On Feb. 18, there was a critical hearing in the 13th Istanbul Criminal Court in the “Ergenekon” case, in which 274 people have been under trial since 2008 under accusations of involvement in a conspiracy to overthrow the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government.
The case was first opened by prosecutors against 86 people but, as a result of police operations and additional indictments along the way, new names have been added to the list. Unlike the first lot, who were mainly a group of far-right activists, including low-ranking retired army officers, the latter included prominent names in public life that don’t necessarily share the same political view or social circle. A leftist-Kemalist journalist like Mustafa Balbay; a world-renowned apolitical transplant surgeon like Dr. Mehmet Haberal; a pro-American rightist-Kemalist like Dr. Kemal Gürüz – who is also the former head of Turkey’s Higher Education Board (YÖK); his arch-rival, an off-beat socialist writer like Dr. Yalçın Küçük, and Turkey’s former Chief of General Staff, retired Gen. İlker Başbuğ, are among those who are accused of establishing and running a terrorist organization against the government.
Başbuğ, who was a general and was promoted to the post of chief of staff by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan in 2008 before retiring in 2010, was arrested on Jan. 6, 2012. Başbuğ said numerous times that it was a shame for the court to blame the former head of the Turkish military, who had fought against terrorists, as being the head of a terrorist organization, and Erdoğan went on the record numerous times to say he thought keeping him under arrest during the trial as if he was a flight risk was wrong.
Anyway, on Feb. 18, Başbuğ and his lawyers repeated their demands to the court to listen to Işık Koşaner, Başbuğ’s successor as chief of General Staff, and the former commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force under Koşaner as witnesses regarding an illegal organization within the military. Koşaner and three commanders had resigned from their posts in July 2011, making a rare move in Turkish administrative life to protest the “arbitrary” arrests of military officers. All four were present there in the court building, willing and hoping that the judges would take them in. The court turned the demand down.
Başbuğ issued a public letter on Feb. 19 through his lawyer, protesting the ruling and claiming that the court had violated Article 178 of the Criminal Proceedings Law which allows the accused to call witnesses as part of their defense. Başbuğ said the Supreme Court of Appeals should turn down any ruling by the 13th Court on Ergenekon because of this violation. In his letter, Başbuğ also issued a note “to the esteemed Turkish nation” that the court had found credible Şemdin Sakık, a former chief militant of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) who was imprisoned for life for executing 33 unarmed soldiers back in 1993, as a witness in his case, but thought Koşaner, a former head of the Turkish military, and three commanders were not credible witnesses.
The Ergenekon case had started with hopes that it would reveal murders, attacks and plots against prominent public people, including members of religious minorities in Turkey, in order to destabilize the government. Not only Ergenekon, but the “Balyoz” (Sledgehammer) case after that (which concluded in 2012 with heavy penalties against high-ranking military officers) has changed the military’s active role in Turkish politics – something that the majority of Turkish people would have no objection to at all. But Ergenekon has evolved into a case in which not only suspected criminals, but also open opponents of the government and public figures with no apparent relation to each other, are tarred with the same brush, charged with serious accusations with no convincing evidence in some cases and held under arrest for years without sentencing.
A similar case is occurring in the trials of alleged members of the outlawed Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), which is allegedly the popular front of the PKK. Some of the KCK suspects under arrest, however, have started to be released, with many perceiving the move to part of Erdoğan’s initiative to find a political solution to Turkey’s Kurdish problem; there could be more following the fourth legal package that the government is expected to bring to Parliament in the near future.
Interestingly enough, a campaign is being run by “conservative” writers in their newspaper columns saying the conditions that could be applied to KCK suspects should be denied to their counterparts in Ergenekon.
There is a Turkish proverb with a literary translation as “Killing someone when asked only to hit;” but the situation is more applicable to the lyrics of a famous song, that is, “Killing justice softly.”
This article first appeared on Hurriyet Daily News on Feb.21, 2013.
Murat Yetkin is the current editor-in-chief of Hurriyet Daily News and a columnist for Radikal, a Turkish publication. He is a political commentator on Turkish and Middle Eastern affairs and has previously worked for BBC World Service and AFP. He can be found on Twitter: @MuratYetkin2.