How the Ergenekon Verdicts May Deepen Turkey’s Political Divide

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BULENT KILIC / AFP / Getty Images

Turkish protesters wearing gas masks mass by a police barricade on Aug. 5, 2013, in the Turkish resort town of Silivri, site of the Ergenekon trials

A heavily guarded Turkish court on Monday handed down verdicts against 275 defendants — whose ranks include former generals, parliamentarians and journalists — on charges of plotting to overthrow the Islamist-leaning government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The landmark trial took five years, led to indictments that ran for thousands of pages and was housed in a purpose-built courthouse in Silivri, a coastal resort town outside Istanbul. In the process, it also became a bitterly contested symbol of the deepening divide between the government and its supporters on one hand, and secularists who accuse it of trying to muzzle dissent on the other.

The defendants were charged with forming a clandestine ultra-nationalist “terrorist organization,” dubbed Ergenekon, the name of a mythic valley in Central Asia where, in lore, the Turkic peoples originated. Their alleged plan was to feed social unrest by staging high-profile assassinations and bomb blasts, creating a pretext for the military to step in and take control — Turkey has a long, dark history of military involvement in civilian affairs, including three coups.

On Monday, General Ilker Basbug, retired chief of staff of the Turkish military, was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the Ergenekon conspiracy, along with 16 others. The court judges, announcing verdicts in the case individually, also sentenced three opposition MPs to between 12 and 35 years in prison, while 21 others were acquitted. Basbug maintains his innocence and claims the prosecutions were politically motivated.

The government and its supporters say that if unexposed, Ergenekon would have instigated another coup. Erdogan once called himself “the prosecutor of Ergenekon.” To them, the trial marked a necessary coming-of-age for Turkish democracy and an end to the military’s domination of political life. For decades, Turkey’s generals saw themselves as self-appointed guardians of Turkish secularism, a tradition dating back to the country’s Westernizing founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who was also a military commander. The top brass were deeply opposed to the democratically elected Erdogan when he first took office in 2003 — but he steadily eroded their power, passing E.U.-inspired laws that diminished their role. Ergenekon marked a key round in that battle, as dozens of ex-military men were detained over a period of five years. And last September, hundreds of military officers were sentenced for their part in a separate offshoot coup plot dubbed Sledgehamer.

The Ergenekon investigation began in 2007 with the discovery of a stash of hand grenades in an Istanbul shantytown. But as the investigation proceeded, it became clouded by waves of mass arrests, further offshoot trials, allegations of doctored documents, dates that did not add up and witnesses who were not heard. Some defendants like Mustafa Balbay, a well-known journalist for the secularist daily Cumhuriyet, spent years in jail without a hearing. (Balbay was sentenced Monday to 34 years in jail on alleged terrorism charges.)

At first, many Turks were supportive, seeing it as an opportunity to cleanse Turkey’s alleged “deep state,” the long-used term for a shadowy network of politically connected operatives — security officials, politicians, even businessmen — colluding beyond the reach of law to do the supposed dirty work of the state. (In 1996, the “deep state” was illustrated by a scandal surrounding a car crash in western Turkey, in which a senior politician, a wanted criminal and a police chief were found to have been traveling together.)

“In its initial stages, it was a justified investigation,” says Sedat Ergin, a senior columnist at the mainstream daily Hurriyet. “But as time went on, it changed shape. It became a politically motivated trial. There were many violations of legal procedure and rights, so its credibility came into question.” The European Union, which Turkey hopes to join, said in its 2012 progress report that the case had been overshadowed by “real concerns about their wide scope and the shortcomings in judicial proceedings.” Erdogan, while a clear backer of the process, has maintained that the prosecutors have acted independently throughout.

On Monday, all main access roads to the courthouse in the coastal town of Silivri, near Istanbul, were closed, as was airspace above it. Police fired rounds of tear gas on groups of protesters attempting to cross cornfields to approach the building. The defendants’ relatives were not allowed into the courtroom. “The people will have the last word,” said retired General Basbug in a statement on his website. “And it shouldn’t be forgotten that there is also divine justice.”

There is still a lengthy appeal process ahead. The defendants can appeal the verdict in higher Turkish courts and, if that fails, at the European Court of Human Rights. “The European Court of Human Rights process will take say another 4-5 years. In the meantime though, this verdict confirms the absence of rule of law here. I’m simply not convinced about some of these verdicts,” says Soli Ozel, international-relations professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.

At present, the Ergenekon sentences seem to have deepened the rift between Erdogan’s government and its critics. Turkey is still reeling from mass protests at the start of June which saw Taksim Square, the center of Istanbul, shut down and taken over by youthful demonstrators angered by the government’s increasing authoritarianism and its attempts to regulate issues such as alcohol and women’s reproductive health. Three people were killed and thousands wounded. Scuffles and tear-gas attacks have since become a regular Saturday-night occurrence. “Given the current political climate in Turkey, this verdict will no doubt sharpen that polarization,” says Ergin.

11 comments
lisamowmow
lisamowmow

@TIME A decade ago, Turkey seemed to be making progress. Now the Islamists are taking it backward to the 6th century.

YigitUnan
YigitUnan

The army is not a self-acclaimed protector of the secular system in turkey. It is so by the constitution. 


Army's interventions into politics are not welcome, however, this trial is a joke, a bitter, deadly joke. This trial pruely politically motivated. There never has been any hard evidence, and any "claimed" evidence is fabricated. This has been proven repeteadly yet the court dismissed all evidence which proves it. This whole court is illegal, just like countless other acts of the government. 


We were even softly backing the government for their courage and seeming determination to "serve" the people in their first term but very soon they revealed their true face. They are fascists. They have a clear vision of a neo ottoman state. These last gezi park events exposed clearly to what incredible level the government was manipulating the mainstream media. We didn't know about it but now we do. And it is a tragedy. 


It appears we will have to do a second independence war, this time against neo-ottomanists who know don't even hide their intention to change turkey into an islamist, conservative police state.  

OO
OO

Not three people, five people killed during protests...

btt1943
btt1943

Power can abuse judicial decision in some countries all the time. Power can abuse judicial decision in all countries some of the time. But power can never abuse judicial decisions in all countries all the time, no matter how powerful one may be.     

CeylanKeth
CeylanKeth

Pelin Turgut has been writing news here on 'Time'  like she hates Turkey. Even though she has Turkish name and she is Turkish citizen, when you search you will see that her mother is British and her father born in Erivan - Armenia. Now it makes perfect sense why she has to distort the truth in her news. Now she is supporting the ones who killed innocent civilians and plot to over throw democratically elected governments.


All the news related to Turkey has been written by her in the Time magazine with hate! Here in "TIME" Freedom of press become freedom to throw up your hates in your gut!

yrag
yrag

Just another example of the dangers involved when the Separation of Church and State is not adhered to.

MehmetZengin
MehmetZengin

Erhan Timuroglu, Osman Yildirim- Bombed a newspaper HQ building who opposes to government,
Alparslan Aslan -A lawyer who assassinated 2 supreme court members,
Colonel Mehmet Ulger- Proven involvement with killings of Christian missionaries,
Other crimes of this organization is involvement in killing of Christian priests, organizing mass protests, bombings and assassinations. All these involvements are proven by phone tappings, voice records etc. So this is not political court case but about organization whose aim was to destabilize
the country. While Christians were killed in Turkey, media criticized for it is being Islamic country, now these people being jailed and Turkey is being criticized again.

6thangle
6thangle

@yragLol!! There is no mullah running turkey !! It is a constitutionally secular country, they even permit gay parade which is not acceptable by any major religion !!