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2003 - Sledgehammer / Ergenekon : Turkish Coup Plot

In November 2002 34% of the national vote gave the AK PARTY 363 seats in the 550-seat parliament. At that time, concerns were raised about possible military intervention in domestic affairs. Historically, when the military feels the government is moving away from secularism toward a religious government, the military has stepped in and changed the government. This influence and subtle control of the military from behind the scenes is something that must be overcome if Turkey is to continue to democratize.

In April 2003 the President, the chief of the military's General Staff, opposition party members, and high-ranking bureaucrats threatened to boycott a reception marking the 83rd anniversary of the founding of Parliament, because Parliament Speaker Bulent Arinc's wife, who wears a Muslim headscarf, was listed on the invitation as co-host. Arinc later announced that his wife would not attend the event in an effort to avoid further tension. The incident marked the first time the event had been boycotted in 83 years. Arinc also drew sharp criticism from the secular elite in November 2002 for bringing his wife with him to the airport to see off President Sezer on a foreign trip.

In 2007 strong opposition by the nationalists cast doubt as to the nomination and election of Abdullah Gül, the foreign minister and member of the Islamist majority, Justice and Development Party, to be Turkey's next president. The Turkish nationalists, who enjoy the support of the military, strongly opposed the presidency of Abdullah Gül or any other member of the Justice and Development Party to ever occupy the presidency. General Yasar Büyükanit, joint chief of the Turkish armed forces, reiterated that the elections, which had again resulted in victory for the Justice and Development Party, had not changed the military's opinion on being the protector of the secular system, and the president must besecular in deed and not just in words.

In 2007, a Turkish newspaper reported the existence of an alleged 2003 plot connived by a large group of senior military officials to overthrow the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). On March 29, 2007, the weekly news magazine Nokta published excerpts from the 2000-page alleged memoir of Özden Örnek, a retired Chief of the Naval Staff. The memoir revealed detailed plans of certain four-star generals to stage a coup in 2004. Nevertheless, public prosecutors did not press charges on the generals in question – despite a call to do so by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Instead, they launched an investigation of the news magazine on charges that the news story violated the Article 318 of the Turkish Penal Code, which makes it a crime to “disaffect people from the military service.”

There is some "fire" behind the smoke. The military obviously had plans to intervene if necessary in political affairs and could cite the 1982 constitution, endorsed by the population per referendum, which gave the military a key role in "overseeing" democratic governments' adherence to Ataturkist principles -- largely defined as by the military and its friends in the bureaucracy and judiciary.

The Ergenekon case, which began in June 2007 after police raided the home of a non-commissioned military officer in Istanbul and discovered 27 hand grenades of the same type used in attacks on "Cumhuriyet" newspaper's Istanbul office in 2006, has grown ever wider in scope. Prosecutors have worked with the Turkish National Police (TNP) to detain more than 100 journalists, writers, alleged gang leaders, and politicians in what has morphed into a case to root out and hold accountable members of an alleged ultra-nationalist gang named Ergenekon.

The case reflects the deep schisms in Turkish society, and therefore will continue to evoke visceral responses that are an outgrowth of a larger debate over where the country is headed. Many Turks are quick to blame Ergenekon for every wound in the past, but we find the notion of such a vast conspiracy network highly implausible. Prosecutors seem to be overreaching as they try to connect ever-widening circles of defendants, some of whom appear directly culpable for violent crimes, but others who seem only marginally involved, or are simply strong advocates for secularism. Actual convictions may prove elusive, given the nature of the evidence.

The military seemingly has generally acquiesced in the probe, saying that it, more than any other institution in Turkey, has an interest in "making the investigation more clear." The military has cooperated with the civilian-led investigations, allowing searches on premises controlled by the military, and consenting to the arrest of active duty officers. Official military reactions against the Ergenekon investigation have been limited to expressing concern about the treatment of senior retired officers arrested in the case and the need to respect the rule of law and the rights of the accused as well as about how the case is covered by the media.

In pre-dawn raids on the morning of 22 January 2008, police in Istanbul and at least four other cities took suspects into custody under suspicion of belonging to what Istanbul prosecutor Zekeriya Oz labeled a terrorist organization. Press report police monitored Ergenekon (ultra-nationalist club) members, actions and telephone conversations for 8 months as part of an investigation of a stockpile of explosives and ammunition found June 12, 2007, in Umraniye, a middle class district on the Asian side of Istanbul. Press speculation implicates Ergenekon in virtually every killing with political significance over the past several years, including the Hrant Dink murder, the 2006 Council of State (Danistay) shooting which killed one judge, the bombing of the Cumhuriyet newspaper building in Istanbul, and the 2006 murder of an Italian priest, among others.

