x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Turkey is 'a country at war with itself'

Is the country going through a much-needed process of democratisation, with the military having to accept civilian oversight - or is the religiously conservative government trying to get rid of a secular safeguard?

A soldier stands guard at the entrance of the Turkish army's Special Forces Unit as police search the top secret facility in Ankara, on Monday.
A soldier stands guard at the entrance of the Turkish army's Special Forces Unit as police search the top secret facility in Ankara, on Monday.

ISTANBUL // As Turkey's judiciary is investigating the latest in a series of accusations against the once all-powerful armed forces, the public is divided by a crucial question: is the country going through a much-needed process of democratisation, with the military having to accept civilian oversight - or is the religiously conservative government trying to get rid of a secular safeguard?

In the first civilian investigation into the military's inner sanctum, Kadir Kayan, a judge in the capital spent several days this week in the so-called "cosmic chamber" in Ankara, an installation housing secret state and military archives. The search may continue, the military said in a statement. There was no official word on what Mr Kayan had found. The investigation was triggered by the arrest of several serving officers who were under suspicion of plotting to kill Bulent Arinc, a deputy prime minister and a prominent critic of the armed forces. All eight suspects detained in connection with the alleged plot have been released after questioning, media reported yesterday. Mr Arinc told reporters the findings suggested that "someone conducted reconnaissance" of his home in Ankara "with perhaps very bad intent".

Mr Arinc compared the suspected plot with accusations of the involvement of government agencies in the death of Aldo Moro, a former Italian prime minister killed by left-wing extremists in 1978, but also suggested that organised crime groups may have been behind it. More than 50 mafia-style groups were dissolved by government action in recent years, Mr Arinc said. "I think we have put a stick into the beehive," he said.

Mr Kayan's investigation follows a string of alleged plots by military officers against the government that have made headlines in recent months. In one case, an officer of the general staff in Ankara is said to have written a plan to destabilise the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister. In another, officers were accused of planning the assassination of members of Turkey's non-Muslim minorities and blame government supporters to put pressure on Mr Erdogan.

In addition, several dozen suspects, including former high-ranking generals, have been standing trial in Istanbul as alleged members of Ergenekon, a right-wing organisation prosecutors claim planned to bring down the Erdogan government. Meanwhile, critics have accused the government of wiretapping the telephones of its opponents and of members of the judiciary. "A country at war with itself" was how Fatih Cekirge, a columnist for the Hurriyet newspaper, put it.

Mr Erdogan held emergency talks with Gen Ilker Basbug, the chief of general staff, and senior commanders after the alleged plot to kill Mr Arinc surfaced, and the general staff itself stressed in a statement that the search of the "cosmic chamber" was perfectly legal. But that has done little to change the opposition's view that the government is trying to silence the military, which regards itself as the guarantor of the republic's secular values. "The Turkish armed forces have been put into a position of being a suspect," Deniz Baykal, the opposition leader in Ankara, was quoted as saying yesterday by Cumhuriyet, a secularist newspaper opposed to the government. He added that the investigation into the alleged assassination plot against Mr Arinc did not only target individual officers. "We are faced with an investigation against an institution."

Turkey's generals have overthrown four governments since 1960 and threatened to stage a coup against Mr Erdogan only two years ago. Earlier this month, state prosecutors in Istanbul questioned the former commanders of the country's navy, air force and land forces in connections, with alleged coup plots hatched between 2003 and 2005. Critics say the accusations against the military are organised by members of Islamist fraternities inside the police. Several army officers arrested in recent months have said the police fabricated pieces of evidence. Levent Bektas, a retired major arrested in connection with the alleged plans to kill members of religious minorities, said in a letter distributed by his lawyer that he was framed by "police officers who are obviously members of fraternities", the press reported yesterday.

As the judges in the Ergenekon trial have not reached a verdict yet and the other investigations are continuing, the country has no firm judicial answer to the question of whether members of the military tried to overthrow the elected government. "There is fog in Ankara," Cekirge wrote. But in the light of the evidence uncovered so far not even the opposition is willing to exclude the possibility of illegal activities within the armed forces.

"If nothing comes out once the investigations are over, it will be very grave," Mr Baykal said. But, he added, "if there are pieces of information or documents showing that some in the Turkish armed forces were involved in assassination or coup attempts, there will be an earthquake". In an effort to diffuse the tensions, Abdullah Gul, the president, is bringing together the leaders of key state institutions in his office next week. Top judges, including the heads of the military judiciary, as well as Mr Erdogan, the justice minister and the speaker of parliament have been invited to lunch by the president on January 5, the Milliyet newspaper reported yesterday.

@Email:tseibert@thenational.ae