Ergenekon case confronts Turkey's past, but spawns doubts about motives

Turkey's former top military official was sentenced to life imprisonment for plotting to overthrow the government – charges many say were trumped up. Some 250 people were sentenced. 

A protester wears a gas mask to protect himself as riot and paramilitary police officers fire tear gas and use water cannons to disperse protesters outside the Silivri jail complex in Silivri, Turkey, Monday. The court has acquitted 21 people accused of plotting to overthrow the Islamist-rooted government in the five-year "Ergenekon" trial and sentenced some of the other 254 defendants to up to 47 years or life in jail.

A mass trial billed as an attempt to lay to rest the ghosts of Turkey’s bloody past ended yesterday with scores of convictions, but the verdicts have left many Turks in bitter disagreement over whether justice has been served.

Some 250 defendants, including politicians, retired military officers, academics, and journalists, received sentences ranging from six months to life imprisonment for their role in an alleged terrorist organization named "Ergenekon."

Prosecutors claimed the hardcore secularist and ultra-nationalist organization was behind extrajudicial killings and terrorist attacks stretching back decades, and more recently an attempt to overthrow the Islam-rooted government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The defendants denied Ergenekon’s existence altogether. 

For some, doubts about the legitimacy of the trial were crystallized by the case of its most prominent defendant: former chief of Turkey’s Armed Forces, Gen. Ilker Basbug, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for his alleged role in the conspiracy.

Gen. Basbug led NATO’s second largest military between 2008 and 2010 and had a reputation as an intellectual and a moderate.

“This was a guy who, when he became chief of staff, was heralded as a kind of democratic philosopher-soldier for the ‘New Turkey’,” says Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for the daily Milliyet newspaper

“The idea that he was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a chief of staff by day and a terrorist by night, seems ludicrous.”

The case against Basbug

Basbug was arrested in January 2012 in relation to a series of propaganda websites set up by the military to discredit Erdogan’s governing party, incite hatred against religious and ethnic minorities, and stoke fears of militant Islam. 

Prosecutors in the Ergenekon case linked it to their central allegation against the defendants: that they planned to create tensions to destabilize the country as a pretext for a military coup.

“The websites had exaggerated news headlines on the threat from fundamentalism in Turkey designed to provoke the people against the executive organ and create an atmosphere of chaos,” the indictment read. 

The websites were set up several years before Basbug became chief of staff. A key piece of evidence against him was a memorandum he issued during his time as chief ordering that they be taken offline and reorganized.

They were taken down and never re-launched. In court following his arrest, Basbug derided the allegations against him.

"If I am being accused of bringing down the government with a couple of press statements and one or two Internet stories, this is very bitter," he was quoted as saying by the Hurriyet newspaper.

"If I had such bad intentions, as the commander of a 700,000-strong force, there would have been other ways of doing it."

The too-powerful military

For Ms. Aydintasbas, his case illustrates what she sees as the vague and arbitrary nature of the trial. 

“These websites were never even created, and he’s got a life sentence,” she says. “And even if they were planning to do it, at the end of the day they’re websites.”

However there are many who strongly disagree.

“Ilker Basbug is not a clean guy,” says Bulent Kenes, editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman, a newspaper that strongly supported the trial. He views it as a historic step in Turkey’s progress towards civilian democracy. 

Since 1960, Turkey’s military has forced four elected administrations from power, most recently the country’s first Islamist government in 1997. 

“In the past the military was untouchable. Whatever they did – legal or illegal – could never be examined by any court. Now after the Ergenekon case, there is a new atmosphere.”

Mr. Kenes claims Basbug’s crimes go beyond his role in the propaganda websites. “He always tried to cover up Ergenekon’s crimes," Kenes says, and when the general was chief of staff, he “tried to prevent prosecutors from going into military bases. He defamed the court. He was involved in many coup plots.” 

Disrupting the 'Deep State'

Most Turks have long believed in what they call the "Deep State," a network of soldiers, businessmen, bureaucrats, and mafiosi who secretly held the reins of power. 

Their targets were those they deemed a threat to Turkey’s security: leftists, Islamists, and the country’s Kurdish minority.

Especially during the 1990s, prominent political dissidents and Kurdish activists with separatist sympathies were the victims of suspected "Deep State" murders.

Kenes acknowledged that because of the focus on the coup allegations, many of those crimes remain unsolved.

Meanwhile, despite – or perhaps because of – the millions of pages of evidence comprising tapped phone calls, intelligence reports, military papers, and witness statements, many observers remain uncertain about what exactly Ergenekon was. 

“We don’t even know if there was a clear organization. Who was the leader? Who was the vice leader? What was the structure?” asks Henri Barkey, a Turkey specialist and professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

For Barkey, many of the deficiencies in the trial are explained by Turkey’s "arbitrary" legal system, with poor standards of case work, and which tends to deliver harsh sentences. 

“Although there are people in this trial who are definitely guilty, [the trial] doesn’t give you confidence that nefarious dealings have really been revealed,” he says. 

“The great irony here is that the justice system that convicted the generals yesterday is the same one that they created.”

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