Turkey’s Massive Military Trial Opens Old Wounds and New Anxieties

Claims of procedural and evidentiary anomalies in a huge trial of coup plotters raise criticism of the Erdogan administration. Is the Prime Minister trying too hard to bury the military — and Turkish secularism?

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ADEM ALTAN / AFP / Getty Images

Protesters hold Turkish flags and shout slogans as they take part in a demonstration outside the first parliament in Ankara, Turkey, on Sept. 22, 2012

It was meant to be a milestone for Turkish democracy. In a trial that ran for 21 months, more than 300 senior military officers — including two ex-generals — were accused of seeking to overthrow Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted government in 2003. Never again would hard-line secularist generals — the arbiters of political life for decades by force of coups or behind-the-scenes coercion — be able to act with impunity. The trial — dubbed Sledgehammer — was to represent the end of an era when the top brass believed themselves beyond the reach of the law, justified in their actions because Turks needed protection from radical Islam and could not know what was best for themselves.

On Friday a judge in a crowded, purpose-built courthouse outside Istanbul handed down jail sentences ranging from 13 to 20 years against 325 officers. But instead of writing an epilogue to a divisive era, a nation already bitterly polarized over its future became even further divided.

(MORE: 10 Questions for Recep Tayyip Erdogan)

The defendants — including two former generals and a former admiral — were accused of planning to bomb mosques at prayer time and to shoot down a Greek fighter jet in an attempt to stir public unrest and cause the downfall of Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government, now in its third term in power. But the trial was dogged from the start by allegations of improper conduct, false evidence and apparent anomalies, such as dozens of officers nowhere near an incriminating war-games exercise and CDs said to have been recorded in 2002–03 but using Word 2007 software. The defense repeatedly complained that its counterevidence was not heard, and key witnesses were not called to testify. Erdogan, critics charged, used the trial as a pretext to lock away his former opponents.

“I am not convinced by the verdict, and I don’t believe it is fair because the court ignored much of the counterevidence that emerged during the trial,” says Sedat Ergin, columnist at the top-selling Hurriyet daily. “From here on there is a process of appeals that could go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. Far from closing a chapter, the Sledgehammer case has just become an even bigger issue on Turkey’s plate.”

Sledgehammer was seen by many as the final installment in Erdogan’s long-running campaign to rein in the military — once an archenemy that made little secret of its disdain for him and his pious cohorts. Headscarf-wearing wives of politicians were not allowed to attend official functions. High-ranking commanders would often refuse to shake hands with Erdogan allies. For the Prime Minister, who served a brief prison sentence while mayor of Istanbul for inciting religious hatred, it is a wound that clearly still rankles.

(VIDEO: Turkey’s Unconventional Muslim Minority)

Dethroning the military is a mission that has defined his rule. Re-elected for a second term in 2007 with an almost 50% majority, he used that mandate to launch a series of investigations into officers, lawyers, politicians, journalists and others that exposed several alleged conspiracies against the government. The plots were based on plans to cause upheaval, loss of faith in the government and thus pave the way for a military takeover. A second mammoth trial — this one called Ergenekon — is still ongoing. Some of its defendants have been behind bars for four years pending proceedings.

The allegations against the military are believable to many Turks. Turkey’s generals staged three coups from 1960 to 1980, while a fourth government, the first Islamist-led, was pressured from power in 1997. The country also has a long painful history of unsolved political murders and bomb attacks popularly ascribed to a sinister “deep state” motivated by nationalistic security concerns.

“Nobody denies that the military was in need of a cleanup,” Pinar Dogan, a Harvard professor and daughter of convicted ex-general Cetin Dogan, told me early on during the trial. “But this was done just to throw as many people as possible behind bars. It shouldn’t have been done in a spirit of political revenge.”

