Friday, 24 October 2008

Ergenekon Trial: Breaking With The Deep State Past, Or Are The Tables Simply Turned?

Published in Articles

By Halil Magnus Karaveli (vol. 1, no. 16 of the Turkey Analyst)

The trial against the alleged “Ergenekon” conspiracy would seem to suggest that Turkey is about to settle accounts with its “deep state”, thus auguring a more liberal, more transparent state. However, the judicial procedure in the case so far has been marred by deficiencies and outright violations of human rights that undermine its legality. The Ergenekon trial is yet another chapter in what is a political battle.

BACKGROUND:  Ergenekon is the name of the mythical valley in the Altai region of Central Eurasia from which the Turks, according to their founding myth, where led to liberty by a wolf. It is a name that has come to acquire right-wing nationalist connotations; today it is used to designate the alleged acts of shady, anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist groupings within the security apparatus of the Turkish state – the so called deep state.

According to the prosecution in the Ergenekon case, a miscellaneous  group of former generals, journalists, academics, various professionals and criminals appropriating that name ganged together with the intention of bringing down the moderately Islamic AKP government. The group includes leftists as well as rightists, but the common denominator is their opposition to the AKP government. After several waves of arrests during the past year, the trial against the 86 suspects – of which 40 are held in custody – began on October 20 at the premises of the Silivri prison, located some sixty kilometers west of Istanbul. The proceedings got off to a bad, chaotic start, as the premises were revealed to be inadequate, leading the court to decide to separate the trial of those who are held in custody and of those who are not.

Deep State - Cover of Cüneyt Arcayürek's Book

There is no doubt that a “deep state” really does exist in Turkey. Its existence, significantly the ties between various groupings within the Turkish state security apparatus and elements of organized crime, were exposed in the mid-1990s. The suspicions concerning such a structure, that it in fact pulls strings in the shadows, manipulating political life with targeted assassinations that serve to create the environment for desired changes of political course, have been voiced ever since the late 1970s, when Turkey was ravaged by the violence of the extreme right and the extreme left. To this day, the run-up to the 1980 coup remains unresolved. Since then, Turkish commentators in general have come to question the assumption that these groups acted independently; rather, there are growing allegations that at least part of the violence was in one way or another orchestrated by a covert state security organism that sought to and managed to create the conditions for the military coup of 1980.

The same kind of suspicions have come to be voiced about the wave of assassinations of academics and journalists from 1990 to 1999; most of these were well-known secularists, and their assassinations were at the time attributed to Islamic fundamentalists with alleged ties to the Islamic republic of Iran. Such a connection cannot be ruled out. However, as the perpetrators remain unknown, the suspicions about the possible involvement of shady elements of the Turkish state have inevitably lingered on. Notably, former Interior minister Mehmet Agar is reported to have told the widow of the well-known center-left, secularist journalist Ugur Mumcu – who was blown to death in 1993 – that it would have been impossible to inquire into the assassination, since that would have displaced to many bricks in the state structure.

IMPLICATIONS: Certain ingredients of the Ergenekon case do seem to fit into a broader pattern of “manipulated” political violence:  The prosecutor holds that the 2006 assassination of a secularist judge and the bombings the same year of the premises of the secularist, center-left daily Cumhuriyet (which caused no serious damage) were in fact the makings of the Ergenekon gang. 

Influential columnist Fehmi Koru of the daily Yeni Safak, which is close to the ruling AKP, hailed the Ergenekon trial as a settling of accounts with “Turkey’s last, mostly lost, fifty years.” “It may of course be legitimate to ask if those on trial are responsible for the pre-1980 violence and the assassinations of the 1990s, but we should hope that the prosecution will succeed in persuading the judges, after which we will be in a better position to ascertain which individuals were implicated in what acts”, Koru wrote. The fact that Fehmi Koru, who is known to be close to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, more or less explicitly makes an association between the present case and violent events thirty years ago is telling. Such an association serves to enhance the image of the trial as a heroic assault on an anti-democratic state structure, and not un-importantly, to further tarnish the opposition figures who stand accused in the Ergenekon case. In fact, nothing suggests that any light at all will be shed on earlier, deep state history; indeed, the same day as the Ergenekon trial began, another court declared that the period for prosecution in the case of a bombing in 1978 – when seven Istanbul university students were killed and forty one were injured – had expired.

