Party established by Erdogan’s former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, in late 2019.
She said democracy in Turkey had been weakened by laws introduced since the coup attempt that replicate the state of emergency that ran for two years in its aftermath. Most recently, “anti-terrorism” measures relating to civil service dismissals and pre-trial detention periods were extended for a further three years by legislators on Tuesday.
“To this day they’re extending the laws they want,” said Olçok. “Punishment should be until the end but injustice, never.”
She added, “You see what’s going on. I’ve even been prosecuted for the tweet I sent. What democracy are you talking about?”
Other relatives of “veterans” who resisted the coup defended measures to counter the Gülen movement.
Şenol Gençer’s older brother Özgür was killed when an F-16 bombed the presidential complex in Ankara. “Turkey has suffered a lot from coups,” he said, referring to earlier military interventions.
“I want people to think from this perspective. After all, we are a nation that protects its national will and state.”
Others stressed the need for Turkey to guard against potential future attacks. “There’s no rancour or hatred within us,” said Ayşe Varank Arslantürk, whose brother İlhan Varank was shot dead in Istanbul.
“But everyone is vigilant. No one should think ‘They’ve lost one of their family members, they’re scared now.’ That’s definitely not the case.”