x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Trial a test of Turkish democracy

With the start of the "trial of the century" against a group of suspected ultranationalists, democracy in this EU candidate country is facing a crucial test.

Supporters brandish Turkey flags outside the court where 86 alleged plotters are on trial.
Supporters brandish Turkey flags outside the court where 86 alleged plotters are on trial.

ISTANBUL // With the start of Turkey's "trial of the century" against a group of suspected ultranationalists accused of plotting to overthrow the government, democracy in this EU candidate country is facing a crucial test, observers say. "The fact that the trial is starting at all is half a revolution," said Beril Dedeoglu, a political scientist at Istanbul's Galatasaray University. "It is the first time that people are on trial for planning a coup. So far, coup plotters in Turkey have not been put on trial, they have been rewarded," she said in reference to military interventions that ousted four Turkish governments since 1960. Called the "trial of the century" by the press, proceedings against the "Ergenekon" group mark the first time former high-ranking officers of the Turkish army have been brought to court for plotting to bring down a democratically elected government. The suspected group leader, Veli Kucuk, is a former general, and there are other former soldiers among the accused. In recent months, two other former generals were arrested in connection with the group, but because the indictments against them are not ready yet, they will face trial later. Yesterday, the trial against 86 defendants, 46 of whom have been in custody for months, opened in a special courtroom inside the high-security prison in Silivri, a resort town west of Istanbul on the Sea of Marmara. Almost immediately, problems arose. After only a few minutes, Koksal Sengun, the presiding judge, interrupted proceedings as defence lawyers said they could not work in the cramped conditions of the packed courtroom. The court decided to have separate hearings for the defendants who are under arrest and for those who are free. News reports said the evaluation of the indictment - 2,455 pages long - and the thousands of pages of evidence and defence material in the trial will take months. The prosecution is calling for life in prison for the main defendants, accused of having formed Ergenekon. Ergenekon, which chose its name after the mythical home of the Turks in Central Asia, is said to have planned assassinations and other acts of violence to provoke a military coup against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister. The group is seen as an organisation of the so-called "deep state" in Turkey, a suspected network of members of the security forces and nationalists who thinks the republic has to be defended against Kurdish separatism, Islamic fundamentalism and even democratic reforms. An earlier scandal surrounding the "deep state", which exposed links between the police and right-wing organised crime gangs in 1996, has never been fully investigated. Several of the Ergenekon defendants are well-known opponents of Mr Erdogan and are concerned that his government is trying to end Turkey's secular order and replace it with an Islamic system. The three prosecutors who drew up the charge sheet will try to prove to the court that the defendants decided to take the law into their own hands to topple Mr Erdogan. According to the prosecution, Ergenekon was behind the killing of a high-ranking judge in Ankara in 2006 and wanted to kill Mr Erdogan, Yasar Buyukanit, former military chief, and Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel literature prize winner, and leaders of Turkey's Christian minorities. The plan was to create an atmosphere of chaos in the country to provoke a military coup, the prosecution said. The suspected role of former army officers in the case is a highly sensitive issue for a country where generals have traditionally played an important political role and where the present military leadership is known for its reservations against the Erdogan government. The military allowed the judiciary to arrest and charge the former generals, but made it clear with an official visit by a high-ranking officer to two of the generals that it is following proceedings closely. Supporters and opponents of Mr Erdogan's government sharply disagree about the significance of the trial. "We can say that this trial pits 'Turkey against Turkey'," wrote Ergun Babahan, editor of Sabah, a pro-government daily newspaper. "On one hand we have a part that claims that it knows best how to protect the needs and interests of society. This part also claims the right for itself to step outside the law if necessary." On the other hand was a Turkey that "is bound by the law, respects human rights and wants everyone to live together in brotherhood and peace, no matter what their ethnic roots or religion may be". But one of the defendants and several hundred protesters outside the Silivri prison had a completely different view of the trial. "It is the first time in world history that such a comedy takes place," said Kemal Alemdaroglu, a former rector of Istanbul University, who is accused of having been one of the Ergenekon leaders. "We acted according to the constitution, the laws and the decisions of the high courts." Protesters carried Turkish flags and banners reading "Neither USA nor EU - a totally independent Turkey", reflecting a widespread belief among Turkish nationalists that foreign powers are bent on destroying the republic that was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or Father of the Turks, in 1923. Sensing a business opportunity, street peddlers in front of the prison building in Silivri sold Turkish flags as well as shawls and hats with the slogan "We follow our father", the news channel CNN-Turk reported. Opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, whose editor, Ilhan Selcuk, is also among the Ergenekon defendants, said in a front-page commentary yesterday that the proceedings in Silivri were a "political trial" aimed at putting pressure on foes of Mr Erdogan. Even before it started, the Ergenekon case had become the subject of a political row between the government and the opposition. Although Deniz Baykal, an opposition leader, said he saw himself as a "defence lawyer" of the accused, Mr Erdogan said he would be a "prosecutor". tseibert@thenational.ae