(MORE: By Arresting a Top Military Man, Turkey’s Government Throws Down the Gauntlet)

The power struggle between the military and Erdogan is also symbolic of a struggle over what a future Turkey will look like. Strict secularism was inscribed into the majority Muslim country by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Westernizing commander who founded modern Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Under Erdogan, a devout Muslim, Turkey is changing. He has relaxed curbs on religious expression — like a ban on headscarves at universities. Turkey now has one of the highest taxes in the world on alcohol and cigarettes. A recent radical change means schools now have to offer religion classes like “The Life of the Prophet Muhammad.”

“The massive reckoning going on behind the scenes is over what kind of a country Turkey should be,” says Osman Ulagay, a journalist and author of Who Will Inherit Turkey? “Broadly speaking, Erdogan’s thesis is that by choosing Western-style modernization, Turkey made a mistake. He sees his government as more in tune with the people’s belief and envisages a wealthy country, more tied to its traditions … that also reclaims a place for Islam on the world stage.”

One final legacy of Turkey’s military-dominated past is its constitution, drawn up after a 1980 coup. It is currently being rewritten by a parliamentary commission, and how Erdogan manages that process will be crucial to his democratic track record. He has made little secret of his aspirations to create a stronger office of the President — that he would presumably run for. Critics say that could turn him into a Turkish version of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Turkey’s future will depend to a large extent on whether he can forego his personal political ambitions and create a multicultural, inclusive document that enshrines tolerance and democratic rights.

MORE: Military Intervention Still Unlikely After Syria Shoots Down Turkish Jet

16 comments
saberbastante
saberbastante

Why can't anyone seem to put together that Turkey's recent rise, both economically and politically, over the last decade has much to do with funding by US taxpayers through the charter schools they have opened up over the past decade?  These schools are funded by our tax dollars, then they are run on shoe string budgets by the Turkish, who bring scores of Turkish citizens to America to work in these schools, they pay these teachers hefty salaries, in turn, they are required to pay back a large portion in the form of religious tithing.  This money is then filtered back into the economy; not ours, but their own insular economy whereby the Turkish people start businesses, grow the money and filter the increased amount back around.  Not only that, US based loans and donations, to name a few, are given to these communities to build these schools for which they hire their own, plowing that money into their system.  Look at the timeline.  The facts are clear.  Look at when the large influx of university students started coming to the US, look  that they were all males who then brought brides from Turkey, note that they began with Interfaith Dialogue to spread their facade of a do good community, note how many married US citizens whereby gaining citizenship and how many are now divorced.  Then notice that the Turkish communities began by inviting the firemen, then the police and finally today, the politicians to functions where they honor them with plaques and gifts and take pictures and hang them on their walls at their schools, in their blogs, mass emails.  What were these honors and plaques for?  As Americans, our culture is to smile politely for the camera and accept the gift, instead of question. Note how quickly and how many  charter schools have been open over the past decade.  Note which politicians are receiving donations from the Turkish and which policies these politicians are voting for in terms of supporting charter schools and increased funding. Notice how many all inclusive trips to Turkey were paid for by the Turks and given to politicians, college professors and other influential people all over our nation; then look up how many of these recipients returned home to US soil and wrote sympathetic books, articles, blogs and again, smiled for more pictures. Note also how many schools are under investigation for improper use of government funding, illiigitimately bringing over scores of Turkish citizens.  And this is not just one community in one state, this is the same template being used in every town they are in, which is by the way, not just in nearly every state in the US, but all over the world.  They have a map with pins in it showing where all these schools; therefore, communities are located.  I've been watching this for the last decade.  I read news papers from all over the world, why isn't someone combining all these informative pieces instead of just having the groups that try to tell everyone about the charter schools, political contributions, businesses owned by Turks and the news reports that note the rise of Turkey and staunch, wealth base of Erdogan.  Look at how many Turks flew to Turkey to cast their vote in each of the AKP elections.  Note too how many were employed by charter schools, members of Turkish-American cultural centers, Mosques. I urge people to read more than one news source, to question and then to take action with the power they have.  The Turkish certainly are.

