Turkey: Erdoğan's Ergenekon "Victory"
by Veli Sirin
"Ergenekon," a legendary Turkish place of origin in Central Asia, was the title given to an alleged secret anti-AKP terror plot with which 275 defendants were charged. Of them, 60 were locked up prior to the trial, and 21 were acquitted.
Begun in 2007, the Ergenekon proceeding has ended with the former head of the Turkish military, General İlker Başbuğ, ordered to serve life in prison. Başbuğ, who had served as Chief of General Staff under Erdoğan, was arrested in 2012, accused of heading the Ergenekon plot against the AKP leader. Similar punishments were decreed for 18 more of the accused.
Several of Başbuğ's former subordinates or colleagues additionally received life terms. Hurşit Tolon, former First Army commander, was sentenced to life in prison on the same charge as Başbuğ. Former General Staff Second Chief, General Hasan Iğsız, was also consigned to a life sentence. Retired General Nusret Taşdeler and Retired Colonel Fuat Selvi were similarly sentenced to life in prison. Former Gendarmerie Forces (National Police) Commander Şener Eruygur received an "aggravated life sentence" – a punishment reserved for terrorism cases, in solitary confinement, with limited exercise time and contact with other prisoners or by telephone with family, and no opportunity for parole. Retired general Veli Küçük saw a double-aggravated life sentence imposed on him, plus 99 years and a month.
Küçük and retired colonel Arif Doğan were accused of creating and directing a terrorist effort to subvert the current authorities. Doğan was purportedly the mentor of a Gendarmerie Intelligence Anti-Terrorism Unit, as a covert, seditious organization, the existence of which has been questioned by such Turkish media as the daily Hürriyet [Freedom]. In the Ergenekon affair, he was sentenced to 47 years in jail.
Other former Erdoğan supporters jailed for life in the Ergenekon trial include Kemal Kerinçsiz, a fanatical nationalist attorney. Kerinçsiz had persecuted the Armenian Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, who edited Agos [The Furrow], a weekly Armenian-language newspaper with sections in Turkish and English. Dink, whom Kerinçsiz claimed "insulted Turkishness" – currently redefined as "denigration of the Turkish nation," and a serious offense – was murdered early in 2007 while awaiting indictment. The law that criminalizes "insulting Turkishness" was introduced under Erdoğan and pursued with zeal by Kerinçsiz.
Among the political and media victims of Ergenekon "justice," Mustafa Balbay, a writer for the daily Cumhuriyet [The Republic] and a parliamentary deputy of the long-established secularist Republican People's Party [CHP], was also senetenced to life in jail, as was his co-defendant, Tuncay Özkan, another secularist journalist.
An array of 33 indictments was consolidated under the Ergenekon rubric in 2011. The list of defendants is as varied as it is long; the single aspect uniting them, however, is association with secular politics. Defense lawyers are preparing an appeal of the Ergenekon sentences to the Turkish Supreme Court. Turkish commentators point out that many of the accused were convicted without evidence – on opinions rather than on overt actions.
Protestors, in anticipation of the sentencing, gathered on August 5 at Silivri Prison, where the trial was conducted, but were barred from entering the courtroom. Silivri is located near Istanbul west of the Bosporus, in the region geographically described as "European Turkey." Police dispersed the demonstrators using tear gas, shut down roads, and blocked air space at the location, according to Hürriyet.
Erdoğan's tyrannical tendencies are facing a serious challenge from the Turkish public, who mounted demonstrations beginning two months ago in Istanbul's Taksim Square. Whether civic discontent will change the outcome of the Ergenekon matter cannot be predicted. Turkish and foreign observers originally indulged Erdoğan by describing the Ergenekon case as a necessary restriction on military influence as represented by a "deep state." With time, nevertheless, much of Turkish opinion began to view Ergenekon as a political purge and an assault on Turkey's post-Ottoman secularist political structure, established in the 1920s. Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, with which AKP is aligned, assert the existence of a similar "deep state" within the Egyptian military.
It may be argued that secular Turkey, which underwent army takeovers in 1960, 1971, 1980, 1993, and 1997, was always susceptible to military dictatorship. Yet Erdoğan appears to aim at replacing it with an Islamist police state. The Turkish republic is insecure and divided, with Erdoğan attempting simultaneous economic and political modernization and ideological Islamization. Ordinary people are pitted against intellectuals; religious believers against secularists; defenders of the legacy of the post-Ottoman republic against Erdoğan's adherents.
While the intellectuals warn against restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, many Turkish citizens continue to support Erdoğan for his harsh treatment of those he deems "enemies of the state." The Islamist prime minister labels his critics "terrorists," "criminals," and "gangsters."
In 2012, Turkey saw the outcome of a trial that foretold the Ergenekon verdicts: the so-called "Sledgehammer" case. In that, more than 300 officers were found guilty for an ostensible coup plan allegedly originating in 2003, the year after AKP first won a national election. In that trial, as in the Ergenekon ordeal, evidence, the rights of defendants, and prosecutorial conduct are said to have been monitored insufficiently.
Although schemes to overthrow political leaders are usually limited to small, confidential groups, Erdoğan 's government has presented "Sledgehammer" and "Ergenekon" as massive networks. Erdoğan and AKP have manipulated and changed the law to pursue half the armed forces leadership, as well as media personalities, elected opposition politicians, lawyers, authors, and entrepreneurs. The AKP's rage to condemn those with whom it is displeased has extended to suppression of critics of another "moderate Islamist" trend, the "spiritual" movement led by the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen.
Followers of Gülen operate science-oriented schools throughout the world – including in the United States – which also instruct non-Turkish pupils in the importance of the Turkish language and culture in global society. A journalist who exposed Gülenist penetration of the Turkish military and judiciary, Ahmet Şik, was included in the Ergenekon jumble of reprisals. Şik was released from Silivri Prison last year but continues to await a resumption of his trial, scheduled for early September. The Gülenists stand by the Ergenekon allegations and support the AKP's prosecution of the show trial.
In a bizarre incident that illustrates the irrational tendencies at the top of Turkish politics today, early last year the prominent New York author Paul Auster refused to visit Turkey for a book tour in protest against its status as the world's leading state locking up journalists, writers and media commentators. Erdoğan responded by dismissing Auster's criticism, but AKP deputy chairman Bülent Gedikli went further, asserting that even Auster was a participant in Ergenekon.
As reported by the London Financial Times, Gedikli, in a frenzy of fantasies, described Auster as part of an anti-Turkish network, "the Neocon-Ergenekon cadre," supposedly headed by Israeli politician Shimon Peres, along with German chancellor Angela Merkel, the then-President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as its back-up players.
There is no longer room for doubt: through a pseudo-legal witch-hunt at home and deceitful propaganda abroad, Erdoğan and the AKP are committed to totalitarian suppression of their political critics and opponents, both in Turkey and elsewhere. They feed an apparently insatiable Turkish appetite for conspiracy theories and, as may be observed online, assiduously spread disinformation about "threats to Turkey." Turkish commentators worry that the West ignores Erdoğan 's violations of civil rights out of the need for him as an ally in confronting the bloodthirsty Al-Assad regime in Syria. But looking the other way while Turkey is transformed into an authoritarian Islamist state will in no way help the suffering Syrian people.