x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

Turkey 'settles score' with military with General Cevik Bir arrest

The four-star general has now become the latest high-level officer arrested in Turkey over the so-called "postmodern coup" in 1997 where generals forced the Islamist-led government from power with threats and political pressure.

The United Nations forces commander, Cevik Bir, centre, greets the UN's German Maj Gen Georg Bernhardt, left, and US army Gen John Montgomery, right, in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.
The United Nations forces commander, Cevik Bir, centre, greets the UN's German Maj Gen Georg Bernhardt, left, and US army Gen John Montgomery, right, in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.

ISTANBUL // Turkey was once proud of General Cevik Bir. After serving as the commander of UN troops in Somalia in the early 1990s, he rose to the post of deputy chief of Turkey's armed forces, before retiring in 1999.

But the four-star general has now become the latest high-level officer arrested over the so-called "postmodern coup" in 1997 when the secularist generals forced the Islamist-led government from power with threats and political pressure.

Following his arrest by police last Thursday and several days of questioning, a court on Sunday ordered Gen Bir, 73, to be detained until his trial.

Eight other former officers were detained with Gen Bir, news reports said. If convicted of an attempt to remove the government by force, the accused could face life in prison.

The arrests formed the latest move by Turkey's judiciary to investigate the once-powerful role of the armed forces, which long regarded itself as the final arbiter in the state.

The generals pushed four governments from office in 50 years and only five years ago threatened to unseat the current one. For decades, neither courts nor politicians or the media dared to question the military's position.

"It is a symbol," said Sehadet Citil, a member of the Young Civilians, a group campaigning against military influence on politics in Turkey.

"For democracy, it is a step that has long been overdue," she said yesterday about the general's detention.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, welcomed the arrests.

"Those who step on the nation's will are taken to account, even if 15 or 30 years pass before they are," Mr Erdogan told a meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in the city of Tekirdag. "No one has special privileges before the law."

The balance of power in Turkey has shifted away from the military in recent years because of a strengthening of civilian institutions as part of Turkey's bid to join the European Union, and legal changes that abolished laws shielding the generals from prosecution.

This month the surviving two leaders of a coup in 1980 went on trial. Around 200 former and serving officers, including a former chief of general staff, have been standing trial for suspected involvement in coup plots directed against the Erdogan government.

Ms Citil said those developments meant that a new attempt by the military to push governments from power with our without force had become very unlikely.

"There has been a big change in Turkey," she said. "People don't want that kind of thing anymore. The coups have resulted in losses for Turkey, and people do not want that."

As deputy chief of general staff at the time, Gen Bir was one of the main players in the "postmodern coup" of 1997. In February that year, he gave orders for dozens of tanks and other armoured military vehicles to parade through Sincan, a suburb of the capital Ankara, in a show of force and intimidation, after a local leader of the then-ruling party, the Islamist Welfare Party (RP), had called for a "holy war".

Several weeks later, on February 28, the military forced Necmettin Erbakan, the RP prime minister, to sign a document promising reforms to counter a what the generals feared was an Islamist threat in the country. Following a suggestion by Gen Bir, the military set up a commission to monitor the implementation of the reforms.

According to news reports, the commission also spied on six million people in Turkey - almost 10 per cent of the population - because they were suspected of being Islamists.

Under heavy pressure from the military, Mr Erbakan's government resigned in June 1997, and the constitutional court banned the RP half a year later.

The "February 28 process", as the removal of Mr Erbakan is called in Turkey, was a demonstration of the military's political power over elected officials.

After the defeat of the Erbakan cabinet, Gen Bir summed up the triumph of the military over the government by declaring: "We have made a re-calibration." That phrase came back to haunt him when newspapers used it in headlines over reports about his arrest by police last week.

After a judge in Ankara ordered his detention on Sunday, the general was brought to prison in Sincan, the very neighbourhood that saw the tank parade in 1997. Prosecutors will now draw up an indictment before a date for trial is set.

Because Mr Erdogan and many of today's AKP politicians started their political careers under Mr Erbakan, the prime minister ousted in 1997, the opposition in Ankara accused the government of trying to settle accounts with the military by having Gen Bir arrested.

"You cannot look for justice with feelings of revenge," said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader in Ankara.

tseibert@thenational.ae