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.
“There is a clear crime of treason and your request can never be rejected by our government,” says Erdogan speaking through his translator. “But of course it will take a parliamentary decision for that to take action in the form of a constitutional measure so leaders will have to get together and discuss it, and if they accept to discuss it then I as president will approve any decision that comes out of the parliament.”
Conducted at the presidential palace in Istanbul, Erdogan also tells CNN he’s calling for extradition of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen from the U.S., what happened the night of the coup attempt – including turning to social media to get his message out – and why it “never crossed” his mind he would be ousted as president.
BECKY ANDERSON, HOST OF CNN INTERNATIONAL’S ‘CONNECT THE WORLD’: Mr. President, thank you for doing this with us. Before we talk about the outcome and fallout of that attempted coup, take me back to what happened that night. Where were you? What were you doing? And how did you find out?
RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, PRESIDENT OF TURKEY (through interpreter): Thank you very much.
First of all, on the 15th, I was with my family. We were on a vacation of five days. We were in Marmaris. And that night, around 10:00 p.m., I got some news. And they told me about what was going on. And I was informed that in Istanbul and Ankara and some other places, there was some kind of movement that was going on. So we decided to move out, and I had my wife, my son-in-law, my grandchildren. They were all with me when this was going on. Therefore, it was all the more serious, if you will.
But before moving out, I just wanted to invite the cameras in, the media in. And I just reached out to the whole Turkish population by the TV channels. But the national broadcast was not reaching people’s TVs, people’s homes. So we had to switch to Plan B in terms of media and broadcasting as well. So what we did was we resorted to cellphones, smartphones, and went on live TV via the smartphones on a number of private TV channels. And via those broadcasts, I invited people to take to the streets, to go to the squares in their cities.
And the first reactions I got was that – well, immediately after that invitation, I was informed that people were actually taking to the streets en masse. And that was very important because the only language these putschists, 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.
ANDERSON: You took to the airwaves of our affiliate channel, CNN Turk, using FaceTime. You said you’d called for your supporters to hit these streets.
ANDERSON: This was a pivotal moment. This was the first time that anybody had seen you. Do you agree there is a sense of irony in your call to one of the privately-owned, independent channels in Turkey, proved to be that pivotal moment? And do you have an appreciation, to a certain extent, of the free press and social media since your experience?
ERDOGAN: Now, of course, we have always had estimation for free press and, of course, privately-owned media outlets. And over the course of our government, 14-year rule in government, we’ve always facilitated these things. We’ve removed some obstacles, and we’ve supported these kinds of entrepreneurs. And when CNN wanted to do that with us that night, the first four talks, if you will, or broadcasts, were with privately-held channels. There was CNN, and A-Habesh (ph), and NTV and NTGRT – those were the channels.
ANDERSON: 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? I just want to put that to you before we move on.
ERDOGAN: Now, Becky, when it comes to free press, I’ve 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. And there are people siding with the coup plotters. And there are – there is also media outlets that have been against – that are against the coup attempt.
So my question is that 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 you will. Should be given the right kind of treatment, because otherwise, the citizens, the people will be deceived by misinformation.
But on the other hand, we’re talking about a situation where 280 people lost their lives, most of them civilians. 1,500 people were injured. More than 150 whose condition remains critical. The people itself brought me to this position. If I do not do anything, they will hold me accountable when the time comes, rightly so.
And there is also the operation in Marmaris against me, and two of my close bodyguards were martyrized; they were killed. If I had stayed 10 or 15 additional minutes there, I would have been killed or I would have been taken.
But there was an assessment that we made between ourselves, with our friends, and then we decided to set out and change location. And that was what foiled their plan to capture us. So I would like to honor the memory of all of our martyrs, 80 of them, and speedy recovery to all those injured.
ANDERSON: Let’s get back to what happened on that night. You landed at Istanbul airport. Just hours after that FaceTime broadcast on CNN Turk, what happened during that flight? Because there are reports that suggest there were fighter jets harassing your plane. Indeed, there were reports that they had locked their radar on your plane. Were you aware of that at the time?
ERDOGAN: Well, I was being informed real-time about everything that was happening. They were in control of the flight tower at Istanbul Ataturk airport. And I gave instructions via my phone to the head of security, head of police in Istanbul. And I instructed him to get rid of the coup plotters that were controlling the flight command center or the tower at Istanbul airport. And they did an operation, and they freed the tower from their presence.
Of course, we were in the air, so there were some communication mishaps. And I talked to my pilots during the flight, and I asked them how long we could stay in the air. And he told me three to four hours. And starting from the moment we landed at 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; the sound is similar. And we had more than 10,000 citizens of ours waiting for us at the airport.
So that’s how we got there. Get out of the plane, and had the first contact with the people.
ANDERSON: Were you concerned at any point that when you landed in Istanbul, that you would no longer be president of Turkey?
ERDOGAN: I – the idea never crossed my mind, because I was with my colleagues, and we never had that concern, never had that troubling thought. And starting from the first declarations, the first announcements, we said, well, the Turkish state is intact, the government is functioning, the president remains in power. There is no reason to worry, and these invaders will be gotten rid of as soon as possible, as quickly as possible. And it took 12 hours. In 12 hours was all it took, and we got the results we wanted.
