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March 08, 2011, Tuesday

Justice on trial

Imagine if in the middle of the Watergate investigation, the special prosecutor issued arrest warrants for Woodward and Bernstein, the investigative journalists who first sniffed a rat. The natural conclusion would be that the judicial system had done a flip and that it had dedicated itself to pursuing the innocent and protecting the guilty. This gives you an idea of the cloud of confusion that now hovers over Turkey where the credibility of the Ergenekon conspiracy trial is very much on the line.

The case is one of the most important in postwar Turkish history. If Zekeriya Öz, its chief prosecutor, is not a worried man, he should be.

For the last four years the Ergenekon prosecution has been trying to unravel an intricate network alleged to extend from the situation rooms of the military into the editorial offices of Turkish newspapers to smoky basements inhabited by small-time mafioso. The conspiracy was not created from scratch but was part of the modus operandi of a historically embedded clique dedicated to the use of violence and provocation to control and even overthrow elected governments. So the trial is nothing less than an attempt to sweep clean decades of abuse and an important step to restore the principle of democratic accountability. That was the theory. Alas, the case now appears to be tipping into not so much farce as black comedy.

Mr. Öz cannot claim to be surprised that this is the case. A case of the magnitude of Egenekon was by its nature bound to be controversial. Many have seized upon the sloppiness and inconsistencies in the way it was argued to suggest the prosecution itself was a conspiracy and that its main purpose was to intimidate opposition to the current government. For that it does not require a conviction. The Turkish legal system is notorious for meting out punishment not at the end of a trial but at the point of arrest and during the long years those charged spend on remand in jail.

Yet the arraignment on Sunday of two well-admired journalists has shifted criticism of Mr. Öz’s office into a higher gear. The addition of Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık to an already unwieldy long list of suspects beggars credulity. Mr. Şık was himself part of the original investigative team at Nokta magazine that brought the coup attempt to light. Mr. Şener has dedicated himself to tracking down those who were behind the assassination of newspaper editor Hrant Dink. On the surface and until we are told differently, the explanation for the arrests is that the prosecution is not trying to extend the Ergenkon investigation but prevent it from reaching too far.

Their arrest has roused the indignation of the most respected names in Turkish journalism. The president of the republic has gone as far as he can in registering concern with a case that is now sub justice. In answer to these howls of protest, the prosecutor has urged doubters to wait and hear the evidence he is not yet at liberty to disclose.

This advice would be easier to take if it were not for the fact that there have been major leaks all along the way of the Ergenekon trial, presumably to keep public opinion on its side. Only yesterday the press published documents that appeared to incriminate another raft of recently arrested suspects who work for It would be easier to accept if there was greater faith in Turkish justice. While the police were busy arresting Şener and Şık, the courts were busy sentencing the sociologist Ismail Beşikci to 15 months in prison for making propaganda for a terrorist organization. Mr. Beşikci is a long-standing Amnesty International prisoner of conscience pin-up for the 17 years he already spent behind bars.

The government too has urged patience and to let the wheels of justice take their course. This was not, however, the advice they were giving when the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) faced prosecution by the Constitutional Court. And those pro-government columnists urging understanding now did not hesitate to accuse the courts then of being politically motivated. That indeed was the very basis of the Sept. 12 referendum designed to make the legal system accountable.

Mr. Öz cannot be under any illusion that with his actions he has again put Turkish justice itself on trial.

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