Nearly 18 months after the Turkish government survived a violent coup attempt and responded with mass arrests and firings, the fate of more than 100,000 Turkish citizens rests with an opaque government-appointed commission that will decide whether they get their jobs back.
As Turkey grappled with the aftermath of 2016's coup attempt, which saw tanks rolling down Istanbul streets and the parliament in Ankara bombed, the government set its sight on those they accused of being connected to the plot: journalists, doctors, teachers and civil servants – broad swaths of society with little or no connection to politics being swept up in what critics say was the largest crackdown the country has ever seen.
An estimated 150,000 state employees were suspended or dismissed, and more than 50,000 jailed pending trial over claims they were connected to terrorist organizations or the coup. And the sackings are not letting up: Another 2,700, including teachers and soldiers, were fired in the closing days of 2017.
Mehmet Erol and his wife, Gul, were among those caught up in the purge. He taught English and she taught art in the southeastern town of Sanliurfa. Six days after the failed coup, which left 250 dead and more than 1,000 injured, Mr. Erol found out he was under investigation. Weeks later, he was dismissed from the high school he taught at for eight years.
"When I found out I lost my job, it was 3 a.m. It was very hot [outside] but I felt like it was freezing. I cried a lot," he said. His wife also lost her teaching job.
Human-rights groups have criticized the dismissals as being heavy-handed. In a Kafkaesque twist, those seeking justice must apply to a government-appointed commission where the evidence against them is never made public. In Mr. Erol's case, he can only guess the reasons that led to his dismissal: perhaps a rarely used bank account and expired union membership. Both the bank and the union are seen as linked to Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based cleric and former ally of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Gulen movement – designated a terrorist organization by Ankara – consists of a network of schools throughout Turkey and the world that teaches about Islam and interfaith dialogue.
Mr. Erdogan and his allies say Mr. Gulen was behind the putsch and argue a purge of state institutions is necessary to root out his followers. But Western diplomats and human-rights observers believe the President and his government are using the 2016 putsch to target critics and edge the country closer to authoritarianism.
For Mr. Erol and his wife, hope rests with the commission tasked with overseeing the appeal process. Applicants cannot ask to testify or bring witnesses. They simply fill in an online form – and wait.
The commission is meant to last two years, but with more than 100,000 applications, hundreds of decisions are supposed to be made every day. So far, no decisions on successful applications have been made public.
"It is not an exaggeration to say that this is an impossible task," says Emre Turkut, who is doing his PhD on Turkey's post-coup legal system at Belgium's Ghent University.
He argues Turkey set up the commission to delay access to the European Court of Human Rights for those contesting their dismissals. It ruled applicants must go through the Turkish commission and legal system – a process that could take more than 10 years, according to experts – before being heard at the European court.
Mr. Turkut questions the independence of the commission's members.
"In today's Turkey, whether they will be able to be free from influence or somehow pressured when they're conducting their role, it's a strong question," he said.
The Ministry of Justice and the Prime Minister's Office did not respond to The Globe and Mail's questions.
In the five-page application Mr. Erol handed in, which he provided to The Globe, he stated he never got the chance to defend himself before being dismissed and was never part of the Gulen movement.
Even those openly critical of the Gulen movement have been fired.
Abdullah was a member of the Gulen movement from the age of 15 to 23 but became disillusioned after concluding its interpretation of Islam was too strict. Six years later, he was dismissed from his civil-servant position in Istanbul after the coup attempt. The government claims he was part of a terrorist group – often a reference to the Gulen movement.
Abdullah, 30, did not want his last name used because current colleagues do not know he was fired from his previous job. He says he must regularly check in with the police, although there are no charges against him.
"In developed countries, you would first find the proof and then you would accuse the person, but in Turkey, it's the other way actually. First, they accuse you and then they try to find the proof to accuse you," he said.
For some, such as prominent constitutional lawyer Ibrahim Kaboglu, applying to the commission is simply a step to eventually get to the European court. He was expelled from his university post in February through a government decree.
Mr. Kaboglu is currently on trial, accused of spreading "terrorist propaganda" and faces seven years in prison – a real possibility, he thinks.
He was charged after signing a petition regarding the government's conflict with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a militant Kurdish group that Turkey, the United States and Canada consider a terrorist organization.
In Sanliurfa, Mr. Erol and his wife had to rent out their home and moved, along with their three children, to his parents' house. Even if the commission did approve his appeal, he feels his teaching career is over; he says people are too afraid to give him a job in his field. He cleaned offices temporarily but even that has not lasted. He says his family has never been in a worse situation.
"We feel so useless, we feel so worthless."