ANKARA — When coup plotters attempted to overthrow Turkey’s democratically elected government last July, one of their main targets was the parliament. Out of nowhere, fighter jets flew low across Ankara, bursting through the sky with sonic bombs late on a Friday night. Tanks rolled through the streets, forcing the parliament to close.
Shortly after 1:00 am, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag rushed to the parliament. Soon after he arrived, he began giving a defiant speech to the MPs and ministers present. Mid-speech, the jets bombed the building. He kept speaking.
Bekir Bozdag has been the justice minister since December 2013, keeping his position through four different governments.
He was born in 1965 in Yozgat, in the central Anatolia region and studied law in college and worked as a lawyer throughout the 1990s. He has been with AK Party since Recep Tayyip Erdogan first founded it, and has been an MP for the party since it was first elected to parliament in 2002.
One year later, TRT World ’s Hasan Abdullah spoke with him about that night and what has happened since.
You were one of the people at the Turkish parliament when the coup attempt was underway. You are one of the first people who called on government officials to remain firm. What was going through your mind at that point in time?
BEKIR BOZDAG: That day, I learned that there is a coup attempt first from our prime minister because fighter jets were flying low over Ankara and the bridge in Istanbul was blocked by tanks. My undersecretary in [the justice] ministry called me. He said that jets were flying low; that something was underway; that tanks were blocking the roads. He asked me about what information I had. I said I didn’t know anything and called our interior minister.
I called the undersecretary of the intelligence service but I couldn’t reach him. Then I called our prime minister and I had a chance to speak to him. I asked him what was happening and he said it was a coup attempt. And we decided to fight back against the coup instigators to protect the will of the nation, constitutional order and democracy. And we would do it along with our nation.
I was home. I didn’t give any information to my guards. Actually they were really reliable people but I was concerned about whether there were any coup plotters among them. I was wearing casual clothes, and I wanted to go to Kizilay Square [the main public square in Ankara] to join our people protesting against the coup plotters.
We were driving around trying to lose any coup plotters that may have been following us. That was when we saw people were driving away from Ankara. In gas stations, people were in lines and at ATM machines many were withdrawing money.
But then, when our president sent a message to a TV station, he invited the people to the public squares in order to oppose the tanks. This changed the course of the actions that night. Then people started to turn back to downtown. They stopped the tanks with their courage.
I intended to go Kizilay Square but my friends objected to this because they had concerns that the coup plotters could recognise me there and attack us from their tanks and helicopters. So we decided to go to the parliament instead. We entered the parliament building from the backdoor. I went straight to the plenary. Mr Kahraman, the speaker of the parliament, was directing the session. There were some deputies from the [governing] AK Party, the [centre-left] CHP. Some ministers were there too.
Then I took the floor, and I made a statement about the coup attempt. In the middle of my speech, we heard a huge explosion. It was so close to us. I was so close that there was dust coming from ... the ceiling of parliament.
I didn’t stop giving my speech, but as I continued, the second explosion came. It was bigger than the first one; louder. Despite this, the MPs didn’t leave the parliament. I kept going with my speech. But at that time I saw some movement at the place where the speaker of the parliament was sitting. Some MPs were suggesting to the speaker of the parliament that we shouldn’t be sentimental here, we should just go seek shelter...
But if the MPs had left the parliament to seek shelter, the citizens would say that the MPs were afraid and, therefore, the people would be afraid and they would go back home.
I turned my face to the speaker of the parliament and I requested to stay there. ‘The role we must play is to die here, we shouldn’t leave, we shouldn’t close the plenary,’ I said. This was my statement. The speaker of the parliament didn’t stop the plenary, the parliament stayed open in defiance of the coup attempt. The MPs and the speaker of the parliament defied the coup plotters by keeping the parliament open.
The bloodshed caused by the coup soldiers and the killing of civilians shocked Turkey. The government after that decided to go after those people who had infiltrated state institutions. There were many detentions, arrests and so forth. Can you give us some figures of how many people have been arrested or charged [in relation to the coup attempt]? Often the Western media doesn’t highlight all the people who have been released. So can you give us some figures please?
BB: The US and other Western countries did not say anything against the coup attempt, until they saw the coup was failing. They just observed it and only when they figured out that it was going to fail, they made their statements.
Even more than that, following the coup attempt they began to have concerns about [the fate of] the coup plotters. Representatives from Western countries came here to ask what is happening to the coup plotters in the prisons.
I ask them now, why didn’t they condemn the putschists? Because they killed nearly 250 Turkish people and nobody is asking about the well being of the families of these martyrs. Nobody is asking about those who were killed by the tanks. Instead, they are asking about the rights of the traitors who were driving the tanks. I ask them: If you believe in democracy, rule of law and human rights, please focus on the rights of those who lost their lives, not the rights of these traitors.
The Turkish government is seeking the extradition of Fethullah Gulen [the US-based Turkish cleric whose movement is accused of orchestrating the coup]. It has submitted evidence to the US. Previously, during the Obama administration, there was a feeling in Ankara that [the Americans] were looking at it from a political point of view as opposed to looking at it from its legal merit. Do you feel that the Trump administration is following in the footsteps of Obama administration?
BB: There is a difference between the two administrations, but this difference is in the style. The approach is different but the outcome is the same. The Trump administration is taking a more positive attitude [with regards to Turkey]. But in the end, when you look at the result there is no difference.
We want a good relationship with the US. We want the relationship to improve in the future. But for this to be achieved, the US administration needs to take steps. And we always said that the matter of cooperation between the US and Turkey to extradite Fethullah Gulen will be decisive in our relationship.
The government says it is cleaning state institutions of FETO elements, which have infiltrated them. A number of prosecutors and judges have been removed. Do you feel that this has affected or had any impact on the judicial system in Turkey on the dispensation of justice?
BB: Judges and prosecutors are supposed to be independent and impartial in their service. If a judge has already lost his or her capacity to work independently or in an unbiased manner, then that judge has already lost their capacity to be a judge … If the people who go to court know that the judge is giving the verdict in line with the instructions of a terrorist organisation [the Gulenist movement], will they have confidence and trust in the court?
That leads the will of the terrorist organisation to replace the rule of law. The Gulenist terrorist organisation has infiltrated state structures. They wanted to control the state and become the state itself. This was the final step, but they failed...
So the judiciary in Turkey was saved from being taken by a terrorist organisation, so these steps should be understood ... We have recruited interns and new graduates in order to replace those who were suspended. There is no problem in dispensing justice.