While commentators who support the AKP government chose to interpret the Ergenekon case as a settling of accounts with the inner, anti-democratic security structures of the state, those who are in opposition to the AKP hold that the case is political, and that it is as such intended to intimidate the secularist opposition. The political nature of the case has indeed been underlined by Prime Minister Erdogan, who has declared himself “the chief Ergenekon prosecutor”. Even a conservative commentator as Taha Akyol of Milliyet, who is a supporter of the ruling party, recently voiced his concerns that a large part of the prosecutor’s case seems to rest on the assumption that political commentaries made by opinion makers can constitute evidence of crime. Notably, the prosecutor has submitted the writings of the publisher of Cumhuriyet as evidence that he was implicated in the bombings of the newspaper. In a column in 2006, after Cumhuriyet had been bombed twice, Ilhan Selcuk had reacted to the lack of media interest in the attacks, and written “do we have to see to it that we are bombed again in order to get the attention of our colleagues?”. Selcuk – who faces life sentence for “terrorism” – recently wrote that “it is incredulous that the prosecutor – who should be able to understand the nature of writing – could interpret my words as a call for a criminal act”.

It is probably safe to assume that some of the 86 accused could have been implicated in illegal activities. Yet, even so, that does not mean that the Ergenekon trial constitutes a settling of accounts with the inner security structures of the state. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that there is tacit collusion between the deep state and the AKP government. If there indeed was a plot against the government, then it was not sanctioned by the primary custodians of the security of the state, the high military command. The fact that two former, four-starred generals are among the detainees (the formal charges against former generals Sener Eruygur and Hursit Tolon are however yet to be made) is indicative both of the unrest that by all accounts simmers in military ranks, but also concurrently of the cooperation of the General staff with the prosecution, since the detention of the generals would have been inconceivable lacking the tacit approval of the General staff.

According to former member of parliament Mehmet Elkatmis, who chaired the parliamentary inquiry commission about the deep state after the ties between the inner, security structures of the state and organized crime were revealed in 1996, “the main reason that the Ergenekon inquiry has been able to make progress is the change of mentality within the military.” Recalling that the military had desisted from giving any assistance to the parliamentary Susurluk investigation, Elkatmis continued by stating that “today we can observe that the High Command displays much greater sensitivity. There is a change of mentality. They realize that things have to change and want the issue to be pursued.” 

If so, that change of mentality has probably something to do with the events that reportedly took place within the military in 2003 and 2004, when a fierce, internal battle was allegedly fought within the High Command, in which leading generals, including Ergenekon-suspects Sener Eruygur and Hursit Tolon pleading for a coup. In the end, the proponents of a coup were defeated. Against such a backdrop, the alleged Ergenekon coup plot, if there ever was one, takes on the look of being the doing of free-lancers acting on their own, rather than being the result of the machinations of deep state structures.

CONCLUSIONS: That would be reassuring, demonstrating a certain democratic evolution of the Turkish state, deep or otherwise. Yet, the way the Ergenekon case has been conducted serves as a caution against too optimistic assumptions of democratization. Riza Türmen, a former Turkish judge at the European Court of Human rights, has warned that the proceedings in the case are indeed far from measuring up to the criteria set by the European Court of Human rights, and that there is consequently a strong case to be made for it to be declared a mistrial. The former judge notably observed the fact that several of the suspects have been held in detention for a long period of time without any charges being brought against them, that wire-tapping has been indiscriminate and used without due consideration to the right of privacy of citizens, that the records of the wire-tapping have been disseminated in the media, and that the prosecution relies heavily on secret witnesses. In Türmen’s view, this adds up to making the Ergenekon trial a strong candidate for a declaration of mistrial by the European Court of Human rights.

Read 11336 times

Visit also





Joint Center Publications

Op-ed Halil Karaveli "The Rise and Rise of the Turkish Right", The New York Times, April 8, 2019

Analysis Halil Karaveli "The Myth of Erdogan's Power"Foreign Policy, August 29, 2018

Analysis Svante E. Cornell, A Road to Understanding in Syria? The U.S. and TurkeyThe American Interest, June 2018

Op-ed Halil Karaveli "Erdogan Wins Reelection"Foreign Affairs, June 25, 2018

Article Halil Karaveli "Will the Kurdish Question Secure Erdogan's Re-election?", Turkey Analyst, June 18, 2018

Research Article Svante E. Cornell "Erbakan, Kisakürek, and the Mainstreaming of Extremism in Turkey", Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, June 2018

Analysis Svante E. Cornell "The U.S. and Turkey: Past the Point of No Return?"The American Interest, February 1, 2018

Op-ed Svante E. Cornell "Erdogan's Turkey: the Role of a Little Known Islamic Poet", Breaking Defense, January 2, 2018

Research Article Halil Karaveli "Turkey's Authoritarian Legacy"Cairo Review of Global Affairs, January 2, 2018


The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


Sign up for upcoming events, latest news and articles from the CACI Analyst