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Originally published Monday, December 23, 2013 at 7:33 PM

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Consul says he was ousted for criticizing Turkish government

The Turkish honorary consul general in Seattle has been removed by the Turkish government after he criticized it over the handling of protests in Istanbul.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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For nearly 12 years, John Gokcen presided over Turkish Republic Day receptions in October, greeted dignitaries and was the unpaid public-relations arm for his native country here in the Northwest.

Then in a Seattle Times story this past June, the Turkish honorary consul general criticized the way the ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party was handling protests over proposed development of a park near Taksim Square in Istanbul.

Two weeks ago, Gokcen was removed from office. He was saddened and hurt, and so were his supporters.

Gokcen “is a well-known person within the community, and he does his job very successfully and there is no reason he should be fired except for political reasons,’’ said Goren Hattatoglu, a Turk who came here in 1998. “I felt sad this is happening in Seattle.

“This incident also shows how the Turkish communities are polarized and divided here,’’ he said.

There are about 8,000 Turks in the state, the majority of them in the Puget Sound area, Gokcen said.

In the earlier story, Gokcen said Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s style of leadership “is gradually moving away from a democratically elected prime minister ... in a secular state to a more dictatorial one.’’

Gokcen also said the prime minister had changed the judiciary to eliminate court rulings against him, and his family now runs major TV channels and newspapers.

Gokcen was one of several Turks quoted in the story, but the only one apparently penalized for speaking out against Erdogan, who called the protesters terrorists and dissidents intent on destroying Turkey’s financial stability.

A supporter of the government party living in Seattle saw The Times story and sent it to officials in Turkey, complaining that a man in Gokcen’s position should not speak out against the government. Six months after making the comments, Gokcen’s diplomatic career was over.

“I’m sorry to say (the ruling party) cannot tolerate any criticism at all,’’ he said Monday.

Gokcen, 56, from Kirkland, is a Boeing employee who teaches advanced engineering to airline customers around the world, including Turkish Airlines. His ability to teach in Turkey is not affected by his removal as consul general, he said.

He announced the removal in an email to his constituents, noting the letter he received was signed by Turkey’s president, prime minister and the foreign minister of Turkey.

“The reason for this decision, as stated in the letter, was because of my comments in a Seattle Times article” about the protests to save a park in Istanbul and about the prime minister. “My comments made in the article derived from my core beliefs in the protection of democratic rights and freedom and from my family values which span for over four generations.

“My values have taught me to be honest, live with pride and advocate for what we know is right. While the protests were taking place in Turkey and my own Turkish American community in Seattle were showing their displeasure, it was my duty to represent their thoughts rather than distance myself from them. The current administration of a country ... has again shown with this action against myself that it is far from comprehending the basics of democracy. One of the main reasons for millions filling the streets in June was a cry for freedom of speech,’’ he wrote.

Turkey currently ranks 154th out of 179 countries in the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters without Borders.

“Despite the deaths along with the thousands of injuries that occurred in these protests, nothing has changed,’’ Gokcen wrote. “One of my comments in the article suggested that Turkey was moving further away from a secular state to a totalitarian one, and it would be quite difficult to argue against that comment after the actions taken against myself.”

Nancy Bartley: or 206-464-8522

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