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Turkey’s Ergenekon conspiracy: justice, or a secular witch hunt?

A coup investigation grabbed global headlines recently, when Turkish authorities boldly arrested senior military brass. The case highlights the mounting power struggle between the secular elite and a growing population of observant Muslims.

Turkish gendarme soldiers outside the heavily-guarded Silivri prison, where the Ergenekon trial is taking place, in October 2008. The trial resumed in February 2010. (Photo by Fatih Saribas/Reuters)

ISTANBUL –The case began with the discovery of 27 hand grenades in June 2007, hidden under the roof of a retired army officer’s house in Istanbul’s Umraniye district.

Since then, the investigation into a clandestine Turkish group known as “Ergenekon” has led to the detention of more than 300 suspects – a motley crew consisting of four-star generals, newspaper editors, lawyers, an erotic novelist and a known member of Turkey’s underworld.

Prosecutors in the ongoing trial, which began in October 2008, say the defendants are members of a secretive organization that has committed dozens of terrorist acts and was plotting to sow enough chaos to prepare the way for a military coup.

But critics say the investigation is flawed and lacks credible evidence, leading many to question the scope and even the very existence of an organization called Ergenekon.

Ergenekon is only one of a string of alleged coup plots that have been uncovered in recent years. This January the headlines were dominated by the most recent plot, codenamed “Sledgehammer”, that was exposed by a small independent newspaper, Taraf. The charges are based on 5,000 pages of army documents that allegedly outline a plan by the military to bomb two Istanbul mosques and provoke Greece into shooting down a Turkish plane over the Aegean Sea for the purpose of, yes, creating chaos and setting the stage for a coup. Sound familiar?

Both cases have focused attention on the mounting stress in Turkey between an increasingly assertive population of observant Muslims, represented by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the secular urban elite, which includes the powerful military.

When the modern Turkish republic was born in 1923, its founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk pushed through what was arguably the most radical program of secularization ever attempted in any Muslim society, before or since. But in Turkey today, the tension between religion and state is all too apparent, especially since the AKP’s historic election victory in 2002, which ended the secularists' decades-long grip on power.

In recent years the Turkish army – long seen as the guarantor of Ataturk’s secular republic – has had their image badly tarnished by the coup allegations and the subsequent arrests of high-ranking military. In late February 2010, the police detained about 50 senior military figures, including former commanders of the navy and air force and the former deputy chief of staff of the military. Still, for millions of Turks the army remains the state’s most powerful and trustworthy institution – a feeling cultivated in Turkish men during their 15 months of mandatory military service.

In a country often seen as a model where Islam can coexist with a secular democracy, these cases are casting a spotlight on the deepening divisions between the two perspectives. Some see the Ergenkon trial as an historic opportunity to address the shadier elements of Turkey’s past. To others, the politicized nature of the trial, coupled with concerns about the integrity of the investigation, is prompting questions about whether the AKP is using the investigation to target Turkey’s secular establishment.

One interpretation of the Ergenekon case — supported primarily by Kurdish nationalists, backers of the ruling AKP, and some leftists — holds that the investigation has averted a grave threat to democracy, providing a crucial opportunity for the country to reckon with what Turks call the “deep state:” a phrase used to describe shadowy networks with connections to state institutions.

For many Turks, a 1996 car crash near Susurluk in Western Turkey confirmed long-held suspicions of ties between government officials and organized crime. A massive scandal erupted when the accident report revealed that a former police chief, a high-level politician and a suspected mafia leader had been traveling together.

But while the Susurluk scandal prompted some high-level resignations, difficult witnesses and a distinct lack of cooperation from elements of the state apparatus limited the scope of the investigation. Many Turks welcomed the launch of the Ergenekon investigation as the first real chance to unearth some of the less savory aspects of the country’s past.

In Turkey’s southeast, home to the Kurds, who represent about 20 percent of the Turkish population, the investigation has raised hopes that justice may finally come to the thousands who were kidnapped and murdered throughout the 1980s and '90s, when Turkish security forces were locked in a bloody battle with the separatist guerillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Human rights groups estimate that some 5,000 extrajudicial killings were committed during this period and that some 1,500 Kurds went missing, mostly at the hands of state elements.

Several of the men on trial under the Ergenekon investigation are believed to have belonged to Jitem, a special unit of the Turkish gendarmerie charged with "intelligence gathering and counterterrorism" and believed to be responsible for many of the atrocities that took place in Turkey’s southeast during this period.

