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Fear Grips Turkey Amid Government Crackdown After Failed Coup

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A Turkish special forces police officer stands guard in front of the Istanbul Justice Palace on July 20. Family members of those detained have been gathering outside, hoping for a chance to see their loved ones.

Turks survived a chaotic and bloody attempted military takeover on Friday that left more than 260 dead. Since then, the government has suspended thousands of public and private sector employees — everyone from teachers to police officers. Meanwhile, the parliament has ratified a state of emergency that will last up to three months. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says it's necessary to protect democracy. But many Turks are afraid of what's to come.

Outside the Justice Palace, Istanbul's largest courthouse, a few dozen people cluster in a plaza near a Starbucks and wait for word on relatives being held in the courthouse. "These are the families of the traitors," a passerby whispers to his friend.

Of the more than 10,000 people who have been detained since the coup, most are soldiers accused of being involved in the coup attempt. Many are young conscripts, and their worried families here say they were just following commanders' orders and were tricked.

One man who gives his first name, Saim, says he's been here for six days and nights trying to see his 20-year-old son. On the night of the failed coup, his son called and said he was ordered to set a roadblock on one of the large bridges crossing the Bosporous waterway.

The young soldier was terrified, his father says. It was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in Istanbul, he didn't know why he was posted there and he wanted to run away. He said he was being treated like an enemy. His father calmed him down and urged him to fulfill his duties, not knowing that the commanders had used his son and other young soldiers to try and stage a coup.

"This is injustice," Saim says. "My kid was following orders and now he will be stigmatized his whole life."

Saim wants the commanders to pay — not his son, who only joined the military a month ago. He doesn't want his two younger sons to serve in Turkey's military, because he no longer trusts the system.

With Saim is his nephew, about the same age as his son. He's up for military service as well, but he doesn't want to go. After his cousin's experience, "I don't trust anyone anymore," the nephew says. "I don't trust the police or military anymore, it's gone. I only trust my God now."

He says he's anxious about the state of emergency the government declared Wednesday night. "The police are going to see us walking, and then what?" he asks. "Can they shoot us because they feel suspicious?"

Turkey's largest city is overcome with fear, especially among those who are critical of the government. And while almost everyone agrees that a military takeover would have been a disaster, many Turks are worried that the mass purges of recent days only signal the beginning of a much larger crackdown.

Human rights advocates are worried, too. "What we're seeing is human rights abuses on an unprecedented scale," says Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International's researcher in Istanbul. "The scale of these events has not been seen since the military rule, the military dictatorship of 1980 to 1983. So these are, unfortunately, very dark days in Turkey."

Gardner says that Amnesty is getting reports of torture and ill treatment of detainees from their lawyers. He's hearing that interrogators are focused on political affiliations rather than participation in the attempted coup.

In addition to the detentions, tens of thousands of government employees and educators have been suspended from their jobs. Gardner says the government couldn't have possibly gathered meaningful evidence on so many people in just a matter of days.

"Perhaps the only thing that's more widespread then these 50,000 suspensions is the fear across the country in Turkey about where will the crackdown go toward next," he says.

The government has the right to prosecute those who carried out the violence on Friday, but with thorough investigations and fair trials, he says.

On Istanbul's streets, you sense the fear everywhere. Turkish analysts who typically speak to foreign journalists hesitate now. One analyst even asked a reporter to leave his phone in another room while they chatted because he was worried the phone was being monitored.

Phones are a special concern these days. There are rumors of police demanding to go through people's phones on the streets. Meanwhile, employees of government institutions, everyone from academics to actresses, are being urged to join marches in support of the government.

Many are happy to attend these rallies. Others say they go because they're worried if they don't, they could lose their jobs.

In central Istanbul, Tolga Olmez Ses serves customers in his bookstore near Taksim Square, known locally as the "maidan."

"Every morning, our prime minister sends a message, every morning," he says. "You should go to the maidan, you should go to the maidan. Why? It's not my fight."

He's referring to mass text messages Turks are receiving from the government to protest against the coup. This is a fight about political power and money, Ses says, and has nothing to do with him. At this point, he says he'd accept pretty much any government action to crack down if it meant there would be peace.

But his friends are panicked, he says. They're deleting messages from their phones as well as social media posts that are critical of the government.

But Ses never really got into social media. So he's going about his life as he always has, listening to Pink Floyd, reading — and waiting for whatever comes next.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit

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