saberbastante
saberbastante

Why can't anyone seem to put together that Turkey's recent rise, both economically and politically, over the last decade has much to do with funding by US taxpayers through the charter schools they have opened up over the past decade?  These schools are funded by our tax dollars, then they are run on shoe string budgets by the Turkish, who bring scores of Turkish citizens to America to work in these schools, they pay these teachers hefty salaries, in turn, they are required to pay back a large portion in the form of religious tithing.  This money is then filtered back into the economy; not ours, but their own insular economy whereby the Turkish people start businesses, grow the money and filter the increased amount back around.  Not only that, US based loans and donations, to name a few, are given to these communities to build these schools for which they hire their own, plowing that money into their system.  Look at the timeline.  The facts are clear.  Look at when the large influx of university students started coming to the US, look  that they were all males who then brought brides from Turkey, note that they began with Interfaith Dialogue to spread their facade of a do good community, note how many married US citizens whereby gaining citizenship and how many are now divorced.  Then notice that the Turkish communities began by inviting the firemen, then the police and finally today, the politicians to functions where they honor them with plaques and gifts and take pictures and hang them on their walls at their schools, in their blogs, mass emails.  What were these honors and plaques for?  As Americans, our culture is to smile politely for the camera and accept the gift, instead of question. Note how quickly and how many  charter schools have been open over the past decade.  Note which politicians are receiving donations from the Turkish and which policies these politicians are voting for in terms of supporting charter schools and increased funding. Notice how many all inclusive trips to Turkey were paid for by the Turks and given to politicians, college professors and other influential people all over our nation; then look up how many of these recipients returned home to US soil and wrote sympathetic books, articles, blogs and again, smiled for more pictures. Note also how many schools are under investigation for improper use of government funding, illiigitimately bringing over scores of Turkish citizens.  And this is not just one community in one state, this is the same template being used in every town they are in, which is by the way, not just in nearly every state in the US, but all over the world.  They have a map with pins in it showing where all these schools; therefore, communities are located.  I've been watching this for the last decade.  I read news papers from all over the world, why isn't someone combining all these informative pieces instead of just having the groups that try to tell everyone about the charter schools, political contributions, businesses owned by Turks and the news reports that note the rise of Turkey and staunch, wealth base of Erdogan.  Look at how many Turks flew to Turkey to cast their vote in each of the AKP elections.  Note too how many were employed by charter schools, members of Turkish-American cultural centers, Mosques. I urge people to read more than one news source, to question and then to take action with the power they have.  The Turkish certainly are.

Cem Atılgan
Cem Atılgan

           Unless islam finds his Luther,  these so-called muslims like Mu Çe or fundementalists assume every human, are not like them, enemy. I agree The State made some mistakes throughout development prosess but not  many as fundementalist had done. 

Mu Çe
Mu Çe

Seni anladığım kadarı ile birisi senin namusuna dinine hakaret etse düşmanımdır demiyeceksin. Yazık olmuş sana ve senin gibilere..Vicdanları körelmiş insanlardan -ister askeriyede çalışsın isterse de memur olsun- devleti korumak lazım ki zaman ı geldi

Cem Atılgan
Cem Atılgan

      işte tam da kastettiğim, her olayı eninde sonunda dine, namusa getirip, herkesi düşman saymak, onları kesmek, taşlamak, yakmak....birde VİCDAN dan bahsetmek. Devleti korumaya çalışmak....Sen hiç hayatında devlet korudun mu?

Poborski Fabori
Poborski Fabori

Erdogan is acting on behalf of, and only with the permission of the USA.

If you think Erdogan is trying to give Turkey a better self-identity, you are probably very swayed by this article, or you are ignorant to the facts in Turkey.

Turkey is not becoming a Putin-state; it is becoming a Stalin-state.

There is a word in Turkish to describe the last part of the article - PA LAV RA: The part in which "democratic track record" is mentioned - there is no "democratic" track record.

Mu Çe
Mu Çe

Turkish courts have accurate proofs to jail military officers. Why dont people hear that? The media organisation in Turkey is manupulated by allies of military officers. Well, west dont like that now Turkey has a power to rake up neo-ottomanism.

