Trial of strength

Published : Nov 21, 2008 00:00 IST

Supporters of The Ergenekon outside the prison in Silivri, west of Istanbul, where the hearings are taking place, on October 20. The banner has pictures of leading defendants in the trial of the 86 people accused in the case.-UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS

Supporters of The Ergenekon outside the prison in Silivri, west of Istanbul, where the hearings are taking place, on October 20. The banner has pictures of leading defendants in the trial of the 86 people accused in the case.-UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS

Trial begins against 86 people for an attempted coup against the government of Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.

IN what is being described as the most important case in modern Turkish history, 86 people are facing trial in an Istanbul court on charges relating to an attempted coup against the government. The defendants include prominent personalities, all of them apparently united by their hatred for the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power for the past seven years. It swept the polls in last years general election. Among the accused in the Ergenekon case, as it is called in the Turkish media, are retired military officials, academics, journalists and known mafia figures. Ergenekon, a legendary valley in Central Asia, is believed to be the ancestral homeland of Turks.

The main charge against the defendants is that they attempted to remove the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan by force. In all, there are 30 charges, ranging from membership in a terrorist group, arson, illegal possession of weapons and complicity in sensational murders of the recent past.

According to reports in the Turkish media, the 2,455-page indictment against the conspirators reads like a novel by Dan Brown. It says the group had planned to assassinate intellectuals, including the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.

The aim was to foment chaos and trigger a military coup in 2009. When the plot was uncovered, contract killers had already been hired for implementing the plan.

The group on trial has already been linked with the murders of three Christian priests and the prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist and writer Hrant Dink. Dink was a close friend and associate of Pamuk.

According to the prosecutors, the Ergenekon network is responsible for the killing of journalist Ugur Mumcu in 1993, business magnate Ozdemir Sabanci in 1996 and the academic Necip Hablemitoglu in 2002, and the attack on the building housing the Council of State in 2006. Until recently, the blame for these was pinned on Islamist radicals or extreme left groups.

One columnist described the Ergenekon as a descendant of NATOs [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] secret army in Turkey. Turks have openly talked about the Deep State, linking right-wing paramilitary groups with the military, police, media, politicians and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

During the Cold War, the activities of the Deep State were directed against the left-wing groups and Kurdish and Armenian separatists. In 1980, the army used the violence unleashed by the right-wing paramilitary groups against the leftists as a pretext to stage a coup. In the last 50 years, military coups have unseated four popularly elected governments. Right-wing death squads were responsible for the killing of hundreds of Kurdish activists in the 1990s. According to the indictment, former Turkish governments allowed the Ergenekon to turn our country into a mafia and terror haven.

The Ergenekon is said to be modelled on the Italian Gladio network. Gladio was set up with the help of the CIA to stop the Italian Communist Party (PCI) from winning power through the ballot and to sabotage trade union movements. It was held responsible for many political assassinations and bombings until the 1970s. The PCI was the biggest communist party in western Europe until then.

One of the defendants in the Ergenekon case, retired General Veli Kucuk, gained notoriety for the many disappearances and killings of prominent Kurdish businessmen when he was military police commander in western Turkey in the 1990s. Another defendant is Tuncay Ozkan, the owner of the television network Kanalturk. He played a prominent role in organising the anti-government rallies that paralysed the major cities of Turkey before last years general election.

These gangs are not new in our country. Our aim is to get rid of them. We see gangs in the most important institutions. People who once worked in these institutions join these organisations, Prime Minister Erdogan told the Turkish newspaper Sabah. He added that things were changing as there was now a deep Turkey working against the deep state.

The Turkish military establishment was quick to distance itself from the retired generals who have been implicated in the Ergenekon case. Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit said that the Turkish army is not a criminal organisation and that military personnel who commit crimes are punished by the courts.

There is a school of thought in Turkey that believes that the army establishment has decided to finally cooperate with the AKP in breaking up the shadowy ultranationalist Ergenekon group. The current army leadership seems to have realised that the days of staging coups are over. An army takeover would have immediately brought punitive sanctions from the West and ended the countrys dream of becoming a full-fledged European Union (E.U.) member.

