Turkey’s mass trial for attempted coup stirs strong emotions

Amid accusations of a show trial, 481 servicemen and civilians are being given a hearing

Arrested soldiers accused of participating in the attempted coup last year being accompanied by Turkish police as they arrive for their trial at Sincan Penal Institution near Ankara on August 1st. Photograph:  Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

Arrested soldiers accused of participating in the attempted coup last year being accompanied by Turkish police as they arrive for their trial at Sincan Penal Institution near Ankara on August 1st. Photograph: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

 

When it began in August, the largest mass trial of those accused of masterminding last year’s failed coup in Turkey had all the signs of a show trial. Handcuffed prisoners were marched in a line to the court past a crowd of protesters calling for them to be hanged.

The hostility from relatives of people who died in the coup and supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains, and frequently disrupts the proceedings. But the defendants – 481 servicemen and civilians – are finally being given a hearing at least.

The accused, more than 20 so far, present their own defence before a panel of three judges in a courtroom the size of a gymnasium. They read hours-long prepared statements and answer questions. Their lawyers are also given time to present a case.

They face a wealth of incriminating evidence – the indictment runs to 4,000 pages – and the charges include treason, murder and attempted murder in the bloody coup attempt in which 249 people were killed and more than 2,000 wounded. They risk lengthy sentences – one lawyer said his client faces 3,000 life sentences on multiple charges in three separate trials.

Erdogan, who evaded capture by the coup plotters on the night of July 15th, 2016, has accused a former ally, the Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen, of masterminding the coup from his refuge in Pennsylvania. Gulen denies the charge and has suggested that Erdogan orchestrated the coup himself in order to purge his opponents and amass more power.

Gulen is among those indicted in what has become known as the Akinci air base case, named for the base that was considered the coup plotters’ headquarters and from where jets were deployed to bomb targets. Turkey has requested Gulen’s extradition from the US, but American officials contend that there is insufficient evidence of his involvement.

Case against Gulen

The case against Gulen asserts that he led a shadowy movement that infiltrated government institutions – instigating the removal of opponents and promoting its own supporters into positions of power in the army, government and judiciary – until the moment it could seize power.

That thesis is backed up by several respected investigative journalists and prominent lawyers, who exposed false accusations by Gulenists against army and air force officers in notorious show trials that allowed them to vault their own followers to prominent positions.

It may be difficult to prove any link to Gulen in court, however. While there are the recordings of military conversations from the control tower at Akinci, and of pilots, there are no recordings from inside the command centre where the civilians were seated.

The trial has produced some surprises, not least discrepancies in the accounts of the accused. Most of those who have testified so far – more than 20 senior officers and civilians in the course of first three weeks – denied any responsibility for the coup, much to the anger of victims’ relatives and supporters in the public gallery.

On a recent day, the courtroom was packed to hear Col Ahmet Ozcetin, the operations commander of Akinci air base, who is charged with being one of the main instigators of the coup. According to the indictment, witnesses described him as an “influential and reckless” personality who issued orders and drew up a list of bombing targets that night.

People on a tank run in Istanbul, on July 16th, 2016 – the night of a failed coup attempt in Turkey. Photograph: Tolga Bozoglu/EPA
People on a tank run in Istanbul, on July 16th, 2016 – the night of a failed coup attempt in Turkey. Photograph: Tolga Bozoglu/EPA

Dressed in a broad striped polo shirt and jeans, Ozcetin answered confidently, if not always straightforwardly. He reluctantly confirmed being pictured in a flight suit in video footage from the base that night, but he denied giving orders to pilots or other service members. He said that he had ordered a fleet of F-16s to take off from the base, but that he had not given them targets.

“I did not give an order to bomb,” he said. “The bombs were not loaded with the purpose to kill the police. I am deeply sorry for the police deaths.” Radio signals could have been scrambled, disguising orders from others, he added.

Sarcasm

Some of the sharpest questioning came from lawyers representing younger officers standing trial who have testified that Ozcetin gave them orders – allegations that he repeatedly denied. When asked to explain how a group of officers who had gained promotion together were all at Akinci base on the night of the coup, he turned to sarcasm: “It was us who burned down Rome also.”

Another defendant, Col Muzaffer Duzenli, the head of an army department, is also named as one of the main organisers of the plot. He denied taking part and said that he was handcuffed in a room on the base by the plotters the whole night. Duzenli is accused in the indictment of organising meetings to plan the coup and setting up a contact group of plotters on the encrypted telephone messaging service WhatsApp.

Transcripts of messages from his telephone show a stream of increasingly harsh orders through the night – including to disperse crowds of protesters with gunfire. The colonel said that he had been invited to a dinner at the base, and that when he arrived his telephone was confiscated by the plotters and he was locked in a room. His telephone could have been hacked and a WhatsApp group created without his knowledge, he suggested.

Yet government lawyers said that he appeared in a video walking freely on the base at 10pm and that his phone registered calls with other plotters during the day and evening. “They took my phone,” he said. “Maybe they answered pretending to be me. I don’t know them.”

Duzenli refused to answer some questions, argued with the judge and at one point traded insults with the president’s personal lawyer, Huseyin Aydin. The public bellowed disgust from the gallery, prison guards and police officers linked arms to form a protective barrier around the defendants, and the judge was forced to clear the court.

“The universal principle of law, the presumption of innocence, is destroyed here. Everyone knows it,” the colonel’s defence lawyer, Ozay Arikan, said afterwards.

“Unfortunately, these trials have become political,” he added. “The judges are prosecutors and are under severe pressure. There is no fair trial.”

Defence lawyers have suffered verbal abuse and intimidation, he said – and several declined to be interviewed for fear of repercussions. Lawyers had restricted access to their clients, without privacy. The defendants, he said, had been tortured.

‘Ill-treatment’

Duzenli said in his testimony that he had not been allowed to read the statements he signed while in custody, and he complained of ill treatment amounting to torture in the first days after the coup. “For four days in the sports hall where they first detained us, hundreds of men spent days soaked in sweat, blood, urine and pus,” he said.

US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of being behind last year’s failed coup attempt. Photograph: Greg Savoy/Reuters
US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of being behind last year’s failed coup attempt. Photograph: Greg Savoy/Reuters

As people in the public gallery began jeering, he added, “There are many other things that I don’t tell.”

The families of the accused have mostly stayed away because of the intimidation, lawyers said. The opponents of the coup are vociferous and organised – they arrive in buses from different neighbourhoods.

“Sometimes I feel angry and sometimes I feel upset, because we saw the bombs and everyone is denying it,” said Gokmen Erdem (36), whose brother-in-law was killed on the night of the coup. “There is a lot of evidence that Fethullah Gulen was behind this thing,” he said.

He voiced regret that the US had not taken evidence against Gulen more seriously. Osman Basibuyuk, a former air force colonel and F-16 instructor, who was forced out of the service in 2013 under false accusation from the Gulenists – in a case that was later overturned – came to see his former classmate, Colonel Ozcetin, in the dock.

“It was obvious, they wanted us out so they could take our jobs,” he said. He gestured at the courtroom behind him. “This is justice.”

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