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August 02, 2012, Thursday

Özkök testifies -- and clarifies

The key witness finally testified. Hilmi Özkök, who served as the top commander of the Turkish Armed Forces in 2002-2006, was the “black box” of a very critical period in Turkey’s recent history.

He had been in midst of intense intrigue and lobbying against the elected government and Parliament from the autumn of 2002 on with some trigger happy members of his staff. It is obvious that he alone could prevent a series of coup plans against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), stepping out of the tradition of undemocratic formations in military headquarters, while facing challenges from within that included massive disinformation, character assassination and even death threats.

Whatever he would have to say about the allegations in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases was -- as I indicated in this column many times over -- long overdue because he alone could define the outcome of those trials. The long period of time -- filled with the frustration of lengthy detention times that passed -- made his importance even greater, not otherwise.

As of writing this column, his testimony has not been completed. But what he told the judge in the Ergenekon case was revealing enough of what really went on behind closed doors in Ankara’s military headquarters between late 2003 through mid 2004.

First, he stated the obvious: that there was a massive disquiet within the top brass when the AKP won the elections in a sweeping victory, which led to a “search.” He added even he was among those who asked: “Is this the right direction. Could it lead us from bad to worse?” This part confirmed that high ranking officers were in intense political engineering mood, which took place in secrecy, keeping the AKP out of the loop. But also, as Özkök was keen to add, there were “differences of opinion,” which in plain English means he disagreed strongly with re-implementing the old methods of intimidation, threats and manipulations.

Second, we now know through Özkök, that plans to oust the AKP from power were put on paper. The key witness confirmed that he was given a CD containing two coup plans: “Moonlight” (Ayışığı) and “Phosphorescence” (Yakamoz). He told the court he had to act cautiously on those plans because he did not regard them as “legitimate” (i.e. not officially valid). We understand from this part of the testimony that he was subjected to pressure to be part of a junta formation.

Third, Özkök also let us know that he was on a collision course with Şener Eruygur, the Gendarmerie Commander at that time, because he had found out that there was intense wiretapping of politicians, media and academia members, NGOs, etc. His words on this part are lucid enough to widen the enquiry into the clandestine operations that involved Eruygur and his officers, as well as, possibly, GSM operators, without whose consent the wiretappings would not have been possible.

But he was not lucid enough in the first two points, with the intent of leaving, perhaps, the judge and the defense to ask for clarification. He might be too keen not to be seen as the commander who “sells out” his brothers in arms, at the end of the day.

This has immediately set in motion speculation in the Turkish media yesterday that the coup plans were only “suggestions” and that to put them into an internal debate should not be counted as attempting to overthrow the government. These nonsensical views, stretched into the labyrinths of demagoguery, aimed at “let our dear generals get away with whatever crimes may have been committed,” will gain ground if the court does not demand clarifications, asking questions for which the Turkish public has been awaiting answers and calling in other key witnesses if necessary.

Also, let us again be reminded that Özkök should also testify as soon as possible in the Sledgehammer trial as well. He has been “interviewed” in secrecy before, but the public and the law expects him to clarify what Çetin Doğan and others did or did not do in that context.

The month of August brought, in a sense, “normalization” of military-civilian relations back onto the agenda. All the key trials that have to do with the undemocratic activities in the military in the past must be dealt with rigorously and rapidly -- both Ergenekon and Sledgehammer must be concluded this autumn; they have dragged on for too long.

At the same time, the restructuring of the army that is taking place is worrying too. According to Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz, there are now 404 officers involved in political trials; 207 of them are in detention, and 64 generals are suspects, of which 58 are in jail. This means an enormous strain on the government, not only because the institution needs an “internal reorder,” but the worrying part is all this happens when the crisis with Syria escalates day by day.

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