ANDERSON: What do you say to those who in the early hours suggested that you had orchestrated this?
ERDOGAN: Well, as I was saying, unfortunately, 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 laying on the ground trying to block passage to the tanks? I mean, how can you do that? How can human conscience allow that?
No, that is beyond possible. And Tayyip Erdogan and his friend and colleagues will be the first ones to reject that kind of an idea. And quite on the contrary, we’ve always risked our lives for the sake of the people. That’s how we do politics. Those who have undertaken this operation, those who have attempted this coup, are the sort of people who could always trigger this kind a of thing.
So this is actually a blessing in disguise. And what we have achieved actually is the opportunity that this Fethullah terrorist organization has now received the biggest hit they have ever in this country because they have been discovered completely.
ERDOGAN: And this group that has remained unarmed until now has come out bearing arms, using those arms. Now everybody knows that this is the case. And they’ve used the arms of this nation, of this state, against the people.
ANDERSON: And you are referring to a group that is inspired and run by a man by the name of Fethullah Gulen, who is based in the U.S. He is a Muslim cleric.
You have demanded in no uncertain terms either his arrest or extradition from the United States. Has Turkey made a formal extradition request to Washington at this point?
ERDOGAN: I have previously made this request to President Obama orally during our discussions a couple of times. My minister of foreign affairs also did that. But this week, a written, formal request will also be made to the United States and also to a number of Western countries and African countries. We will be sending those requests formally.
ANDERSON: Your prime minister has said, and I quote, “Any country that stands behind him, Gulen, is no friend of Turkey – is engaged in a serious war with Turkey.” It’s clear that he’s referring in the first instance there to the United States. What happens if Washington doesn’t arrest or extradite Fethullah Gulen at this point?
ERDOGAN: It’s very simple. And I’ve made this statement previously as well. So first, we have to do our formal request. We will ask for the extradition. If there is no positive response to that formal request, then the United States – well, if there is ever anyone, a criminal in the eyes of the U.S., and if they’re going to ask for their extradition, as the president of the country, I will not allow that. Because no matter who they requested from us, terrorists in their own consideration, we have always extradited those people.
However, after this incident, because we have a mutual agreement of extradition of criminals. So now you ask someone to be extradited, you’re my strategic partner, I do obey, I do abide by that, but you don’t do the same thing? Well, of course, there should be reciprocity in these types of things. Even if he is a citizen of the United States, the U.S. should not keep such a terrorist. And the terrorist organization has made its way onto our official document about national security. Therefore we are strategic partners, we are model (ph) partners. And the U.S. has to extradite that individual to Turkey. I do hope that the U.S. will do that.
ANDERSON: All right, I just want to push you on this because I know you’re not a man of idle threats. And as I say, the prime minister suggested that any country that stands behind Gulen is engaged in a serious war with Turkey. So, I want to get a sense of just how bad things could get at this point.
ERDOGAN: I don’t know to what extent or how exactly the prime minister used that phrase or sentence. But let me say this. All of the heads of state and government to whom I talked about this issue, they have been giving positive answers and responses to our requests. So they’ve always favored mutual cooperation that our ministers of foreign affairs can come together and work on the issue, to such an extent that if we need mutual legislation or agreements, let us also do those, they have told me, so that we can actually extradite people belonging to this organization.
ANDERSON: On the issue of Fethullah Gulen, he is not on a terror watch list in the United States. So due process there, would you concede, may be different than due process here, should somebody be considered a terrorist?
ERDOGAN: Well, if that’s the approach you take, that’s another catastrophe, actually. Because when the U.S. asks for the extradition of a terrorist, if Turkey doesn’t have that individual on the terror list, what do we say, what do we respond?
Now, the individual might not be on your terror list or terrorist list. But if he is on my list, and if we have an agreement on the extradition of criminals, if I make the request, then, well, you should extradite that person. And there has been numerous examples of that mechanism working with many other nations as well, not just the U.S.
So, Bin Laden, right? Bin Laden – was he a terrorist by Afghanistan’s consideration? No. What happens? Well, there was a request, it was not given, but the U.S. of course took initiative and killed him on the ground. So, our bilateral relations and our agreement on the extradition of criminals should dominate and precede actually any inclusion into any list. And we have numerous files that are being prepared as we speak, and they will be submitted to the nations concerned.
ANDERSON: Do you know when? That will be this week?
ERDOGAN: This week, we are starting that whole process.
ANDERSON: The death penalty has become an issue, something that people are talking about here in the wake of this attempted coup. And you have said, should it be the will of the people, that you would discuss the opportunity to reintroduce the death penalty should everybody agree to that. Is that something you stand by? Because the issue of the death penalty would – here – would clearly inform what is going on in Greece with those eight soldiers and would clearly inform what is going on with Gulen in the United States. Your thoughts?
