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Questions about Turkey as a democracy and military model

When NATO meets in Chicago this weekend, intervention in Syria is sure to be discussed – perhaps by Syria's neighbor, Turkey, which presents itself as a democratic model for the Middle East with a strong military. But questionable investigations of its military undermine those claims.

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Many aspects of these investigations contradict the principles of democratic governance and rule of law. Most of the suspects are behind bars without any verdict in their cases. The Council of Europe recently raised concerns about the withholding of evidence from defendants at the investigation stage (often extending into years) which deprives them of the opportunity to challenge their detentions.

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The European Union’s 2010 progress report on Turkey says the Ergenekon case and “several” of the coup probes raise concerns about “judicial guarantees for all suspects.”

Independent forensic experts also discovered that a significant portion of the evidence used against the suspects is forged or their authenticity is questionable. Those who write about such irregularities often face a powerful defamation campaign by the dominant pro-AKP media.

True, the Turkish military did engineer politics and shape governments in the past – carrying out four coups since 1960. Yet many believe the coup trials have now become political mechanisms through which those who are in power are subduing the opposition and attacking presumed threats against the AKP’s growing dominance in the country.

Having the second largest military in NATO and the longest land border with Syria, Turkey’s support – diplomatic and, perhaps, military – will be crucial if the so-called “Annan plan” and its UN cease-fire provision fail to resolve the Syrian crisis.

Yet Turkey’s democracy and its institutions, including the armed forces, are seriously undermined by irrelevant accusations against military members and others, lengthy imprisonment without verdicts, indefinite pre-trial detentions, and powerful defamation campaigns against the AKP’s opponents.

The arrests of hundreds of officers – including members of elite special forces – by police counter-terrorism units and the humiliation of top generals by the pro-AKP media may weaken the morale and discipline in the armed forces.

Moreover, a military that lacks a fifth of its top officers may face serious challenges in supporting an international military intervention on the border.

The AKP-led government must stop eroding the rule of law at home by ensuring the judiciary and police function within the limits of democratic governance and the courts are not used to target presumed opponents of its ideology.

And the government should match its deeds on democracy and human rights at home with its talk about them abroad. Otherwise, Turkey may descend into the league of the world’s  quasi-democracies, and lose its democratic influence in the region.

Murat Onur is a  foreign affairs analyst and political commentator on Turkey.


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