Turkey on trial

 

THE DEEPLY political decision of a Turkish court last week to jail 324 serving and retired army personnel for plotting to overthrow the government in 2003 marked an important, qualitative shift in the dynamic of the country’s political history. Since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s first election a decade ago he has struggled to rein in the army whose historic predominance in politics – both authoritarian and resolutely secularist – he does appear to have broken.

The truth is that the generals are no angels. That the army could have planned a coup is eminently plausible, and the suspicions of Erdogan and his party, the AKP, were by no means paranoid. The army staged three outright coups between 1960 and 1980, and in 1997 pressurised a fourth government, the first Islamist-led, from power. It had also been implicated over previous decades in dirty, often murderous, campaigns against dissidents, not least Kurds.

Whether, however, the accused were guilty as charged in the Sledgehammer case, or in two other ongoing mass trials, Ergenekon and KCK, also involving hundreds of defendants, among them politicians, journalists, lawyers, and academics, is quite another matter. Sledgehammer, a war game scenario played out at a barracks in Istanbul in March 2003, allegedly included plans to bomb historic mosques in Istanbul and trigger conflict with Greece. But the court refused defence requests to hear independent evidence that crucial documents in the trial were forged, or evidence from key witnesses, including the former commander of the land forces whom the prosecution credited with preventing the coup even though he has publicly denied knowledge of it.

The trials have divided Turkey and tested Erdogan’s professed democratic credentials. Secularists and the opposition see them simply as political revenge, and if the cases are genuine they seem to have been botched spectacularly. They also cast a shadow over the credibility of the judicial and political reform seen as an essential part of modernising changes necessary to bring Turkey into line with EU standards – the growth of sentiment against Turkish accession within the EU has certainly played a part in diluting the urgency of that process. Erdogan may have won this trial of strength with the army – no bad thing – but at what price?

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