ERDOGAN: Now, in the face of these incidents, where 208 people were killed, civilians were killed, the citizens have voiced a request. They asked for death penalty repeatedly.
So my question is, do you have the death penalty in the U.S.? Yes. In Russia? Yes. In China? Yes. Well, European nations, no, they don’t have it. And we, the administrations before us, actually, abolished the death penalty in the E.U. accession talks so that we would be allowed to become a member.
Now – but this issue can now be taken in the parliament, it can be discussed there. Of course, we previously abolished it, my administration. But we can always go back and reintroduce it. If the parliament takes that decision, then that’s the decision that will count.
ANDERSON: Do you think that’s likely?
ERDOGAN: It can be. The people now have the opinion, after so many terrorist incidents, that these terrorists should be killed. That’s what the people think. That’s where they are. They don’t see any other outcome to it. I mean, life sentence or aggravated life sentence – why should I keep them and feed them in prisons for years to come? That’s what the people say.
So they want a swift end to it, because people lost relatives, lost neighbors, lost children. Eight-year-olds, 15-year-olds, 20-year-old young people. 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. But, of course, it will take a parliamentary decision for that to take action in the form of a constitutional measure. So the leaders will have to come together, discuss it. If they accept to discuss it, then as the president, I will approve any decision to come out of the parliament.
ANDERSON: Meantime, you will commit, I assume, to due process for those thousands that have been rounded up as being part of this plot, correct?
ERDOGAN: Of course, there is no doubt. Though they have already started their – ongoing as we speak, but I don’t know, of course, how long it will take or when they will end. But as we speak, the judiciary, of course, is working on it. And the efforts of our judiciary are only to be praised. I appreciate what they have been doing since the beginning of this, day and night, round the clock. The same goes to the Turkish national police.
Also 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. And we were able to suppress this attempted coup with a counter-coup.
ANDERSON: I guess while we are talking about those who have been rounded up, just to get the very latest, as you understand it, about Incirlik Air Base. I know that there was news just today that Incirlik is experiencing further security sweeps. And there are 1,500 or so U.S. troops based there. The generator has been off, the power has been off during some occasions.
Are they safe, those U.S. troops? And there must be a sense in Washington at some point that, who do we call? There’s so few military personnel there now. Who does Washington call?
ERDOGAN: Well, Washington knows who to call in Turkey very well. They contact our ministry of foreign affairs, our ministry of defense. And then they call those places, their calls are always picked up. They always get a response.
But let me be very clear: much is at Incirlik Air Base, but all of the bases in Turkey, the power, the electricity, has been shut off. There is a reason why. Had we not shut off the power, then planes will be able to take off from all of those bases. And the planes in the possession of terrorists, if they take off, then that is a serious threat for the people, for the nation. So we cannot let that happen. That’s why we took that measure.
Of course, it’s temporary, until a second instruction. And upon second instruction, of course, the power can be restored back to those places. It will happen; no one should have any concerns or worries about it. That’s just only normal and reasonable. A reasonable strategy, a reasonable tactic, and these things have to be done.
ANDERSON: Finally, in the hours following the failed coup attempt, you referred to this as a “gift from God for pushing ahead with a new Turkey.” 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?
ERDOGAN: 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 all of those Turks and all of those people.
ANDERSON: The question is, is that about conciliation or is that about President Erdogan and what some describe as a crackdown , sir?
ERDOGAN: Well, I would have never wanted to hear such a thing from you, Becky, because to crackdown by type, I don’t know what that is. I would like to know what crackdown by type (INAUDIBLE) looks like, what kind of pressures or oppression there is in this country. I would like to be informed.
So, it’s just libel. I mean, just saying those things doesn’t make Tayyip Erdogan into someone who does crackdowns, because if Tayyip Erdogan was an oppressive figure, then he wouldn’t have gotten 52 percent of the vote at the presidential elections. Maybe during next presidential elections, we will see if a clarification of what the real situation is. Because if the people allow something to happen, it’s the right thing. If the people say that this person, this figure is a good figure, is a good person, I think that has to be respected.
Nobody actually heeds that because they pay attention to other places, other sources of information. Those in different places make some comments, and some other people follow it. It’s simply unacceptable.
So let me ask this. And this has saddened me greatly, actually, because in the world, some international media groups go out there and have interviews with Fethullah Gulen. Now, my question is that when the Twin Towers were hit, bin Laden was alive. Those media groups, had they gone and done interviews with bin Laden, and if this had been broadcast, what would be people’s reaction or comments? Would they be positive? So what’s now happening is that some people go out there and do interviews with Fethullah.
Now, they’ve done similar things before. With whom? Well, with the previous leader of the separatist terrorist organization, or there have also been those that have done the same thing with terrorists that are in rural parts up in the mountains. And there have also been those (ph) who have turned those interviews into books and sold them.
I’ve never considered those things as being part of the real profession of being a journalist or being an author. Because if an individual is a terrorist, then you should not be promoting those people and putting them under a good light, if you will, and promoting to the young generation to come. That will only be spoiling the young generation.
ANDERSON: Thank you, sir.
ERDOGAN: Thank you very much. Thank you.