A Turkish court sentenced dozens of high-ranking military officers, politicians, journalists and others to long prison terms on Monday, August 5, for plotting to overthrow the government in a long-running case that captivated the nation for its audacity, laid bare the deep divisions within Turkish society between Islamists and secularists and earned sharp criticism from the international community over issues of judicial fairness.
The highest-profile defendant, Ilker Basbug, a former chief of staff of the military, received a life sentence. Three members of Parliament were given long terms, and at least 20 journalists were also sentenced.
As judges read out the verdicts one by one, protesters who had gathered outside the courthouse and prison complex in Silivri, a coastal town west of Istanbul, faced tear gas fired by members of the security forces.
The verdicts, which are subject to appeal, came as Turkey is increasingly divided between the followers of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-inspired government and those who are loyal to the country’s old secular elite or those — especially the young — who are casting about for a new voice in politics. Those fissures were exposed in June during huge and sometimes violent street protests that began over urban development plans in Istanbul, but similar divides had been exposed during the court case, which dragged on for five years.
The case was initially seen by many as an important move by Mr. Erdogan’s government to engineer democratic reforms by taming the military, which has carried out three coups in modern Turkey’s history and had been regarded as the guardian of the secular system laid down by Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Many democracy advocates in the country have grown weary of military interventions in politics, and hailed the trial, at its start in 2008, as a major step toward civilian rule.
But as the case grew and ensnared journalists, academics and prominent government critics, it came to be seen as a politically motivated attempt at silencing dissent. It also carried the notion of revenge and class resentment, analysts said, because Mr. Erdogan and his religious followers represent a class that was marginalized under the old military-dominated order. Mr. Erdogan himself was once imprisoned for reciting a religiously inspired poem in public.
“In these cases, they tried to create a thornless rose garden by silencing opposition and intimidating patriotic people with secular principles,” said Celal Ulgen, a lawyer representing 16 defendants, including a journalist, Tuncay Ozkan.
Now, he said, “it’s impossible to talk about a justice system free of politics, or public trust in justice.”
With at least 20 journalists sentenced to prison terms between 6 and 34 years, the case also illuminated Turkey’s poor record on media freedom. Reporters Without Borders, based in Paris, has referred to Turkey as “the world’s biggest prison for reporters” and ranked Turkey 154th of 179 countries, behind Iraq and Russia, in its 2013 World Press Freedom Index.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, a member of Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, said in a televised news conference: “We are not at the point of liking or not liking the verdict. After all, it is a judicial verdict, and we have to abide by it.”
“We are not those that celebrate convictions or applaud arrests,” he continued. “There is a court verdict, and everyone has to respect it.”
Others sentenced on Monday included Mustafa Balbay, an elected member of Parliament from the opposition Republican People’s Party, who was given a prison term of 34 years and 8 months; Kemal Kerincsiz, a lawyer who has filed complaints against at least 40 writers for “insulting Turkishness,” including the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk;(*) Veli Kucuk, the lead suspect in the trial and a former brigadier general suspected of founding Jitem, a wing of the Turkish gendarmerie; and another opposition member of Parliament.(**)
On Monday, families were denied access to the final hearing, and state officials blocked access to the Silivri courthouse. Roads leading to the town were closed in the early morning, preventing buses carrying protesters from reaching the area.
Television images showed security forces erecting barricades around the prison premises and at checkpoints on the Silivri highway, as well as antigovernment protesters in an open field far from the prison waving flags behind a security cordon. On Saturday, in what critics said were pre-emptive measures before the verdict, the Istanbul police raided several locations, including offices of a neo-nationalist youth group, and detained at least 20 people who called for public protests against the trial.
When the case began nearly five years ago, it had all the elements of a fantastic and conspiratorial spy novel: nearly 300 military officers, politicians, journalists and others were accused of being part of a clandestine organization whose roots stretched back to the days of the Central Intelligence Agency’s dirty work in Turkey during the cold war.
The modern incarnation of the “deep state,” according to the thousands of court documents, was an underground organization called Ergenekon, named for a mythical valley, that had plotted to overthrow Mr. Erdogan’s government by sowing chaos in the streets and carrying out assassinations. The case summoned forth the ghosts of Turkey’s past, when the military lorded over civilian governments and the possibility of a coup was omnipresent in the country’s politics. That, in turn, underscored how much the Turkish state had changed under Mr. Erdogan, who through this case and others has secured civilian authority over the military.
But Mr. Erdogan, who has been in power more than a decade and is Turkey’s longest-serving prime minister, is facing increasing resistance. Nearly half of the country did not vote for him. Those opponents found their voice in the street protests in June and could again be galvanized by Monday’s verdicts. That would present a new test for Mr. Erdogan, who is widely assumed to be planning to run for president next year.
“It is highly possible that today’s court verdicts will prompt further soul searching, especially among opponents that became more politicized after the June protests,” said Ilter Turan, a professor of political science at Bilgi University in Istanbul. “Some might have plotted a military coup, but there were such evident violations of defense, of the right to a fair trial, that the public will widely consider this a political trial rather than a fair one.”
"The New York Times," August 6, 2013
(*) This is the main clause of the infamous art. 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which took effect in 2005, and was amended in 2008, when "Turkishness" was changed into "the Turkish nation." Among the first of the forty writers was the editor of the Turkish Armenian weekly "Agos," Hrant Dink, assassinated in 2007 ("Armeniaca").
(**) Among the sentenced were also Dogu Perincek, leader of the Workers' Party and condemned in Switzerland in 2005 for denial of the Armenian Genocide (aggravated life imprisonment), and his son Mehmet Perincek, a historian engaged in denialist research (six years of prison) ("Armeniaca").