Investigations into the alleged criminal network Ergenekon continued at the end of 2009. Charges include attempting to overthrow the government and to instigate armed riots. Ammunition and weapons were discovered in the course of the investigation. A first trial, which started in October 2008, is ongoing. A second indictment, covering 56 suspects including three retired generals and a former commander of the gendarmerie, was submitted to court in March 2009. A third indictment covering 52 suspects was presented to the Court in July. The cases concerning these two indictments are discussed in one single trial, which started in July 2009 and is ongoing. This is the first case in Turkey to probe into a coup attempt and the most extensive investigation ever on an alleged criminal network aiming at destabilising the democratic institutions. Furthermore, for the first time a former Chief of Staff testified voluntarily as a witness. Concerns have been raised about effective judicial guarantees for all the suspects.

In late February 2010, Turkish prosecutors began arresting scores of current and retired military officers allegedly involved in the plot, which included plans to bomb mosques in Istanbul and provoke Greece into shooting down a Turkish plane over the Aegean Sea. On 22 February 2010 police detained 47 retired and active-duty military officers, including 17 flag-grade officers for -- according to press reports -- their alleged involvement in coup plots dating back to 2003-2004. Although coverage of the detentions blanketed the press, neither the Turkish General Staff (TGS) nor the government appeared publicly outraged (in the case of TGS) or congratulatory (the governing Justice and Development Party) by the actions. There was no official statement from the TGS, and PM Ergodan took a back seat by stating that the police were simply acting on order from the judiciary.

Much of this is electoral poiltics, albeit of a "below the belt" contact sport variety. All this is exacerbated by the thuggish authoritarian behavior of the police and judiciary (reflecting prevailing tendencies in this society, including in the military). In the US a prosecutor or detective would simply have visited the generals in question to pose questions. "Invites" to the precinct, reading of rights, indictments, arrests, and detentions follow only after the amassing of evidence and clear indications of a case winnable in court. Not here. Anyone even suspected of "having information" is hauled before the police (armed with automatic weapons), and humiliated before the press. It's always been that way; now it was also happening to the top brass and their friends.

Although the plans never came to fruition, approximately 70 current and former military personnel including two Generals and five Admirals had been detained in relation to the plot, dubbed 'Sledgehammer." The army denies that Sledgehammer was a coup plan, saying it was a simulation exercise. Past arrests were made in connection with the "Ergenekon" plot, a previously alleged coup plan for which scores of individuals in Turkey on trial. However, the arrests over the last few weeks are the first specifically connected to "Sledgehammer."

Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan met with multiple military officials, including Chief of Staff General Ilker Basbug. Soon after the meeting, 18 additional officers (17 active, one retired) were arrested in 13 Turkish cities. AKP officials continued to reiterate their belief that a constitutional solution will be found to the current situation in Turkey. Also of note were recent protests marking the anniversary of the February 28, 1997 unarmed military coup. The protests consisted of domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other groups rallying in support of the Turkish government and opposing a military takeover.

Furthermore, a noncommissioned naval officer in the northwestern province of Balikesir was arrested last week following an investigation by military prosecutors who determined he had initiated a security protocol that was insulting to the Prime Minister. The individual is currently being held in a military prison.

These events, while indicating an increased tension and fluidity in the political landscape, do not suggest the likelihood of an impending overthrow of the government. The military and political leaders acted within the confines of the Turkish Constitution and have indicated their intention to continue to do so.

The military has wielded strong influence on politics for decades, but has seen its powers dramatically curtailed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government, which took steps to put the military under civilian rule. "An impaired democracy is not the fate of this country," Erdogan said. "No one is above the law, no one is untouchable, no one is privileged."

Turkey's prime minister vowed to put everyone who conspired against the country's democracy on trial. The number of military officers charged and jailed for allegedly plotting a 2003 coup against his Islamic-based government rose to 31 by 26 February 2010. The number includes seven admirals and four generals and it represents the largest-ever crackdown on the military.

