Defiant Turkey extends police powers, shutters schools after coup

Frank Zeller with Stuart Williams in Ankara
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A man holds up a photo of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a pro-Erdogan rally in Istanbul on July 22, 2016

Turkey pushed on Saturday with a sweeping crackdown against suspected plotters of its failed coup, defiantly telling EU critics it had no choice but to root out hidden enemies.

Using new emergency powers, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's cabinet decreed that police could now hold suspects for one month without charge, and announced it would shut down over 1,000 private schools it deems subversive.

A week after renegade soldiers tried to oust him with guns, tanks and F16s, Erdogan's government has detained over 13,000 people it suspects are state enemies, mainly soldiers but also police, judges, teachers and civil servants.

And after rounding up nearly 300 officers of the presidential guard over suspected links to the coup, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced that Turkey planned to disband the 2,500-strong unit, saying there was "no need" for the elite regiment.

As part of the mass arrests, police also detained a nephew of the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, 75, whom Turkey accuses of orchestrating the July 15 putsch and whose followers it labels a "terrorist" group.

Senior Gulen aide Hails Hanci was also arrested, a Turkish official said, describing him as a "right-hand man" to Gulen and responsible for transferring funds to the exiled preacher.

Fears that Erdogan will seek to further cement his rule and muzzle dissent through repression have strained ties with Western NATO allies and cast a darkening shadow over Turkey's bid to join the European Union.

Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi warned that "a country that jails its own university professors and journalists imprisons its future".

Turkey's EU Minister Omer Celik insisted that European leaders don't appreciate the scale of the threat and lamented that none had come to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Turkey's leaders after the bloodshed of July 15.

"Come here and see how serious this is!" Celik told a foreign media briefing.

He added that Gulen was more dangerous than either the late Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden or Islamic State (IS) group jihadists.

- 'No-one suffered like us' -

Celik insisted that Turkey, despite the turmoil, remained committed to its long-term bid to join the European Union, and would honour a landmark deal with the EU to stem the flow of migrants to Europe.

"We don't believe this is the end of the road, it is time to start brand-new momentum," Celik told reporters in Ankara, when asked if the EU membership bid was still a strategic aim.

Erdogan struck a darker tone, telling France 24 television that "for the past 53 years Europe has been making us wait", and that no EU candidate country "has had to suffer like we have had to suffer".

He rejected the European criticism of his iron-fisted response to the coup, charging that "they are biased, they are prejudiced, and they will continue to act in this prejudiced manner towards Turkey".

Ankara has insisted that the measures would not add up to an attack on democracy, arguing that they were no different to those France had taken after a series of bloody jihadist attacks.

Amid the global criticism, Turkey for the first time since the coup released a large group of detainees, 1,200 low-ranking soldiers, saying it wanted to swiftly sort out those who had fired on the people from those who had not.

- Plotters and martyrs -

The crackdowns are part of seismic changes that have rocked Turkey since the shock of the coup attempt that claimed 270 lives.

The night of violence left 24 rebel soldiers dead, as well as 246 now hailed as "martyrs" -- 179 civilians, 62 police and five loyalist soldiers.

Since the coup, massive crowds of flag-waving Erdogan supporters have taken to the streets night after night to celebrate their leader.

But rights activists and opposition groups, including from Turkey's Kurdish minority, fear a widening witch hunt of government critics.

"To fight against the coup is just, legitimate and justified," said Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).

But he warned that the new draconian measures "pave the way for more injustice, will increase pressure on society," adding that the new 30-day pre-charge detention "amounts to a torture in itself".

As part of the crackdown, over 1,000 private schools and more than 1,200 associations and foundations believed to be linked to Gulen are set to be closed.

Amid the turmoil, strains have also grown with the United States -- which relies on Turkish bases to launch airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq -- as Erdogan has repeatedly demanded it extradite Gulen.

President Barack Obama said Friday the US would take seriously any "evidence" of wrongdoing by the preacher.

He also flatly rejected claims that the US had prior intelligence of the putsch attempt, calling such suggestions "unequivocally false".