Former Chief of General Staff retired Gen. İsmail Hakkı Karadayı was released pending trial late on Thursday after being questioned over his suspected role in the ousting of a coalition government on Feb. 28, 1997.
Police detained Karadayı at his home in İstanbul early on Thursday. He was taken initially to a hospital for a medical check-up. The retired general was later taken to Ankara to be questioned by a prosecutor about his role in forcing the resignation of the government in 1997.
The prosecutor requested Karadayı be tried while in custody, but the court ruled this was unnecessary.
The court issued a ban on Karadayı leaving the country. Furthermore, he was released on the condition that he will have to report to a local police station on a regular basis.
A controversy erupted, however, when some sources claimed that Karadayı had not been detained, but rather, he had been "invited to give testimony."
In an immediate comment, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ said a legal investigation into the 1997 coup d'état, which is more commonly referred to as the Feb. 28 coup, is ongoing. “It would not be right to make a comment about the essence of the process as it is still going on. It is better to wait and see the results,” he noted.
On Feb. 28, 1997, the Turkish military forced the coalition government, led by the now-defunct conservative Welfare Party (RP), out of power, citing alleged rising religious fundamentalism in the country. The Feb. 28 coup brought a series of severe restrictions on religious life, including an unofficial but widely practiced ban on the use of headscarves by women.
The military was also purged of members with suspected ties to religious groups and even officers who were simply observant Muslims. In addition, a number of newspapers were closed down after a National Security Council (MGK) decision called for closer monitoring of media outlets.
There is an ongoing investigation into the suspected actors behind the coup, with approximately 60 individuals already arrested pending trial on coup charges.
Prosecutor Mustafa Bilgili at the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor's Office is conducting the investigation into the actions of military generals at the time, including Karadayı, National Security Council (MGK) Secretary-General Gen. Tuncer Kılınç and former Land Forces Commander Gen. Erdal Ceylanoğlu. These officers, who have all since retired, are all suspects in the investigation.
Karadayı's lawyer Erol Yılmaz Aras, however, denied media reports that his client had been detained. He said neither the prosecutor nor a court had issued a detention order or an arrest warrant for Karadayı. “We had previously told the prosecutor's office that Karadayı was ready to testify [as part of the Feb. 28 probe]. But they [prosecutor's office] preferred to take him [Karadayı] to give testimony under the threat of police force,” he said.
Some news sources, however, said Bilgili had issued a detention warrant for Karadayı.
Mehmet Ali Şahin, deputy chairman of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), spoke to reporters about the detention of Karadayı, and said “it was not surprising or a bad thing.” “As a person who went through troublesome times in those days, I can say that the latest developments in which the arbitrary and unlawful activities of some circles are being accounted for shows us that a long distance has been covered on the path to stronger democracy and rule of law,” he stated.
The legal action against the former military chief came after a number of former military officers, including retired Gen. Çevik Bir who was the second highest-ranking general in the army at the time of the Feb. 28 coup, filed criminal complaints against Karadayı in December of last year. The officers, all under arrest pending trial, complained that Karadayı was responsible for everything that happened during the coup period. They also said they had received an order for a military coup from Karadayı.
Karadayı, who is 80, served as the chief of the military staff between 1994 and 1998.
In his complaint, Bir argued that his then-superior, Karadayı, knew about the formation of the West Study Group (BÇG), which played a key part in the Feb. 28 events and urged that he be questioned in the probe as well.
Bir claimed that Karadayı authorized all decisions as his superior, including the formation of the BÇG, given the strict hierarchical nature of the military. The BÇG had been established within the military to categorize politicians, intellectuals, soldiers and bureaucrats according to their religious and ideological backgrounds during the Feb. 28 coup era. Bir, the deputy chief of General Staff at the time, was the head of the BÇG.
Bir asserted that Karadayı gave all the orders, and provided voice recordings and statements on the Feb. 28 coup made by his former superior to the court. The complaint emphasized that Karadayı was the general in charge of everything, while Bir was in charge of executing orders at the military headquarters.
Bir argued that he conducted his activities following the National Security Council (MGK) meeting of Feb. 28, 1997 on Karadayı's orders; events that resulted in the resignation of the elected civilian government led by then-Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. He stated that all the military personnel who are currently jailed acted in accordance with the orders of their superiors in the BÇG.
Earlier media reports said the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor's Office has almost completed its preparation of an indictment of the suspects in the Feb. 28 investigation, and the office is seeking aggravated life imprisonment for 86 military actors of the time. News sources claimed on Thursday that the office is planning to put the final touches on the indictment after hearing Karadayı's testimony.
The detention of the former military chief drew the ire of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP). CHP Ankara deputy Aylin Nazlıaka claimed that the governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is behind the detention of Karadayı. “We are against the use of the judiciary by the AK Party as a means to get back at certain people,” she said.
The Grand Unity Party (BBP), on the other hand, voiced its support for the Feb. 28 investigation. Its chairman, Mustafa Destici, told reporters that any person, whether it be a former chief of General Staff, a president or a prime minister, should be brought to justice if he violated the boundaries of the law.
Karadayı spoke to a Turkish newspaper in May of last year and said he was ready to testify before a public prosecutor if he is invited or summoned to do so. He said he served in the Turkish military with honor for over 50 years and he did not do anything illegal. In addition, the former military chief testified to a parliamentary commission set up to investigate past coups, and said he does not define Feb. 28 as a coup. He also said he is against any military interventions in democracy as he believes the duty to shape politics belongs to politicians.
In the meantime, a group of supporters of the ultranationalist Workers' Party (İP) staged a protest Thursday afternoon in front of the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor's Office to condemn Karadayı's detention. Clashes erupted when the protesting group became violent and attacked the police.