In a new nationwide sweep, police detained 18 more officers, all but one of whom are still on active duty, television stations said. The officers were detained in 13 different cities and were being transferred to Istanbul, the reports said. It brought the total of officers detained to 67. The 11 officers included two active-duty admirals and one retired general. The court's decision to jail them came after prosecutors released the former chiefs of the navy and air force and another top general without immediately charging them, saying they were unlikely to flee. Police escorted more officers to the court for questioning, including Gen. Cetin Dogan, the former chief of the 1st Army based in Istanbul and Gen. Engin Alan, former head of the Special Forces.

The probe fueled tensions between the government and the fiercely secular military and shook the markets. Erdogan has dismissed calls by opposition parties for early elections. "The process under way is painstaking, but it is for the benefit of the people, today's developments are setting free the consciousness of the people," Erdogan said. "Those conspiring behind closed doors to trample on the nation's will from now on will find themselves facing justice." He added: "They should know that they won't get away with it." Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek stressed the need to overhaul the Constitution, a legacy of the 1980 military coup, to elevate democratic standards to the level of the European Union in an effort to boost Turkey's membership bid.

All suspects have reportedly denied the allegations, which include plotting to blow up mosques and kill some non-Muslim figures to foment chaos and trigger a military takeover. Wiretap evidence and the discovery of alleged plans for a military coup prompted the detentions. The recordings published on leading Web sites were allegedly conversations between ranking commanders at a military unit under Dogan's command in Istanbul.

Alan is best known for supervising the transfer of imprisoned Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan from Kenya to Turkey after his capture there in 1999. He is a highly respected commander within the military for his role in the fight against autonomy-seeking Kurdish guerrillas. Opposition leaders claim the coup probe is tinged by politics, a charge the government rejects.

It is widely believed that Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, then head of the military, did not back his subordinates. He had not been implicated in the alleged plot.

President Abdullah Gul, addressing businessmen and industrialists, tried to ease concerns over the government's showdown with the military. "Have no doubt, Turkey's future is really bright. Do not become fixed in this and become demoralized," Gul said. "All these will pass. These kinds of things happened in many countries. Our laws, rules, everything is working. Our parliament is working."

The military appeared to have concluded that its reentry into a direct role in politics would involve a risky challenge to a ruling party which enjoyed the support of a plurality of the population. On 16 December 2010, the first session of a trial of 195 suspects in the alleged "Sledgehammer" coup plan began. The suspects, who include active-duty military generals and civilians, were accused of obstructing the government and plotting to overthrow it. The trial continued at year's end. Many observers saw this trial as politically motivated, similar to the Ergenekon case, while others saw it as bringing to justice those who attempted to overthrow the government.

Throughout 2010, prosecutors in Istanbul continued to arrest and indict prominent military, business, and media personalities on charges of plotting to foment unrest and topple the elected government as members of an alleged network known as "Ergenekon." More than 250 persons were indicted by the end of 2010. Some opposition politicians, members of the press, human rights groups, and critics of the government considered many of the indictments to be politically motivated. Others, including human rights groups and some supporters of the government, claimed that the arrests had reduced pressure on journalists and human rights activists across the country. Dozens of defendants have been held for long periods, a common practice in the country, although some were released pending trial during the year.

Lengthy arrest periods before a verdict are generally a problem. The law does not set a time limit for holding suspects in custody or for completion of their trial. Judges have ordered that some suspects be held for long periods or even indefinitely without trial but with the right to come before a judge each month. The Ministry of Justice reported that the average length of time between arrest and the completion of trial was 580 days. In November 2010 the EC stated that close to half of all detainees were either awaiting trial or awaiting a final verdict on their cases. Of juveniles in detention, 88 percent were awaiting trial.

It was reported on February 5, 2011, that Istanbul's 12th High Criminal Court had accepted an indictment against 22 persons suspected of being linked to the leftist terrorist organization the Revolutionary Headquarters (RH). The group reportedly carried out a deadly shootout in April 2009 in Istanbul that claimed the lives of a police officer and two civilians and wounded eight other persons.

One of the suspects, Hanefi Avci, the former police chief of Eskisehir Province, was arrested and imprisoned in late September 2010. The indictment charges Avci and 13 other imprisoned suspects with "membership in a terrorist organization," as well with falsification of documents, possession of weapons and munitions, violation of the principle of confidentiality of an ongoing investigation, and the seizure of personal data. Prosecutors seek to obtain a prison sentence of 51 years for Avci and sentences of 7½ years to life for the suspects involved in the attack. They are also demanding a sentence of up to 12 years for Avci's wife, who was among the other suspects in the RH case who are not yet under arrest.

