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September 23, 2012, Sunday

Ramifications of ‘Sledgehammer’

It took 21 months.

After a painful, intensely debated judicial process, Turkey's critical coup trial ended with not much surprise -- except to those who are the relatives of the suspects -- when a heavy series of prison sentences were issued by the court in İstanbul.

All in all, the trial was about a large group of high and mid-ranking officers accused of plotting a coup, with the 1st Army Headquarters (in İstanbul) as the “epicenter,” against the then-freshly elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

The case is not only historic but in the global context also rather unique. The court tried to establish whether or not these officers truly “attempted” to overthrow the elected government -- a very tough task. It went through loads of documents, some of them with original signatures, secret lists, data compiled in the digital domain and, most importantly and decisively of all, witness accounts.

The difficulty in the Sledgehammer case was its very nature: It was, in essence, a trial about organized crime. As with some major mafia cases, it was a challenge to unravel the webs of secrecy, fight the cover-up, denial and massive counter-propaganda through the media. As much as hard evidence, therefore, the “conviction on conscience” of the judges seems to have defined the outcome.

The background, simply put, is this: In November 2002, in the wake of a devastating economic crisis, Turkey's voters elect the then-new AKP as a majority political force in Parliament. But (as later confessed by its top figures) the army becomes very uneasy about these “Islamists.” So even before the AKP has a chance to present its government declaration to the assembly, a number of top commanders “suggest” to their chief, Hilmi Özkök, that they should issue a “memorandum.” Özkök rejects the proposal but is unable to calm them down. The plotting continues into 2003 (as we learn from two secret, key journals that “overlap,” by Özden Örnek, a navy commander, and Mustafa Balbay, a journalist with the Cumhuriyet daily). The Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) receives a number of alerts and followed the group's activities (to later inform Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan).

By March 2003, the 1st Army becomes the focal point. In a “plan seminar” -- a simulation workshop -- Çetin Doğan, its commander, defies warnings from his superior, Land Forces Commander Aytaç Yalman, and leads a (taped) meeting, which is about real political actors and institutions. Doğan, a staunch and vocal AKP opponent, is later called to a tête-à-tête with Özkök in late May 2003 and told that his activities have been uncovered by Özkök. Still defiant, he is dismissed in August of the same year.

Evidence of the plans is very strong, and there are also those who claim that the synagogue bombings in İstanbul in the autumn of 2003 were suggested in the files of the case. (Erdoğan's comments on the bombings, based on MİT data, confirm this claim.)

There are two major repercussions of the Sledgehammer trial:

Politically, the verdicts have largely been regarded as yet another severe blow to the “coup culture” that crippled Turkey's civilian politics for decades and created a constant climate of despair and fear among citizens. Without a doubt, the sentences delivered will have a deteriorating effect on adventurers and democracy haters, as some top brass have been known. In an interesting comment, Özkök, the prime “eyewitness” of the time as chief of General Staff, said yesterday: “There is no revenge in law. But the results will play a deteriorating role; everyone will have to draw lessons from these [types of] trials. These lessons will be about understanding the changes in Turkey and the world.”

It will also help the Turkish army -- a vital element of security in a sensitive, turbulent geography, crucial for NATO -- to go deeper into its modernization efforts and to focus solely on its duties rather than politics.

Yet, the Sledgehammer trial may have only limited resonance. The AKP continues to drag its feet in abolishing the laws that allow the army to interfere in politics and establishing the transparency needed for a thorough renewal of the institution.

Judicially, it will be a big challenge as well. “There will also be lessons about fair trials,” stated Özkök. Certain question marks in the trial support his point. The judges may have made a major mistake by disallowing the presentation of some evidence, a key part of universal court procedures. The accusations of forgery of some documents in the trial must also be investigated and brought to a fair conclusion. This may lead the Supreme Court of Appeals to order a retrial.

The case is surely not over; it may take some more time. But some points are certain. Some of the evidence that led to the judges' ruling was strong enough. Circumstantial evidence (Özkök's statements in the Ergenekon context, for example) seems to have played an important part in the decision, as well as in the considerations on the grounds of “public conscience.” My guess is that the detailed ruling may also have set a precedent for a similar organized crime trial, whose end is near: Ergenekon.

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