Poborski Fabori
Poborski Fabori

 You are wrong. Show me evidence. The court system is in the hands of government anyway. Ignorant government supporters are very funny.

The media in Turkey is not allied with the military, they are allied with the government, hence: YANDAŞ MEDYA / Partisan Media. Kimin yandaşı arkadaş?

Erdogan supporters are unfortunately ignorant, uneducated people that haven't been given the chance to expand their thinking. This is why they love the simplistic promises Erdogan makes, but they don't see him shutting down agriculture, industry, and privatizing the public sector.

They are too UNEDUCATED.

Mu Çe
Mu Çe

Ok..You want some evidence.. Some popular TV channels such as Kanal D,Show TV, Star and some popular newspapers such as Hürriyet,Milliyet,Bugün,Posta....These belong to Aydın Dogan, who is supporter of Israel, making fake news against new goverment, showing truth as a lie, a lie as  truth. Look!, people in Turkey have different thoughts from you and others like you, that is why %55 of voters chose new goverment. They are really bored of being victim of Kemalism and its supporters,some military ranking officers.

manofsan
manofsan

There are a lot of so-called "Turkish moderates" who are fundamentalists intent on burying the military, so that the way can be cleared for neo-Ottomanism:

http://perimeterprimate.blogsp...

RobertSF
RobertSF

Without Turkey's military, Turkey will quickly descend into Muslim theocracy just like Iran did.

Mu Çe
Mu Çe

With Turkish military, many people were lost by coups last 60 years. Now it is time to let muslims set free..Well, the west -including you- wont like the situation in Turkey..

manofsan
manofsan

But this time, the Muslim world already has nukes, and so they can consolidate together and win over the infidels this time around. We'll certainly see them try, anyway.

vf
vf

The defendants and their advocates (including the ones in the media) made a lot of claims about the trial being unfair but the European Court of Human Rights decided that it was a free and fair trial executed by independent courts. This was some months ago when the trial was still ongoing. Don't think they'll change their position, and this proves  that the trial has broad legitimacy. No wonder there's no objection to the ruling from major entities such as the EU for example. Indeed the EU was supportive of the trial from the start. 

Sedat Ergin the columnist mentioned in the article by the way is someone who said he'd not let headscarf wearing women work in his newspaper, so you know what kind of mentality/bias he has. Also he's just a single columnist, around 300-500 columnists work at national newspapers. 

I disagree with Osman Ulagay when he says "western-style modernization" is seen as a mistake. What's seen as a mistake (by not only AKP but also liberals, liberal leftists and democrats of a wide spectrum) is early 2oth century style forced "modernization" and a perverse sense of "secularism" that bans headscarf wearing women from universities or having a proper job, openly discriminates against religious individuals by demonizing them in the media, blacklisting them to keep them from having government jobs, portrays every religious community as a threat to  the state etc. It's the same mentality that oppressed the minorities because they didn't fit into this monolithic identity they envisioned.  Did AKP renounce secularism? No. Did they stop seeking EU membership? No.

By the way Erdogan was accused of "inciting religious hatred" but all he did was reciting a poem which was approved by the education ministry to be used in schools. Indeed "protecting secularism" was a convenient tool/excuse for hurting political opponents for some.

Cem Atılgan
Cem Atılgan

if RTE wears suit, it is just because Mustafa Kemal ATATÜRK and his revolutions. just simple instance. But RTE and his (free-minded ?) cohorts have been proving their insincerity day by day. Hey vf.....just a poem? sometimes just a poem depicts a person more than a novel....(Arkadaş, time da bile bu adamın yağcısını gördüm ya....pes yani. kardeş dünyaları kandırsanız da, dünyanın en demokratı da görünseniz....yemezler.. ama %56  sizi büyütmez sadece Türkiyeyi %44 küçültür...)

Mu Çe
Mu Çe

 Mustafa KAMAL is one of the person who kiiled many muslims in Turkey..The history was hidden in Turkey until new goverment uncovers truth..If you dont believe, just search!!!