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.

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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.

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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.

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