In the midst of the increasingly disturbing turbulence of domestic Turkish politics -- hunger strikes, bloody warfare, the growing gap between the government and the opposition, hurried debates on a presidential system, a delayed judicial reform package, no signs of progress with the EU, etc. -- a perplexing twist in the Ergenekon trial has occurred.
It should not go unnoticed because, at the end of the day, it has the potential of further tightening the screws on free speech in an already strained press environment.
In a surprise move during the trial on Nov. 6, one of the secret witnesses codenamed “Deniz” stepped forward and declared that he would like to testify under his real identity.
Deniz appeared to be Şemdin Sakık. Having served for many years as the “number two commander” of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), he was captured in 1998 by special forces and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Sakık had almost nothing new to say. The only exception was what he said about a newspaper and some journalists: “It is unclear whether the Taraf daily is an organizational bulletin [mouthpiece] of the organization [the PKK] or a national newspaper. Each and every statement of [PKK leader Abdullah] Öcalan is placed in front page headlines. In the violence that has been going on since 2007, behind every person [affected] lies the name of Taraf. None of those journalists who visited Öcalan [while he was in Syria] is just a journalist. Hasan Cemal, Cengiz Çandar, Yasemin Çongar, the Altan brothers [Ahmet Altan, the editor of Taraf, and Mehmet Altan, a columnist and scholar] -- none of them went there for the purposes of journalism. I believe their aim was to use the military force of the organization.”
Taraf's lawyers were quick to file a lawsuit against Sakık, drawing parallels with the late '90s, saying that a new wave of psychological warfare from within the state seemed under way. All of the journalists who were identified -- prominent ones in their efforts for peace -- openly voiced their fears and called for solidarity from their colleagues. Their call has remained largely unanswered in the often ostrich-like Turkish media.
For those of us with memories of the several-year-long bloodbath and harassment, it is impossible to disagree with the journalists' anxiety. This has to do with the pattern Sakık followed before when, soon after his capture, he “targeted” journalists like Mehmet Ali Birand, Çandar and human rights activist Akın Birdal. The former two were “excommunicated” from writing for a while, and Birdal barely escaped death -- seven bullets were pulled out of his body.
Why did Sakık appear under his own identity in court? Some quick reactions give enough hints: Tuncer Kılınç, a former general who also served as the secretary of the National Security Council (MGK), praised Sakık as an honest man who speaks the truth. (Kılınç is also a suspect in the Ergenekon trial.) And an ex-private who was a survivor and a witness of the massacre of 33 soldiers in 1993 by the PKK told the press that he saw Sakık commanding the “action.” Some parts of the media, keen to have the trial abolished altogether, sent out calls that “Sakık appearing under his own name proves that Ergenekon has lost all validity.”
We know that neither Çongar nor any of the Altan brothers has ever met Öcalan. It is important to also note that Sakık's allegations seem to follow on where the smear campaign against the same journalist (and others) by a marginal daily in the summer left off.
It is then time to draw some conclusions, ask new questions and raise new, deeper concerns about freedom of expression.
If the witness, the ex-soldier, is telling the truth about Sakık commanding the massacre, and Sakık's pattern after his capture hints that he was a very dubious figure (possibly affiliated with the deep state?) while serving Öcalan, we must then view his latest move as part of a new “dark surge.”
Is Ergenekon (or the deep state) still at play? I have serious concerns that it is. Obviously, Taraf is the prime target from now on. We should all be on alert if we are keen on free speech, the right to dissent and human life.
We must also see the dangerous situation now developing: The more “hard-line” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sounds -- death penalty and all -- the more motivated the dark forces out there will be. We all face a risk of returning to hard times.