A major development of last week was when former Chief of General Staff Gen. Hilmi Özkök testified as a witness at one of Turkey’s major trials, the one concerning Ergenekon -- a clandestine organization nested within the state trying to overthrow or manipulate the democratically elected government.
This was important because Gen. Özkök was at the head of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) when the junta members started to act to overthrow the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). This was pure luck for the AK Party, which couldn’t yet exert full control over the TSK and the army maintained its domination over democratically elected governments. Little time had passed since the military overthrew the coalition government of the Welfare Party (RP) and True Path Party (DYP) --known as the Refah-Yol government -- in collaboration with media networks, business circles, the judiciary and the bureaucracy in what later came to be known as the postmodern coup of Feb. 28, 1997.
The mighty commanders of the Feb. 28 coup were arrogant and powerful enough to assert, “Feb. 28 will last for 1,000 years.” It was a routine task for them to start coup preparations when a religious party came to power. Most of the commanders had already agreed to stage a coup. A major obstacle to their plans was that the chief of General Staff, i.e., Özkök, did not agree with them.
Özkök can hardly be said to be an officer with a perfect attachment to universal democratic values. The TSK’s pro-pro-Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and Kemalist tradition could hardly produce an officer who would pay respect to civilian politics and universal democratic rules. However, Özkök was a smart officer. He was aware that world thought had changed and a traditional or postmodern coup would not secure any foreign support. In his testimony, he makes clear that he, too, was upset by the AK Party and wanted it to go away. Only he didn’t opt for a drastic method of achieving this.
Whatever his motives were, he did not give way to the junta. He deserves respect for this. Özkök confessed that Land Forces Commander Aytaç Yalman proposed issuing a memorandum to the government. This testimony clearly proves the existence of the coup offense and the status of the retired commanders who are currently standing trial in the Ergenekon case is now clearer. Other than this, he also confessed that in 2004, CDs of the coup plans Ayışığı (Moonlight) and Yakamoz (Sea Sparkle) had been given to him. “The wording used in the plans suggested to me that they were penned by military officers. I didn’t share this with my subordinates. I had to be calm and cautious,” he said. Özkök also talked about another coup trial, the one concerning the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) coup plan, where 64 active duty generals and admirals are on trial on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. The trial’s indictment has very sound evidence despite the counter-propaganda. I believe some innocent people may be facing coup charges in the trial as their names appear in the chain of command. Most of them are low-ranking military officers. While I hope they will be acquitted of the charges, I, as an executive of the newspaper that exposed the Balyoz coup plan, can safely assert that the plan was a very serious one.
Özkök said the following about Balyoz: “I had just become chief of General Staff. It [the seminar about the plan] had been prepared routinely before I was appointed to office. I couldn’t attend that seminar because I was busy at that time. I ordered it to be held at the Land Forces Command. In this seminar, some matters were discussed beyond their intended purpose as a worst-case scenario. I heard that the names of real politicians were used. Then, I told Land Forces Commander Aytaç Yalman to launch an examination into this matter.”
Özkök is known to be very cautious in selecting his words while speaking, and this time, he speaks in a very clear manner and he asserts that the Ayışığı and Yakamoz coup plans of 2003 as well as the Balyoz coup plan, which was continually updated until 2009, are nothing but preparations for overthrowing the government. And this is confessed by the highest-ranking person in the military. Therefore, what he said has been registered as first degree evidence which can affect the course of the trial. The court will issue a final decision about the cases against Ergenekon and Balyoz by the end of this year. While the deep state was still strong, it was not easy to launch and maintain these trials. A very powerful coalition has tried to do their best to discredit these trials at home and aboard. What mattered amid this struggle was to maintain the process without denying anyone their due rights. As our judicial system is already in rags and tatters, any effort to maintain these trials via this system contained certain risks. I hope no innocent person is punished. What I expect is that the guilty will be punished and the innocent will be acquitted.
Turkey cannot make a fresh start without such a confrontation and catharsis.