Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen has described a crackdown on his followers by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan as "10 times worse" than anything meted out after coups by the secularist army.
"In the wake of the September 12, 1980 military coup, the authorities tracked me for six years as if I were a criminal," the influential US-based Muslim cleric, locked in a bitter feud with the Turkish government, said in a rare interview published yesterday.
"Raids were carried out. Our friends were harassed. In a sense, it became a sort of lifestyle for us to live under constant surveillance in a coup atmosphere.
"What we are seeing today is 10 times worse than what we saw during the military coups," he added in the interview with the Zaman newspaper and its English-language edition, both close to his movement.
Erdogan accuses Gulen's Hizmet network, which has quietly built influence in the police and judiciary over decades, of orchestrating a graft investigation which has grown into one of the biggest challenges of his 11-year rule.
He has responded by tightening government control of the courts and reassigning thousands of police officers and hundreds of prosecutors and judges, in what his aides say is a drive to cleanse the judiciary of Gulen's influence.
Gulen's network helped cement the ruling AK Party's rise, using its influence in the judiciary to help break the army's grip with a series of coup plot trials. But the marriage of convenience has fallen apart as the former allies turn on each other.
"This time, we face similar treatment but at the hands of civilians who we think follow the same faith as us," Gulen said. "I should acknowledge that this inflicts extra pain on us. All we can do is say, 'This, too, shall pass', and remain patient."