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.