ISTANBUL, TURKEY - In the Turkish capital, Ankara, the trial of two educators charged with terrorism has started. The defendants have been on a hunger strike for more than five months to protest their firing as part of a government crackdown after last year’s failed coup. Their hunger strike and trial have become a focal point of government opposition.
The Ankara courthouse where Semih Ozakca and Nuriye Gulmen are on trial was surrounded by a large security presence. Police outside the court prevented opposition parliamentary deputies from reading a declaration of support for the educators who are accused of supporting a prohibited left wing group.
Republican People’s Party deputy Mahmut Tanal slammed the police presence, saying “the situation is this, this is a police state, an authoritative fascist system that is at full swing. This fascist system will definitely be destroyed.”
Video released online appeared to show riot police in the courthouse attacking supporters of Ozakca and Gulmen. Critics claim the case against the educators is politically motivated, after their peaceful campaign against the loss of their jobs as part of an ongoing government crackdown that drew national attention.
More than 150,000 people have been purged from their posts since last year’s failed coup. Lawyers representing the two educators were arrested earlier this week on anti-terror charges. Concerns over the fairness of the trial were further heightened when neither Ozakca or Gulmen were allowed to attend Thursday's hearing.
Security forces said they did not have sufficient staff to take them to court and that they were not healthy enough to attend.
Political scientist Cengiz Aktar said the two educators have put the government in a difficult position.
"The government, they do not like the idea of their cases becoming a kind of cause celebre and therefore they are doing everything to hide them in a way. And they were not taken to the court. Clearly, the government is unhappy with this and they are probably trying to keep them alive by all means. The only clear message is they are unhappy with it and do not know what to do with it," Aktar said.
The government has strongly defended the trial, insisting the judiciary is independent and the ongoing crackdown is necessary to protect Turkish democracy. But analysts say the controversy over Ozakca and Gulmen and growing concerns about their deteriorating health could influence the government's approach to the case.