BACKGROUND: The indictments claim that the “ Ergenekon terrorist organization” had its roots in the Turkish military and had not only plotted to overthrow the AKP government by instigating a military coup in 2003-2004 but had been responsible for virtually every act of terrorism and racist killing in Turkey over the last 25 years.
In a country already rife with conspiracy theories, there were many prepared to believe the claims; not least given that the military had staged full-blooded coups in 1960 and 1980 and manipulated elected governments out of power in 1971 and 1997. For some there was also an element of revenge. Tens of thousands of Turkish leftists had been imprisoned and tortured after the 1980 coup, while conservative Muslims had never forgiven the military for toppling an Islamist-led government in 1997. Significantly, much of the momentum for the Ergenekon case came from media organs associated either with followers of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, or with former leftists, such as the fiercely anti-military daily Taraf, which is run by former leftists but has become closely affiliated with the Gülen movement. Given the length of the indictments, the claims published in such pro-AKP publications about what the Ergenekon prosecutors had “proved” or “discovered” became the main source about the investigation for the vast majority of Turkish and foreign observers.
However, the reality is very different. The indictments are littered with contradictions and absurdities. More critically, although the thousands of pages of wiretaps do occasionally turn up apparent indications of wrongdoing (such as violations of privacy or corruption) and distasteful political views, there is no convincing evidence that the Ergenekon organization exists, much less how it was financed and organized.
The concerns intensified when the case finally went to trial in October 2008. Defense lawyers were quickly able to disprove many of the claims in the indictments. More worryingly, some of the evidence presented to court suggested something more sinister. To give just one of many examples, an evidence file allegedly recovered from the office of one of the accused in early summer 2008 included documents from the Turkish Ministry for Foreign Affairs which were not written until the last two months of 2008.
Although the Ergenekon trial is still continuing, it is nearly one year since the most recent indictment was published on July 19, 2009. Unlike when it was first launched in October 2008, the trial now receives little coverage in the Turkish media. At its current pace, the trial appears likely to last for at least another decade.
Any hopes that the numerous absurdities and abuses in the Ergenekon case would persuade pro-government prosecutors and journalists to become more circumspect have proved to be misplaced. Indeed, the more the case has become discredited, the more blatant and febrile has become the partisanship of pro-AKP elements in the judicial system and the media. Since late 2009, both have shifted their attention away from the Ergenekon case itself to a series of parallel investigations, which have been more explicitly targeted at the military. Most have followed a similar pattern, in which anonymous informants are reported to have sent letters or documents to pro-AKP prosecutors or journalists, claiming to contain evidence of coup plots or assassination plans by members of the military. Details of the alleged plots and plans have then been published in the pro-AKP media, after which those named have been seized from their homes, interrogated and, in many cases, charged. In no case has the anonymous informant subsequently made his/her identity known.
The most striking example has been the so-called Sledgehammer Plan, which was first published in Taraf newspaper in January 2010. Taraf claimed that, on 6-7 March 2003, 162 serving members of the Turkish military gathered at a seminar in Istanbul to discuss detailed plans for a coup which had been drawn up at the beginning of December 2002. In the indictment sent to the court on July 6, prosecutors charged 196 suspects with involvement in Sledgehammer. However, as with the Ergenekon indictment, the evidence raises more questions than it answers. The alleged plans include what is described as a justification for a coup on the grounds that the AKP had filled the bureaucracy with its supporters and was trying to silence criticism in the media by imposing tax fines. But the AKP did not form its first government until mid-November 2002 and made no attempt to appoint any of its supporters to the bureaucracy during its first two weeks in power; while the tax fines on the media – namely on the Doğan Group after it published details of corruption allegations against close associates of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan – were not imposed until 2009. Similarly, the documents published in Taraf describe the key role that was to be played in the impending coup by a secularist NGO; although the NGO in question was not even founded until 2006. There are many other similar examples. As with the Ergenekon case, all of those interrogated as part of the Sledgehammer investigation have rigorously denied any knowledge of the crimes with which they are charged.
