Ergenekon charges serious, says US Ambassador Ricciardone

US Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone

February 19, 2011, Saturday/ 17:31:00

US Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone has said his much-debated remarks about freedom of the press were meant to underline the importance of a free press, reiterating at a meeting with a group of journalists on Friday that he had no intention of getting involved in a case currently being reviewed by the Turkish courts.

Ricciardone also said charges against Ergenekon, a shadowy network that prosecutors say plotted to overthrow the government, were serious, although he also called for a transparent and swift trial.

Ricciardone has received a barrage of criticism from the Turkish government when he said earlier this week that the US is trying to make sense of Turkey's stated support for freedom of the press and the detention of journalists. “On the one hand there exists a stated policy supporting a free press. On the other hand, journalists are put in detention. We are trying to make sense of this,” Ricciardone said on Tuesday when he was responding to a question regarding a police raid on anti-government website, odatv.com.

The police detained its owner, journalist Soner Yalçın, and three colleagues over alleged links to Ergenekon. Ricciardone also stated that he did not know what the charges were and that it was a domestic matter for Turkey, something he repeated in other remarks on Thursday.

On Friday, Ricciardone came under further criticism from the government when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused him of being a “novice” on Turkish matters. “Is there a constitutional principle saying that media bosses or members are exempt from laws? Are media organizations immune from prosecution? Can their members not be questioned or tried?” asked Erdoğan, who earlier said the Oda TV case has no political dimension, during a meeting at the headquarters of his Justice and Development Party (AK Party). He went on to say the US ambassador should have examined the situation more carefully before commenting on the case, saying what Ricciardone did amounted to being a “novice ambassador.”

Speaking to journalists, Ricciardone said he insists on his comments that emphasized the importance of freedom of the media, saying it is an essential element of democracy but added that he did not want to take a side in a case that is reviewed by the judiciary. However, Ricciardone also said he would end up in a difficult position in his own country if he takes a negative stance on freedoms. He said he was careful to stay neutral in internal debates in Turkey, but also said he wished to express his convictions more easily because this is a country that he truly sympathizes with.

When asked to comment on the US position towards the Ergenekon case, Ricciardone said the accusations were really serious and that these charges would have been the subject of a trial in any country. But he added that a transparent and swift trial process would make the case more convincing. “We trust the military, police and judiciary of Turkey,” he said.

Oda TV’s Yalçın is charged with being members of a “terrorist group,” that is Ergenekon, “obtaining and publishing secret state security documents” and “inciting hatred.” Close to 400 people, including politicians, academics and retired military officers, are already on trial for involvement in Ergenekon, which is named after a legendary ancestral valley believed to have been the home of Turkic peoples. Critics say the trial’s purpose is to intimidate and silence government opponents, while the government has defended the Ergenekon investigation as a move toward a stronger democracy.

“Our priority in the US is for Turkey to become a real democracy,” Ricciardone told reporters, adding that he was optimistic that Turkey will achieve this goal. Noting that his first visit to Turkey was in 1977, he said he found out that Turkey had achieved big progress in every visit after that. The US ambassador also said he did not believe there was any shift in Turkey’s orientation towards modernization.

Ricciardone, a former US envoy to Egypt, came under criticism in Washington that he “downplayed” the US administration’s pro-democracy efforts in Egypt. Former Senator Sam Brownback blocked Ricciardone’s appointment for several months due to his work in Egypt, something which he said shows that he would be too soft towards the Turkish government and ignore secular Turkish opposition groups.

Ricciardone began his job late last month after US President Barack Obama resorted to a rarely used mechanism called “recess appointment” to bypass the Senate and install him as the new ambassador to Turkey. But Ricciardone still needs confirmation vote from skeptical senators by the end of the next session of the Congress at the end of 2011 in order for his appointment to remain in effect.

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