The latest Ergenekon plot was uncovered when 27 hand grenades were found in the house of a retired military officer in June this year. The grenades had the same identification number as those used in an attack on the offices of Cumhuriyet, a pro-military newspaper, in 2006.

The attack was obviously aimed at providing a pretext for the military to act against the AKP government. Investigations revealed that the officer was part of a group that had carried out assassinations of prominent Turks in the last 15 years.The aim of the group, according to the prosecutors, was to precipitate a social and political crisis which would then necessitate the open intervention of the armed forces in the countrys politics. The group stands accused in the murder of a high court judge in April 2006. The blame for the killing which triggered huge public protests against the government was put on the Islamists. The army top brass even threatened to stage a coup last year but was pre-empted by Erdogans decision to call for snap elections. Documents seized from the accused include plans for attacks on Turkeys Supreme Court and NATO buildings.

The Ergenekon case is not the first one in which the Deep State stands implicated. In November 1996, after a car carrying the Istanbul police chief, a pro-government Kurdish leader and a notorious right-wing assassin crashed at high speed, the local police found machine guns, grenades and diplomatic passports in the boot of the vehicle. The passports had the signatures of the then Interior Minister. The last person to whom the right-wing killer spoke before the crash was General Kucuk. Kucuk refused to cooperate with the parliamentary commission that inquired into the incident. This did not prevent the army establishment from promoting him to a higher post. Preliminary investigations into the 1996 case revealed that right-wing criminal gangs were on the payroll of the government. There is no love lost between the Turkish elite and the AKP. Though the AKP maintains that it no longer adheres to Islamist ideology and is a centre-right party like the conservative parties in Europe, influential elements in the army and the bureaucracy seem far from convinced. In July this year, the ruling party narrowly escaped being banned by a Turkish Constitutional Court. Prosecutors charged that the AKP was undermining Turkeys secular Constitution and that its aim was to eventually introduce Sharia law. Most observers, however, feel that the AKP has introduced several social and economic reforms that the country needed.

The AKP views the July court case as a failed judicial coup against the government. On the other hand, secular fundamentalists, as die-hard anti-AKP parties and individuals are sometimes described, have characterised the Ergenekon case as the governments response to the attempt to dissolve the ruling AKP. Most independent commentators and intellectuals in Turkey, however, are of the view that the Ergenekon case is not a fight between secular and anti-secular groups but between democracy and its opponents.

What we are living through today are the birth pains of a new regime the death of 60 years of controlled democracy, the birth of a Turkey that has full democracy it deserves, Alper Gormus, a left-leaning editor, told the The Independent of Britain. His magazine was closed down by the authorities last year under pressure from the military establishment after it published details about a coup plan that was hatched in 2004. Two four-star generals, the highest ranking so far, were arrested in connection with that plot.

As the Ergenekon trial started, 300 Turkish intellectuals representing a cross-section of civil society released a petition demanding that the government fully investigate the activities of the Ergenekon and ensure that the tentacles of the Deep State do not obstruct the course of justice. They pointed out that in earlier incidents of a similar nature, those involved were not punished because of their proximity to the security and judicial establishments.

I am worried that the AK Party may have struck a secret deal with the military to not expose those Ergenekon members who are in the military, Ayse Hur, one of the signatories, told the Daily Zaman newspaper. He suggested that a quid pro quo could be involved, noting that the four judges who voted against a ban on the AKP in the judgment by the Constitutional Court earlier in the year had a military background.

Many of the intellectuals who signed the petition say more military officers should have been interrogated in the Ergenekon case. Ertugrul Kurkcu, a left-wing columnist, said that Ozden Ornek, the retired Admiral of the Turkish navy, whose diary revealed plans for the 2004 coup against the government, should have been indicted. The petition has called on all of Turkeys institutions, both civilian and military, to see the case to its logical conclusion. Civil society in Turkey wants the Deep State to be exposed so that the country can once again be a normal state.

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