Ergenekon trial ends, but witch hunts in Turkey continue

An Istanbul court this month acquitted the last 235 defendants in mass trials on charges of forming a secret armed organisation called Ergenekon to overthrow the government, closing a dark chapter in the history of Turkish justice, but one that paved the way for present-day legal witch-hunts against government critics. 

The trial that began in October 2008 charged an ever-growing number of secularists critical of political Islam, including journalists, academics, military officers and members of the criminal underworld, of being part of a shadowy group named Ergenekon, after a valley in the Altay mountains that features in Turkish mythology.

But it became apparent that the trials were partly aimed at secular critics of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and their allies from the Gülen movement, the two wings of political Islam in Turkey, which wielded huge influence over the police and judiciary. 

The Ergenekon group was blamed for almost every act of political violence over the previous two decades. In 2010 a second trial – Balyoz (Sledgehammer) – began with more than 300 defendants, mostly officers, accused of plotting a military coup.

In August, 2013, more than 250 of 275 Ergenekon defendants, including former head of the military İlker Başbuğ, were sentenced, but their convictions were annulled in 2016, and a retrial began in 2017. The Balyoz defendants were acquitted in 2015.

Many Turkish and foreign commentators applauded the trials in the early years, eager to finally push the military and its ultranationalist supporters out of politics. The Turkish Armed Forces had toppled four elected governments since 1960 and exercised an overbearing influence on politics, especially following the largest, most destructive coup in 1980.

“The general feeling among like-minded liberals was that at last a civilian government is taking on the generals, whose influence over politics and lack of accountability was the biggest obstacle on the path to democratisation,” said journalist Amberin Zaman.

A lot of people criticising the trials lacked credibility in the eyes of many liberals, she said.

“The people speaking up against the trials were sadly not credible given their long-standing support for military tutelage, aversion to overt symbols of piety and support for a military solution for the Kurdish insurgency and assimilation of the Kurds. So even when their critiques were grounded in some truths our knee jerk reaction was to dismiss them.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, prime minister at the time, proclaimed himself the prosecutor for Ergenekon and pro-AKP and Gülen-affiliated media attacked anyone who criticised the trials. Much of the key evidence, particularly in the Balyoz case, turned out to be fabricated and planted, and the most important testimony came from secret or unreliable witnesses.

“In hindsight it was clearly a huge mistake to not have taken the early red flags seriously,” said Zaman, who used to work for Taraf, a paper supportive of the trials.

“The narrative around these trials was one that had many willing buyers,” said Dani Rodrik, an economist at Harvard whose father-in-law is retired general Çetin Doğan, one of the key defendants in Balyoz and one of the planners of the 1997 ‘post-modern’ coup.

“Here was a moderate, culturally conservative, democratic government finally bringing to account the ultranationalist and militaristic elements in the Turkish power structure. The military, in particular, had a long history of coup making. So at first sight, the charges had some credibility. But anyone who scrutinised the alleged evidence should have realised that what was behind these trials was not the pursuit of justice, but a vast conspiracy.”

The Ergenekon defendants eventually included highly respected investigative journalist Ahmet Şık, who had reported critically on the Gülen movement and the military, and Türkan Saylan, a 73-year-old doctor, academic and charity founder who was suffering from cancer. Several of the accused committed suicide.

Gareth Jenkins is a researcher and expert on civil-military relations in Turkey who was the first to go through the Ergenekon indictments in detail. He wrote a seminal report in 2009 finding key evidence based on a single highly unreliable witness, no evidence of an Ergenekon organisation or plot to overthrow the government, and hastily written indictments full of wild conspiracy theories and charges of guilt by association.

“You hear people say the Ergenekon trial started off right, but then it went off track. That’s garbage,” he told Ahval.

Cengiz Aktar, a political science professor at Athens University, acknowledges that the trials were political and had some fabricated evidence, but still believes there was a plot to overthrow the government.

“If the trials had gone through properly, it would have helped with the real demilitarization of Turkish political life. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen,” he said.

“Now all these guys have been whitewashed. It’s absolutely a scandal.”

The mass trials have left a dark legacy on Turkish political and legal culture.

“I think we’re going to look back and say that Ergenekon was a turning point that made things a lot worse and is partly responsible for where we are today,” said Henri Barkey, international relations professor at Lehigh University and senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations.

Barkey said Turkey had never had a fully independent judiciary, which in the past was influenced by the military and had many political red lines enforced by secular nationalists, but Ergenekon was the harbinger of a new level of politicisation. As the AKP rose to power from 2002, allied Gülen supporters came to dominate the judiciary.

“They were invited into the state because Erdoğan didn’t have the requisite people,” Barkey said.

Following a brutal split between the AKP and Gülen that erupted in 2013, the Gülen cadres were removed and replaced with inexperienced government loyalists. 

“Today we’re in completely uncharted territory when it comes to the Turkish judiciary. They can do anything they want,” Barkey said. “Now it really is a judiciary that just sits and waits for orders from the palace on how it rules.”

Barkey said all kinds of independent voices can now be arbitrarily targeted, such as a trial against Amnesty International activists in 2017 or the ongoing Gezi trial targeting prominent philanthropist businessman Osman Kavala, who has been imprisoned for more than 600 days.

“If you look at the indictment against Osman Kavala, it’s a joke,” Barkey said. 

The final split between the AKP and the Gülenists came in July 2016 when factions of the military linked to the Gülen movement attempted to mount a military coup against Erdoğan, but failed when the president called out the people to face down the tanks.

Real and perceived Gülen followers and other government critics are now pursued the same way secularists in the past were, with FETÖ (the Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation - the government’s name for the Gülen movement) replacing Ergenekon.

“Now it’s ‘FETÖ is behind everything.’ You have this kind of template of a single organisation that’s responsible for everything that’s gone wrong, but the name has changed,” said Jenkins. 

“With Ergenekon, there was such a tribal reaction. People who didn’t like the military wouldn’t really pick up on the abuses in the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials because they didn’t want to be perceived as defending the military or the deep state. We’ve got the same problem with these Gülen trials, where people are very reluctant to point out these appalling travesties of justice in the name of going after the Gülen movement.”

Barkey said current oppression was also more arbitrary than in the past, with even those who inadvertently opened an account in a bank controlled by the Gulenists targeted.

“Members of Erdoğan’s entourage, ministers who’ve had their pictures taken with Gülen, who were pro-Gülen, they’re not being touched, but the poor schmuck who opened an account in Bank Asya gets thrown out of his job and loses his passport. That shows you that it’s gone way beyond even the Ergenekon days.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.