The court sent notices to the Interior Ministry, the Security General Directorate, the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), the General Staff, and the Gendarmerie General Command for the provision of information on the structure and activities of the RH. It has also asked the 9th High Criminal Court for a digital copy of the trial of RH members accused of the shootout with police in April 2009. The current indictment suggests that the RH is part of Ergenekon, "a clandestine criminal network charged with plotting to overthrow the government."

Avci wrote a book, entitled Halic'te Yasayan Simonlar Dün Devlet Bugün Cemaat [Simons in the Golden Horn: Yesterday the State, Today the Religious Community], that brought him notoriety. In it, he contends that the government's ongoing criminal investigations to tackle illegal activities in Turkey, including the Ergenekon probe, "lack evidence and are based on illegal wiretapping." Experts on criminal law, however, dismiss the work as biased, and it is said to be "well known that the telephone conversations of Ergenekon suspects were legitimately wiretapped by prosecutors overseeing the probe on court orders." According to the indictment, Avci, through his book – which describes his being wiretapped on a SIM card – violated the principle of confidentiality of an ongoing investigation, because RH members allegedly learned of the investigation into Ergenekon from the book.

A campaign in early 2011 by Turkish authorities resulted in the arrest of thirteen journalists on charges of conspiring with the so-called Ergenekon plot to overthrow the Justice and Development (AK) Party government. The arrests in turn triggered widespread protests against the growing crackdown on press freedom in the country.

By early 2013 the trial involving the alleged conspiracy by the Turkish military to overthrow the government was coming under increasing criticism both inside Turkey and internationally. The landmark trial was heralded as part of the government’s efforts to bring the army under civilian control. But, concern has grown as the case has implicated a wider array of government critics. When the Ergenekon trial started, it was widely seen as an historic moment, with senior members of Turkey's staunchly pro-secular army on trial for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Islamic rooted government.

But five years on, prosecutors have cast their net far beyond the army, indicting 275 people, including members of parliament, journalists and academics. Bedri Baykam, a member of the main opposition Republican People’s Party who has campaigned against the trial, says it is now out of control. "There is no concrete whatsoever evidence, proof shown against them, and still they have been cut off from their families, businesses, their jobs, for five-six years in the most productive part of their lives - their forties and fifties. How much is going on there in 2013 and the world has chosen to play the three monkeys - haven’t heard, haven’t seen and don’t want to talk," said Baykam.

The international community is starting to voice concern. The U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report cited the prolonged pretrial detention of many of the defendants. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch also criticized the case, saying there are serious concerns over the fairness of the trial.

Lale Kemal, a political columnist for the Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman, says the Ergenekon trial is nonetheless playing an important role in democratizing Turkey, by calling to account anti-democratic forces known as the “deep state.” Kemal said "We should be settling our scores with the illegal deep state elements of this country if we really want stability [and] democracy... It’s the core duty of any parliament or civilian authority or government to end the military’s interference in Turkish politics."

Kadri Gursel, a political columnist for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, says "There have been some clandestine groups trying to invoke the ideas of a coup d'etat," said Gursel. "But it has been turned into an ideological prosecution, persecution, including all kinds of people with a common denomination of being opposed to the government. Now, the justice system has emerged from this trial as a deeply politicized, biased justice. One cannot build democracy on problematic trials."

An Istanbul court sentenced senior generals, journalists and politicians to long jail terms for an alleged conspiracy against Turkey's Islamist-rooted government. The case is the culmination of a decade-long conflict between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the country's secularist establishment. Former chief of Turkish staff, retired general Ilker Basbug, and at least 10 others sentenced to life in prison. Lead suspect in the trial, former brigadier general Veli Kucuk, sentenced to life in prison. Dozens of military officers, politicians, academics and journalists received long jail terms. A total of 275 were accused of military coup plot against PM Erdogan's government; 21 acquitted; appeals were expected.

The vast majority of those jailed were senior army officers. But journalists, academics, businessmen and politicians, including three opposition members of parliament, were also among those convicted. Defendants were accused of membership in "Ergenekon," clandestine organization that allegedly planned, encouraged criminal acts such as extrajudicial killings, bombings and assassinations, to pave the way for coup. The five-year trial exposed deep tensions between the Turkey's secular elite and Erdogan's Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party.

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Page last modified: 05-08-2013 18:23:48 ZULU