IMPLICATIONS: One of the most striking consequences of the investigation has been the creation of a climate of fear which, even if it has eased in recent months, remains widespread. Critics of the investigation have been subjected to smear campaigns in the pro-AKP media and, in several cases, themselves been arrested and charged with membership of Ergenekon. Lawyers acting for the accused claim that their clients are routinely offered a choice between being released and promising to refrain from any public criticism of the government and remaining in custody for the duration of the trial. The frequency with which outspoken opponents of the AKP had details of their private telephone conversations leaked into the public domain, means that many ordinary Turks are now wary of talking openly on the telephone. The intimidation has been exacerbated by the failure of the AKP-controlled Justice Ministry to initiate investigations into who has leaked the wiretaps into the public domain, even though it is a crime under Turkish law.
Even more disturbing has been the case of İlhan Cihaner, the public prosecutor in the eastern province of Erzincan. When Cihaner resisted pressure from the Justice Minister to abandon an investigation into illegal activities involving religious communities supportive of the AKP – including the Gülen Movement – he was not only removed from his post but charged with membership of Ergenekon. Cihaner was held in prison for several months before being released pending trial. Needless to say, the indictment against him contains no evidence of membership of Ergenekon or any other illegal activity.
But the most devastating impact of the Ergenekon case and the affiliated investigations, such as Sledgehammer, has been on the military. It is possible to argue that, by forcing it onto the defensive, the Ergenekon investigation has accelerated the military’s already declining ability to influence politics. But the cost has been high: both on a personal level, through the imprisonment and trial of many serving and retired officers who are manifestly innocent of the crimes with which they have been charged, and on an institutional level.
The officers who attended the seminar named in the Sledgehammer Plan did so not because they were members of a conspiratorial cabal but because they were ordered to attend by their commanding officers. As a result, many serving officers are now understandably hesitant when instructed by their commanders to attend a seminar or training course for fear that, in the future, they may face criminal charges for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government. Perhaps more seriously, General Saldıray Berk, the commander of the Erzincan-based Third Army, has been charged with membership of Ergenekon mainly because he is based in the same province as İlhan Cihaner; with the implication that officers serving under Berk could also be vulnerable to similar charges if they obey his orders. It is unclear what impact such concerns have had on military efficiency but it is unlikely to be positive; and the Third Army is currently heavily involved in attempting to suppress a resurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). There are also questions about the impact the spending of tens of millions of dollars on, and the allocation of a significant proportion of the intelligence-gathering capabilities of the police to, the Ergenekon case has had on struggle against the PKK in the urban areas which fall within the jurisdiction of the police.
CONCLUSIONS: The politicization of the Turkish judicial system is nothing new. In the past, the system was frequently abused to suppress what were perceived as ideological threats to the Turkish state; such as leftists, Islamists and Kurdish nationalists. Similarly, for most of the last 50 years, a system of military tutelage has served as a constraint on the development of a fully functioning pluralistic democracy. However, the Ergenekon case and its affiliated investigations suggest that, under the AKP, Turkey has been swapping one form of authoritarianism for another; and that the judicial system continues to operate not according to proof, due process or even the truth, but political and ideological affiliation.
There are increasing signs that the AKP’s public popularity is beginning to flag and there is now a genuine possibility that it may be ousted from power at the next general election. The prospect has reinvigorated the AKP’s opponents, not only in the political sphere but also in the judicial system. In recent months, hard-line secularists in the upper echelons of the judicial system have become more assertive and intervened to curb some of the abuses of the pro-AKP prosecutors in the Ergenekon investigation. If the AKP is ousted, it appears likely that Ergenekon and the affiliated investigations will finally be allowed to collapse under the weight of their own contradictions and absurdities. But there is also a real fear that, just as the current cases are largely motivated by a desire for revenge for past injustices, if the AKP does lose power then it will merely be the turn of the prosecuted of today to become the prosecutors of tomorrow.
Gareth Jenkins, a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the CACI & SRSP Joint Center, is an Istanbul-based writer and specialist of Turkish Affairs.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".