ISTANBUL — Over a year-and-a-half into what many have called the case of the century, the Ergenekon conspiracy investigation continues to enthrall, and divide, Turkish society.
The trial, which began last October, involves 86 defendants being indicted over their alleged membership in a clandestine terrorist organization called Ergenekon. The group is charged with fomenting chaos and instability through terror attacks and assassinations, for the purpose of triggering a coup and bringing down the Islamist-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The investigations began last year when the police, acting on a telephone tip, raided an apartment in Istanbul and found a cache of hand grenades with matching identifying numbers as those used in a bomb attack on the offices of Cumhuriyet, a Turkish newspaper that serves the old-guard secular elite.
The plot thickened following the 10th round of arrests in January — which included senior military officers — and the discovery of several weapons caches. More than 100 people, among them four-star generals and prominent politicians, journalists and academics, have now been arrested.
The impact of the investigation extends much further than the legal realm, however. Polarization within civil society has intensified as the opponents in this drama harden their stance on what all of this really means for Turkey’s future.
Liberal and pro-AKP commentators hail the trial as the first attempt to bring down the “deep state” in Turkey, a network of highly placed military and political officials, intellectuals, media elites and organized crime members who seek to control affairs of state, and are prepared to overthrow the government.
Representatives of the secular opposition, meanwhile, see the trial as an attempt to defame the military and muzzle opposition to the AKP by instituting a climate of fear.
“The Turkish state has internal contradictions between how it represents itself as a nation, and what it does as a state." said Amy Zalman, a writer and consultant on Turkish politics.
A democracy with an elected government, Turkey has been steered by a powerful elite since its inception in 1923 and has experienced four coups.
Ergenekon has drawn intense public interest mainly because it is the first real attempt in Turkish history to prosecute leaders of the country’s violent nationalist fringe.
Prosecutors say the Ergenekon organization was born of Operation Gladio, an informal name for the anti-Communism stay-behind networks established by NATO following World War II. The Gladio network famously came to light through a public investigation of a covert network in Italy. Turkey is thought to be the only country where the network still has a presence.
A different historical reading sees the deep state as a product of a militant secular vision of Turkey often discussed in terms of Kemalism, so named for the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, who envisaged a democratic and secular nation state.
Some believe that Ergenekon is linked to a multitude of extrajudiciary killings and has its roots in the Susurluk network that was exposed in 1996 but never prosecuted in a satisfactory manner. The scandal surfaced after a car, carrying the deputy chief of the Istanbul police, a parliament deputy who led a powerful clan and a criminal on the Interpol's red list, fatally crashed in Susurluk.
Others take the stance that whatever the truth at the root of the controversy, the investigation has now become little more than a smoke screen for the ruling party’s persecution of political opposition.
If the Ergenekon trial has not been well-covered by the foreign press, it probably has something to do with the maze-like complications of understanding the history of intrigue and contradictory understandings that surround the case. What is easier to grasp, however, is the heavy impact the case has had on Turkish society.
“Ergenekon has created this sort of witch-hunt atmosphere reminiscent of the McCarthy years in America,” said David Judson, editor-in-chief of Turkish Hurriyet Daily News. “Yes, there were real dangers to the U.S. government from communism, but it didn’t justify the havoc wreaked by McCarthy on innocent people and the American psyche.”
The large number of arrests — some of the AKP’s most vocal critics were arrested — and the ambiguous nature of some of the evidence in the investigation have led some observers to question whether the Ergenekon case has become tainted by politics.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in declaring himself “the chief Ergenekon prosecutor,” has done little to assuage those convinced of the political nature of the case.
“I am more inclined to view the investigation as a political mechanism that is being used to exploit the legal process,” said Halil M. Karaveli, managing editor of the Turkey Analyst. “The net effect of the case has been to create a feeling in Turkey that being in opposition to the government is a risky business and that one can be accused of being a coup-plotter simply for not supporting the AKP.”
Ankara has rejected such criticisms, arguing that opposition to the investigation stems from the fact that the rule of law has never before been extended to such revered figures as the military in Turkey.
The validity of the trial has also been questioned.
Riza Turmen, a former Turkish judge at the European Court of Human Rights, warned that the proceedings may have failed to live up to the criteria set by the European Court of Human Rights.
Also at issue is the use of indiscriminate wire-tapping, the heavy reliance by the prosecution on secret witnesses, and the fact that several of the suspects have been held in detention for a long period of time without charge.