The Big Prison By the Sea: Will Its Captives Change Turkey’s History?

The massive complex at Silivri holds prisoners from a six-year old campaign against supposed plotters against the Islamist-leaning government. The situation has helped grow a right-wing opposition movement

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Protesters hold banners in front of the heavily guarded Silivri prison, Turkey, prior to a hearing of the Ergenekon trial, on Sept. 7, 2009

On the face of it, Silivri is just another seaside town. Shuttered and sleepy in the winter, it throngs with ice cream stands and holiday-home owners from nearby Istanbul in the summer. Then there’s the prison. A few miles out of town, the massive new complex — so big that signposts call it “Campus” — is home to a landmark court case that has made Silivri one of the most politically charged words in Turkey.

Hundreds of high-ranking Turkish military officers, including former Chief of Staff Ilker Basbug, are behind bars there — along with journalists, lawyers and several members of parliament. They are accused of plotting to overthrow Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government because of their opposition to its Islamist leanings.

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Across from its steel gates, a ragtag group of secularist protesters have set up camp in a field strung with fluttering red-and-white Turkish flags. They began arriving more than a year ago to attend the court hearings. Eventually they rented a field from a local farmer, installed prefabricated huts, dormitory-style beds and a wood stove and bunkered down.

“This place is like Turkey’s conscience,” says Bugra Demiroren, 18, an economics major from Ankara, in Silivri on semester break. “There is so much accumulated anger and sorrow. What’s happening here isn’t normal.” Demiroren belongs to the Turkish Youth Union, a militantly secularist group that was formed in 2006 to protest Erdogan’s government and now has some 40,000 members. “2012 was a record year of growth for us,” he says. To Demiroren and people like him, Silivri is synonymous with the malaise of Turkish democracy under Erdogan.

Silivri’s cells hold the captives of a government crackdown on a group called Ergenekon — named after a mythic valley to which Turks trace their origins. The Ergenekon purge began in 2007 as a police investigation into a shady network of military men, lawyers, journalists and intelligence agents who saw themselves beyond the reach of law. Many Turks initially supported it as a turning point for democracy and an end to decades of military domination.

But wave after wave of arrests and offshoot trials followed — there were so many detainees that the prison sports hall had to be converted into a courtroom with a defendants’ box that could hold up to 180 people at a time. The process became bogged down by allegations of doctored documents, dates that did not add up and people proved to be nowhere near the alleged crime scenes. According to defense lawyers, the case file runs to some 120 million pages. Some defendants, like Mustafa Balbay, a well-known columnist for the secularist daily Cumhuriyet, have been in jail for three years pending proceedings.

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To its critics, Ergenekon became a pretext for the government to round up its opponents and a symbol of its authoritarian bent. “On the surface, Ergenekon would appear to have a democratizing effect,” says Yaprak Gursoy, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bilgi University who recently led a Turkey-wide survey on the subject. “It strengthened the hand of civilian authorities, allowed them to press on with political reforms and significantly reduced the odds that Turkey will see another coup.”

“But on a deeper level,” Gursoy says, “I don’t think it’s been positive at all. It has deepened an already existing cleavage line between Islamists and secularists. Secularists don’t believe Ergenekon exists.” This is not good news, Gursoy says, because a democracy can only mature when everyone agrees on the rules of the game. This is called consolidation.

A polarized society means extremes. Unsurprisingly, Ergenekon has spawned its own resistance: a fringe brand of right-wing neo-nationalism that is becoming mainstream. Tell-all books written by jailed trial defendants are best sellers. Neo-nationalist newspapers have emerged. The lurid antigovernment Sozcu (which means Spokesman) is now the country’s fourth top-selling newspaper. In the staunchly secularist neighborhoods of big cities like Istanbul and Ankara, people make a point of carrying a copy.

The rise of newspapers like Sozcu is largely a result of Erdogan’s crackdown on mainstream media, which faces subtle and not-so-subtle government pressure to toe the line. (Turkey now has more journalists in jail than China.) That has left the field open to the militant neo-nationalism of the kind espoused by residents at the Silivri camp. Their benchmark is Ataturk, and not Turkey today. Women shouldn’t wear a headscarf. Kurds don’t need greater political rights. The CIA is to blame for pretty much everything.

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Bugra Kerevizoglu, 18, is cheery, relaxed and sports a hoop in one ear, but when he talks he sounds like a time traveler from an authoritarian past. “Turkey is surrounded by enemies on the inside and the outside who want to see it carved up, ” he says. His speech is peppered with military terms like attackresistance and war. “Their goal is to disband the republic.”

For Erdogan, Silivri is becoming a headache. In practical terms, the military is suffering an absence of qualified leaders at a volatile time as war destabilizes neighboring Syria and Iran grows increasingly hostile. Almost all of Turkey’s admirals, for instance, are in jail. There is no immediate successor to the head of the navy after the last serving admiral resigned last week to protest his colleagues’ arrests.

Though he once backed the Ergenekon investigation, Erdogan last week began to criticize the trial. “There are now close to 400 retired and serving officers [in jail]. The most serious are accused of forming terror organizations or belonging to one. If the charges for these are certain, then finish the job,” Erdogan said. “This affects the entire morale of the Turkish armed forces. How can these people then fight terror?”

“Erdogan has turned 180 degrees,” says Gursoy. Partly this is also due to his own political ambitions — Erdogan wants to change the constitution to create a more empowered presidency and then run for it in 2014. To do that, he will likely need to win a public referendum and what has happened at Silivri could be decisive.

The protesters outside Silivri are confident history is on their side. “This place will become a museum some day,“ says Seref Tuncay, a retired engineer from Izmir. He points to a row of spindly baby firs, each marked with the name of a detainee. “That’s why we planted those. They will grow.“

The politically suppressed do have a way of making a comeback. If anyone, Erdogan, a survivor of three bans on earlier Islamist parties and a term in prison, should know that.

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