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12 hours was all it took: Erdogan on crushed coup

July 20, 2016 12:09 IST

‘How can you allow so many civilians to lose their lives? Two hundred and eight civilians dying, 1,500 people getting injured, civilians lying on the ground, trying to block passage to the tanks? How can human conscience allow that?’

In his first interview since the failed military coup on July 15, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tells CNN’s Becky Anderson he would approve reinstating the death penalty if lawmakers approve the measure.

IMAGE: Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend a pro-government demonstration at Taksim square in Istanbul. Photograph: Ammar Awad/Reuters

Before we talk about the outcome and fallout of that attempted coup, take me back to what happened that night. 

On July 15, I was with my family on a vacation of five days in Marmaris. That night, around 10:00 pm, I was told about what was going on. I was informed that in Istanbul and Ankara and some other places, there was some kind of movement.

So we decided to move out, and I had my wife, my son-in-law and grandchildren. Therefore, it was all the more serious.  If I had stayed 10 or 15 additional minutes there, I would have been killed or taken.

But before that, I wanted to invite the media in.  But the national broadcast was not reaching the people, so we resorted to smartphones, and went on live TV. I invited people to take to the streets, to go to the squares in their cities.

Immediately after that invitation, I was informed that people were actually taking to the streets en-masse. That was very important because the only language these coup-attempters, would be the only way to fight this coup would be a counter-coup by the hand of the people.

And that’s what our people achieved. 

IMAGE: Turkish soldiers search for missing military personnel suspected of being involved in the coup attempt in Marmaris. Photograph: Kenan Gurbuz/Reuters

Given the opportunity for your own freedom of speech that night, will you commit to a free media in what is a democracy here going forward? 

When it comes to free press, I have never had that issue whatsoever. If some people keep saying that the press is still not free in Turkey, then I would like to say this: there has been a coup attempt in Turkey. 

There are people siding with the coup plotters, but there are also media outlets that have been against the coup attempt and for it. 

So my question is against the media that supported the coup; will the Turkish justice, judicial system, not take any steps? Of course it will. Why? Well, because if you're going to suppress this attempt, then those who are siding with this attempt should be given or taken to the right place.

If I do not do anything, they will hold me accountable when the time comes, and rightly so. 

Let's get back to what happened on that night. 

I was being informed real-time about everything. The coup-plotters were in control of the flight tower at the Istanbul Ataturk airport. I instructed heads of security of police in Istanbul to get rid of the plotters.

They did an operation, and freed the tower. 

Starting from the moment we landed at the Ataturk airport, F-16s started flying above us, very close to the ground, but probably faster than the speed of sound. Because as you know, when they exceed the speed of sound, there is what's called a sonic boom, which can be mistaken for bombs being dropped.

We had more than 10,000 citizens waiting for us at the airport. 

So that's how we got there. We got of the plane, and had the first contact with the people. 

Were you concerned at any point that when you landed in Istanbul, that you would no longer be president of Turkey? 

The idea never crossed my mind, because I was with my colleagues, and we never had that troubling thought. Starting from the first declarations, we said, the Turkish state is intact and the government is functioning, so the president remains in power. There is no reason to worry, and these invaders will be gotten rid of as soon as possible.

Twelve hours was all it took, and we got the results we wanted. 

IMAGE: A hand rests on a coffin during a funeral service for victims of the thwarted coup at Fatih Mosque in Istanbul. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

What do you say to those who in the early hours suggested that you had orchestrated this? 

That's only misinformation.  I mean, how can you plan such a thing?  How can you allow so many civilians to lose their lives? Two hundred and eight civilians dying, 1,500 people getting injured, civilians lying on the ground, trying to block passage to the tanks? How can human conscience allow that? 

So this is actually a blessing in disguise. What we have achieved is the opportunity that the Fethullah terrorist organisation has now received the biggest hit they have ever in this country. 

You are referring to a group that is inspired and run by a man by the name of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric, based in the United States, and have demanded in no uncertain terms either his arrest or extradition from the United States. 

I have previously made this request to President Barack Obama orally during our discussions a couple of times. But this week, a written, formal request will also be made to the US and also to a number of Western and African countries. 

What happens if Washington doesn't arrest or extradite Gulen at this point? 

First, we have to do our formal request. We will ask for the extradition. If there is no positive response to that request, then the US -- well, if there is ever anyone, a criminal in the eyes of the US, and if they ask for their extradition, I will not allow that. 

There should be reciprocity in these types of things. 

Gulen is not on a terror watch-list in the US.  So due process there, would you concede, may be different than due process here, should somebody be considered a terrorist? 

If that's the approach you take, it’s another catastrophe, actually. Because when the US asks for the extradition of a terrorist, and Turkey doesn't have that individual on the list, what do we say, how do we respond? 

Now, the individual might not be on your list.  But if he is on mine, and if we have an agreement on extradition, they should extradite that person. There have been numerous examples of that mechanism working with many other nations as well, not just the US.

Bin Laden -- was he a terrorist by Afghanistan's consideration? No. What happened?  Well, there was a request, it was not given, but the US took initiative and killed him on the ground.

The death penalty has become an issue; something that people are talking about in the wake of this attempted coup. Is that something you stand by?

In the face of these incidents where 208 people were killed, including civilians, the citizens have voiced a request. They asked for the death penalty repeatedly.

But this issue can now be taken in the parliament.

Of course, we previously abolished it my administration. But we can always go back and reintroduce it. If the parliament takes that decision, it will count. 

IMAGE: Members of the police special forces are seen in front of the Air Force Academy in Istanbul, Turkey. Photograph: Huseyin Aldemir/Reuters.

Do you think that is likely? 

It can be. The people now have the opinion that these terrorists should be killed. They don't see any other outcome to it. I mean, life or aggravated life sentences -- why should I keep them and feed them in prisons for years to come? That’s what the people say. 

They want a swift end to it; because people lost relatives, neighbors and children. So the people are very sensitive, and we have to act very sensibly and sensitively in the face of these requests. 

What I tell the people is this: there is a clear crime of treason, and your request can never be rejected by our government. So the leaders will have to come together and discuss it. If they accept to discuss it, then as the president, I will approve any decision to come out of the parliament. 

Meantime, you will commit, I assume, to due process for those thousands that have been rounded up as being part of this plot? 

Of course, there is no doubt. The judiciary is working on it. The same goes to the Turkish national police.  

Within the armed forces, we had people that strictly refused and rejected what these plotters tried to do, and they are, of course, on the side of the people. We were able to suppress this attempted coup with a counter-coup. 

What will a new Turkey look like, and is this an opportunity for reconciliation with those that you have been opposing and that have opposed you for so long?

Well, we don't have the idea of reconciling with terrorist groups; first things first.  But those who have never been part of terrorism, those who have only cared for their homeland, their country, their flag, and their nation, about the Turkish state, we've always embraced them.