Retired general Ergin Saygun had a serious heart operation on Feb. 7. In a letter he left to his daughter Ece before the operation he wrote that if the 10th Criminal Court had taken the medical reports on his health situation seriously, he wouldn’t have needed this critical operation. The operation was necessary because of exactly what was written in the medical report - that under prison conditions his already operated on heart might get infected. Ironically enough, the court ruled for his release during the operation, so that if something worse happened to him in the meantime, Saygun would not become another number who had lost their lives under prolonged arrest periods since 2008 without being sentenced.
He had been in jail since he was arrested in March 2012 on charges of being a member of a terrorist organization aiming to overthrow the Tayyip Erdoğan government in Turkey. He was among those who had spent perhaps least amount of time under arrest. Journalist Mustafa Balbay for example, who is an elected member of Parliament from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), has been there for nearly four years now, also without conviction.
‘Get well soon’
On Friday, information was leaked from the Prime Minister’s office that Erdoğan had called Saygun’s family to express “get well soon” wishes. That is not only a humanitarian gesture from Erdoğan, but also perhaps a gesture for the sake of former comradeship as they belonged to the hierarchies of the same organization in the past: the Turkish Republic.
General Saygun took part in a handful of Erdoğan’s teams during critical talks with then U.S. President George Bush in the White House on Nov. 5, 2007, which resulted in clear U.S. support, especially on intelligence sharing in Turkey’s fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). As the Deputy Chief of General Staff, Saygun was the contact point in Turkish-American (and NATO) relations. The Turkish Staff’s Operations Chief and Prime Minister’s chief military advisor, Lituenant General Nusret Taşdeler, also took an important role in that process, and he is also in jail now on similar charges.
It is not only them either. General İlker Başbuğ was the Turkish Land Forces Commander at the time too. Following a Supreme Military Council meeting chaired by Erdoğan, Başbuğ was appointed by President Abdullah Gül as Chief of General Staff in 2008. Başbuğ, the former leader of the Turkish military, has been under arrest since Jan. 6, 2012, on charges of being the leader of a terrorist organization to overthrow Erdoğan.
Erdoğan himself has gone public at least five times since, saying that he could not see why the trial was being carried out while he was being kept under arrest. After all, he would not have escaped; he had abided by the prosecutor’s call when asked for his testimony, like the others. Erdoğan also complains about judges’ and prosecutors’ inflexible stances against the accused, as well as the prolonged arrests - not only of military officers but also for journalists, politicians, lawyers, and academics – which are becoming a bigger headache for the government every other day. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government got very uncomfortable when U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone criticized the judicial situation in Turkey, but actually Erdoğan’s own criticism of the judiciary is no milder.
The problem is complicated. Erdoğan needed extraordinary measures to tame the soldiers from getting involved in politics, and giving extraordinary power to judges and prosecutors was a part of the plan. But it seems that the mighty monster is now not under the control of the Justice Ministry mechanisms any more, and it has became another source of illegitimate power.
What Erdoğan can do now, besides being critical of the system that has his signature on it, is to lead legal amendments in anti-terrorism laws and the criminal code, in order to bring inner control mechanisms back to the judiciary and to take off the excessive pressure. Otherwise, the problems generated within the judiciary will cost the Turkish government a lot, and take back at least some of the critical democratization points it had previously received in the international forum in the near future.
This article was published in the Hurriyet Daily News on Feb. 8, 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.)