x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Turkey's coup trial tests the rule of law

The trial of a former president of Turkey, in connection with the 1980 coup there, raises questions about more controversial political cases still to come, and about fairness.

It wasn't long ago when the mention of Turkey's derin devlet, the deep state, brought blank stares and uncomfortable silence. Today, not only is this shadowy locus of power being discussed, it is going on trial.

An Ankara court yesterday began hearing the case of General Kenan Evren, a former president and the engineer of the 1980 military coup, in which dozens of people were executed, 650,000 were detained (according to official statistics) and hundreds more "disappeared".

Gen Evren's trial will test the judicial system's ability to cut through the murk of allegations and counter-allegations. More importantly, it will be a bellwether of how this government deals with the military that it so recently dislodged from political dominance.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking to his Justice and Development Party (AKP) this week, said the country's history of coups and an overweening military had always harmed the "legitimate" government. Defenders of Turkey's Kemalist principles contend that the military takeovers were necessary to remove governments that had violated the country's secular foundations; until recently, Gen Evren and his co-defendant had immunity from prosecution.

The Islamist-leaning civilian government clearly has the upper hand these days. But these questions are integral to the health of the body politic. Two more cases of deep-state intrigue, "Ergenekon" and "Sledgehammer", deal with alleged assassination plots against leading AKP figures.

Whether justice has a chance of prevailing in any of these trials is questionable. Hundreds of people - military officers and opposition figures, but journalists and activists as well - are still being held on politically related charges. The AKP's critics contend that these suspects are arrested first, and the evidence found later.

For all of the popularity of Mr Erdogan and his party, there are fears that the prime minister has now become an authoritarian threat. Critics, at least those who are not in jail, claim that the deep state prosecutions are a witch hunt, and opaque investigations feed those fears.

The trial of General Evren, a symbol of the old guard, may bring justice to 1980's victims, but it won't transform Turkey. Reform of the coup-era constitution, and enshrining a new civilian-military balance, will be necessary. But the fairness and transparency of these trials will signal whether AKP is the right party to shepherd that change.