The political stagnation that followed last year’s general elections seems to have disappeared as there have been significant improvements in major cases in the country that are helping the nation confront its past and strengthen its democracy; however, observers say there is much more to do for Turkey to become a fully democratic country.
In a move that seemed impossible until a few years ago, Turkey has brought the surviving leaders of the bloody Sept.12, 1980 military coup into court. Retired general and former President Kenan Evren and former commander of the Air Forces retired Gen. Tahsin Şahinkaya went on trial on Wednesday for leading the brutal takeover that shaped the country and traumatized the nation for three decades.
The trial of the coup leaders was made possible by a government-sponsored reform package that was approved in a referendum in 2010. Among other things, the reform package annulled a constitutional article that served as a legal shield for the coup leaders.
Yet another promising development took place on Tuesday when an İstanbul court accepted an indictment in the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) case. The KCK is an umbrella organization that allegedly includes the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK). The indictment implicates 1,400 people and accuses 193 suspects -- 147 of whom are currently under arrest -- of various terrorism-related crimes. Meanwhile, significant progress has been made in the ongoing cases into Ergenekon, a shadowy crime network that has alleged links within the state and is suspected of plotting to topple the government, and Sledgehammer, a military coup plot, that was allegedly devised at a military barracks in 2003.
In the Sledgehammer case, prosecutors last month presented their final opinion, seeking up to 20 years’ imprisonment for 365 suspects, 250 of them currently under arrest, on charges of attempting a coup. In the Turkish court system, the submission of the prosecution’s final opinion to the court implies that the case is nearing an end, suggesting the court may soon announce its decision. In addition, an investigation was launched last month by the Malatya Deputy Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office into the Sivas case, which concerns the deaths of 33 intellectuals as well as two assailants and two hotel workers in a hotel fire in 1993, in the wake of a court decision in early March to drop the case due to the statute of limitations.
The dropping of the case had created widespread disappointment in the country because justice was not served.
All these developments raise hopes about Turkey's confrontation with coup plans and shadowy incidents, which will undoubtedly raise the bar of democracy, but observers say the country has much more to do to become a truly democratic state governed by the rule of law.
Human Rights Association (İHD) head Öztürk Türkdoğan welcomed the progress in major cases in the country, which he said take place as part of the efforts at democratization, but he said democratization cannot fully materialize just by settling accounts in court.
“For a full confrontation, Turkey needs to get rid of its coup era constitution, which carries the spirit of the 1980 coup, and abolish its pro-military tutelage institutions. Confrontation with the past is a process that requires contributions from all social and political actors. A new and democratic constitution needs to be prepared,” he said.
The current constitution was written in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup and criticized by many for lagging behind the spirit of the era and including anti-democratic elements. All parties in parliament want the current constitution to be scrapped.
A commission, which has representatives from all parties in Parliament, is already working to draft a new constitution.
Türkdoğan also noted that a Truth Commission needs to be established in Parliament to investigate shadowy incidents and unsolved murders that mostly took place in the Southeast.
Previously, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) had suggested that a Truth Commission be established in Parliament to resolve the country's long-standing Kurdish problem.
Mehmet Altan, a political scientist, hailed the latest developments but said he thinks Turkey needs to do a great deal to be governed by the rule of law, which treats all equally.
Altan said just as there is progress in the Sledgehammer trial, a fraud case concerning a German-based aid foundation, Deniz Feneri, and the killing of 34 civilians in the Southeast by Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) warplanes last December need to be investigated.
“There are problems in the legal system. We become ashamed of legal setbacks and then try to correct them. Turkey is the country that had the most judgments against it in the European Court of Human Rights [ECtHR] in 2010 and 2011. … It is strange that no action has been taken against former Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Büyükanıt, who confessed to having written a memorandum against the government [in 2007], while former Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ has been jailed [as part of an anti-government propaganda websites probe],” said Altan in pointing out the contradictions of the legal system.
Başbuğ was jailed earlier this year as part of a probe into propaganda websites that were allegedly established by the military to discredit the government. No legal action has yet been taken against Büyükanıt, who confessed to having written an April 27 memorandum against the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government during the presidential election of 2007.
“Turkey has begun to confront its history,” said Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed Peoples (MAZLUM-DER) President Ahmet Faruk Ünsal about the latest developments in the country.
He said just as Turkey is now confronting the Sept. 12 coup, it should also confront the Feb. 28, 1997 military intervention and April 27, 2007 memorandum.
The military forced a coalition government led by a conservative party to resign in 1997 on the grounds that there was rising Islamic fundamentalism in the country. Extensive bans and restrictions on religious life were imposed on the nation during this process.
“Turkey needs to confront all coup attempts and coups in its history -- not to take revenge -- but as a sign of respect to the nation's will. If the Sept. 12 trial is conducted seriously, this could deter other coup plotters, and the coup trial case may set an example to other countries in the world,” he said.
To help confront the military interventions, Ünsal said MAZLUM-DER sent petitions to Parliament demanding that judicial decisions made during the Feb. 28 process be declared null and void because the trials at the time were not fair.