Turkey's military defanged: Is it good for democracy?

The resignation of Turkey's top brass a week ago was hailed as a sign of democratic progress after four coups. But some allege that the military was brought down with fabricated evidence.

Prime Minister Erdogan (front, c.) accompanied by top army generals visited the tomb of modern Turkey’s founder on Aug. 1.

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accepted the resignations of his four most senior military officers on July 29, he savored a victory unprecedented in Turkey’s modern history: Whenever the government and army had squared off before, politicians had been the ones to go.

But amid celebration of the military’s defeat as a waymark of democracy, little scrutiny has been given to allegations that fabricated evidence and the framing of suspects played a role in its downfall.

The military’s chief of general staff, Isik Kosaner, said in his parting statement that it was “impossible” to continue serving due to his inability to protect the legal rights of some 250 officers detained for a range of alleged antigovernment plots.

Many of them have been held for more than a year without trial, and publicly available papers relating to the plots reveal significant inconsistencies.

The main document detailing an alleged 2003 coup plot code-named “Sledgehammer,” included in an indictment leaked by both prosecution and defense, refers to an organization that was not founded until two years later.

And the timing of many of the arrest warrants and charges has fueled claims that the probes are politically motivated. They are often filed in the lead-up to Supreme Military Council meetings such as this week's, meetings at which the government and army have clashed over military promotions.

Separately, scores of journalists, academics, and others are involved in mass trials for involvement in an alleged deep state network. Hundreds of Kurdish politicians and activists have also been detained as part of a sprawling antiterror investigation.

“This is not about whether you’re pro-military or antimilitary, it’s about the rule of law,” says Asli Ayd­in­tasbas, a columnist at the daily Mil­liyet newspaper. “Do we want to live in a country where political opponents are eliminated by trials that are unconvincing? I find it very disturbing.”

But many Turks have scant sympathy for a military that for decades brutalized its own people and overthrew four governments as self-appointed guardian of the secular state forged by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

“I’m not going to say that the deficiencies in due process is the main aspect in [the Sledgehammer] case,” says Sahin Alpay, a columnist for Today’s Zaman newspaper. “It’s helping to put an end to the political role of the armed forces.”

Confrontation between AKP, military

Turkey’s long history of military intervention in civilian rule began in 1960, when the army overthrew Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, who was then tried before a kangaroo court and executed.

After seizing power again in 1971, it staged a third coup in 1980, detaining 650,000 people. Of them, 230,000 were tried, 14,000 stripped of citizenship, 50 executed, and 171 killed in custody.

The military displayed its dominance again in 1997, when it forced Islamist Prime Minister Nec­met­tin Er­bak­an to resign. When Mr. Er­do­gan’s Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, a confrontation seemed all but inevitable.

The arrests of military officers started in March 2010, triggered by a sensational scoop in the daily Taraf newspaper, which had been handed a suitcase containing documents, tape recordings, and CDs.

The paper detailed the Sledgehammer plot, allegedly hatched in 2003 by a cabal of top soldiers aiming to overthrow the AKP by staging terrorist attacks and assassinations, thus fomenting chaos as a pretext for seizing power.

The scandal dealt a body blow to the military’s prestige, and led to the arrest of scores of officers, including generals and admirals.

Inconsistencies in evidence

But families and lawyers of defendants claim that scores of inconsistencies exist in the evidence amassed against them. These include references to hospitals, military installations, and other institutions that either did not exist in 2003, or had different names.

Some of the accused also claim documents, CDs, and computer drives were planted at their homes or workplaces.

In one bizarre case, police acting on a tip that an officer named Emrah Karaca was involved in a military espionage and blackmail case, instead reportedly raided the home of another officer named Emrah Kucukakca, who was not at home but was later arrested and held in prison for nine months.

He was finally released in June after the court acknowledged that none of the evidence was related to him.

“Nowhere was my name found in any of this,” Kucukakca had told the court, “so why was I arrested?”

Fear about investigating judicial misdeeds

But for some, any doubt about the authenticity of some documents in the trial have been laid to rest by the words of the suspects themselves.

In one recording of a military seminar from March 2003 that forms the core of the Sledgehammer case, officers are heard discussing detailed plans to seize power in the event of an Is­lamist uprising. Defendants acknowledge the recordings are genuine, but describe them as a “war game scenario.”

Earlier this week, another imprisoned colonel admitted the authenticity of a military memo in which generals authorized the setting up of websites to disseminate propaganda against the AKP, as well as minorities including Kurds, Greeks, and Armenians.

“What’s revealed is that [coup-plotting] is their normal, routine work, and in those seminars they ­really planned a coup without even calling it one,” says Etyen Mah­cup­yan, an adviser at the liberal Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foun­da­tion think tank.

Others disagree, but are afraid to investigate further. In March, two respected investigative journalists – Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik – who had been researching sensitive topics, including judicial malpractice, were arrested for alleged involvement in a terrorist conspiracy.

“It’s sad that we now have a media environment in which no one wants to touch this stuff,” says Ms. Ay­din­tasbas. “I don’t want to touch it anymore, because who knows that I won’t be included in the next roundup?”

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