“The [Ergenekon] investigation has given us a chance to try to find the truth about the disappeared,” said Burhan Zonooglu, a coordinator at the Human Rights Association in Diyarbakir, which was also the scene of extreme violence during the '80s and '90s. “We [Kurds] know very well the people who are now in jail. Now the rest of Turkish society is going to learn.”

Supporters say the investigation has revealed the excesses of an overly powerful military. For the first time in Turkish history, four of the five former members of the military leadership — the retired heads of the navy, army, air force and gendarmerie — are facing civilian justice, a sea change for a country whose military has, with impunity, deposed four elected governments since 1960.

“The revelations of the trial have supported the process of Turkey becoming more and more a civilian-run government,” says Hugh Pope, a senior analyst specializing in Turkish affairs at the International Crisis Group. “Exposure to the thinking that went behind some of the Ergenekon allegations shows how unacceptable it is to have that type of authoritarianism in a democracy.”

But among the secularist elite, disillusionment is mounting and many feel the investigation has evolved into little more than a witch-hunt targeting opponents of the ruling AKP.

They see it as the latest move in the ongoing power struggle between the AKP, which has its roots in political Islam, and Turkey's old guard, primarily composed of staunch secularists, the military and civilian bureaucratic elites, and various types of nationalists.

In 2008 the AKP's attempt to lift the headscarf ban landed the party leadership in front of the Constitutional Court, where the state prosecutor sought to have the party banned for undermining the country's secular constitution. The AKP narrowly survived that fight, and secularists are convinced the current trial is just one more weapon in the party’s ongoing campaign against secularism.

“When the case first opened many saw it as an opportunity for Turkey to clean up the underworld and corruption. But the case has become much more than that,” says Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It has become a tool for the AKP to curb freedoms and intimidate liberal, secular Turks.”

Government officials declined to comment for this article, but they have publicly rejected such criticisms, arguing that opposition to the investigation stems from the fact that the rule of law in Turkey has never before been extended to such revered figures as the military. For their supporters, the trials are one of several ways in which the government has been fighting back against military control of the state – a crucial step towards deepening democracy and improving Turkey’s chances of joining the European Union.

The abundance of alleged coup plots that have been exposed as of late led Turkey’s government on February 4th to scrap the controversial security and public order protocol known as “Emasya”, which allows the army to take charge in the provinces when law and order breaks down.

But critics point to flaws in the Ergenkon investigation, arguing that the case has moved beyond a much-needed pursuit of criminality and into a dubious realm of conspiracy theory.

“The case has very few legs to stand on,” says Gareth Jenkins, a British, Istanbul-based analyst, and one of just a few commentators, inside or outside of Turkey, who have read the first two of three massive Ergenekon indictments in full: 2,455 and 1,909 pages respectively. “In fact, there is no proof that the Ergenekon organization as described in the indictments exists or has ever existed.”

Jenkins argues that suspicions the Ergenekon case is politicized are reinforced by the seemingly incongruent identities of those detained — many of whom seem to have nothing in common except their political opposition to the ruling party in particular, and to Islamic conservatism in general.

“Many of those indicted in the investigation appear to be guilty of nothing more than opposition to the AKP,” says Jenkins.

Legal experts such as Riza Turmen, a former Turkish judge with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), say that the proceedings have failed to live up to the criteria set by the ECHR. Prosecutors have detained dozens of suspects without charges. Of the 300 detained, only 194 have thus far been charged.

There has also been outrage over the regular leaking of telephone taps, transcripts, and court documents to the pro-AKP press, often before such evidence has been presented in court. Leaked phone transcripts — in which callers discuss everything from television programs to women — often seem to have nothing to do with the indictment at all, leaving many Turks afraid their next conversation could show up in public court papers.

A recent opinion poll conducted by A&G Research in 28 Turkish provinces found that one in three people is afraid that someone is listening to their telephone conversations. The Ministry of Justice argues that wiretapping is no more common in Turkey than in other European democracies. But the poll illuminates a climate of suspicion and paranoia that has become the norm in Turkey and sets the stage for a polarizing case like Ergenekon.

“When you have a trial of this scale and ambition you don’t just put the defendants on trial, it’s a test for the entire judicial system,” says Jenkins. “One of the most pernicious results of the way in which the trial is being conducted is the way that it has eroded faith not only in the trial itself but in the entire Turkish judiciary system.”

Jenkins concludes: “If you want to intimidate a few people, you take in the guilty. But if you want to intimidate an entire population you take in the innocent,” says Jenkins. “And unfortunately, with the Ergenekon investigation, this is exactly what is happening.”