Özkök’s testimony deals severe blow to denial of ‘Balyoz’ plot
Former Chief of General Staff retired Gen. Hilmi Özkök left the Silivri Courthouse Friday afternoon after testifying to judges as a witness as part of the Ergenekon case. (Photo: Today's Zaman)
Former Chief of General Staff retired Gen. Hilmi Özkök continued to make statements that are likely to greatly disappoint critics of ongoing coup cases, particularly the case against the Balyoz -- or Sledgehammer -- coup plot, on his second day of testimony as a witness in the Ergenekon trial.
Özkök said he had warned military officers that a 2003 seminar at which participants allegedly drafted a coup plot targeting the AK Party government “went beyond its aim.” The ex-military chief’s remarks came as he testified on Friday at the İstanbul 13th High Criminal Court, which is hearing the case against Ergenekon -- a shadowy criminal network with alleged links to the state that is suspected of plotting to topple the government. “The seminar went beyond its intended purpose and I warned my officers about it,” the ex-military chief told the court. He was referring to a controversial meeting which was held at the General Staff’s Selimiye barracks in March 2003. A coup plot, named Sledgehammer, was drafted during the seminar.
Plotters behind the coup plan strongly deny making preparations for a military takeover after information about the Sledgehammer case made its way to the press in 2010. Retired Gen. Çetin Doğan, a key suspect in the case, publicly said that Sledgehammer was a war game and not a plan to take over the government. Opponents of the Sledgehammer case have claimed that the documents were forged, the coup plan was fabricated and that the records of the 2003 seminar were manipulated to discredit the Turkish military; however, Özkök’s testimony revealed that all these allegations are groundless.
Özkök told judges that he did not attend the seminar due to his busy schedule, and added, “This [Sledgehammer] seminar was carried out as a dangerous scenario that went beyond its intended aim. It was carried out as though political persons or political events were real. I asked the land forces commander to examine it [documents belonging to the seminar].”
Sledgehammer is a suspected coup plot believed to have been devised in 2003 with the aim of unseating the AK Party government through violent acts. According to the plan, the military was going to systematically foment chaos in society through violent acts, including bomb attacks on the Fatih and Beyazıt mosques in İstanbul. The plot allegedly sought to undermine the government to lay the groundwork for a coup d’état. The military, which has overthrown three governments since 1960 and pressured a conservative government to step down in 1997, has denied such a plan.
However, documents belonging to the plan suggest that the 2003 seminar was a “rehearsal” of a military takeover. The documents feature the names of military officers who would take part in the takeover, along with their professional ID numbers. The names of some mayors are also included in the Sledgehammer plan.
Claims that the prosecution is relying on falsified documents to accuse suspects in the Sledgehammer case were disputed once again last month when the General Staff sent an İstanbul court authentic documents of the coup plan bearing authentic signatures.
The General Staff sent 26 documents to the İstanbul 10th High Criminal Court, which is hearing the ongoing trial against the generals who allegedly plotted to stage the coup, all of which verify claims put forward by the prosecutor that the generals, while working on their plot, kept tabs on religious groups and local newspapers as well as monitored ballots cast during elections at polling stations set up in military residential complexes.
During his testimony on Thursday, Özkök also confirmed that force commanders at the time had mentioned issuing a memorandum against the government during a brainstorming session, but added that it was “not an official proposal.” The force commanders at the time were former Land Forces Commander Gen. Aytaç Yalman, former Air Forces Commander Gen. İbrahim Fırtına and former Naval Forces Commander Adm. Özden Örnek, all of whom retired in 2004.
The former military chief was asked about these remarks again on Friday and he said that it was Yalman who suggested issuing a warning to the government. On Thursday, Özkök also confirmed the existence of coup plots nicknamed “Ayışığı” (Moonlight) and “Yakamoz” (Sea Sparkle) during his term of leadership, but added that he did not take any legal action about them because he was unsure of their authenticity.
Ayışığı and Yakamoz are two of the coup plots mentioned in Örnek’s diary. In April 2007, the weekly news magazine Nokta published excerpts from a journal it claimed belonged to Örnek which contained details of coup attempts dating back to 2004.
Following the allegations, an investigation was launched into Nokta’s Editor-in-Chief Alper Görmüş. The magazine was shut down several weeks after a police raid on its offices. However, the journal was included in the second indictment in the Ergenekon trial in 2009 after a technical examination of the excerpts published by Nokta confirmed that they were authentic.
‘I did not say young officers were disturbed’
Judge Sami Haşıloğlu asked Özkök about a 2007 headline in the staunchly secular Cumhuriyet newspaper which said, “Young military officers are disturbed.” The newspaper had implied that young military officers were contemplating if they should intervene in politics. Özkök said he was a “democrat,” but was always “loyal to the AK Party government” due to his democrat character. “A military chief is loyal to the government, for sure. But it was reflected in a different meaning. There were claims that I had told the prime minister that young officers were disturbed. I had not said any such thing to the prime minister. All of us were concerned [because of the reports appearing in the media]. I called a press conference and said I did not approve of or support coups. I said the prospect of a coup would not even be a matter of discussion in Turkey,” Özkök stated.
When the AK Party came to power, some circles in society, including the military, were suspicious about the party’s secular credentials and claimed that the party had a secret agenda to bring Shariah rule to the country.
In addition, Özkök said some US authorities had asked Turkish military higher-ups to put pressure on the AK Party government to vote in a motion to allow US troops to enter Iraq from Turkey in 2003. “But we did not agree,” he added.
When asked about his earlier statement that a smear campaign had been launched against him by the General Staff, Özkök said, “I had a hard time when I was appointed as the chief of General Staff. [Former Chief of General Staff Gen. Hüseyin] Kıvrıkoğlu liked me. He appointed me as the deputy chief of General Staff during his tenure. But he thought I would not be able to work successfully against religious fundamentalism if I was appointed the chief of General Staff. He once told me that I would not become the chief of General Staff. I said that was his opinion.”
Also on Thursday, Özkök responded to a question asking if he brought lunch from home fearing that he might be poisoned at the General Staff. “[The suspicions of] poisoning is a myth. I have expressed several times before that I was bringing lunch from home for health reasons. I used to visit military units during my term in office and had lunch there. Would I be poisoned at the General Staff?” he asked.
The former military chief also said he had trouble from some time to time due to “insistence” by some force commanders, but did not elaborate.
Retired Gen. İlker Başbuğ, another former military chief, was also present during yesterday’s hearing. It was the second time that Başbuğ had attended a hearing of the Ergenekon trial since all indictments relevant to Ergenekon were combined in May on the basis of the various links and parallels between separate trials and suspects. Başbuğ was incarcerated in January over coup charges. Some other suspects in the case applauded as Başbuğ entered the courtroom on Friday.
Speaking to reporters about Özkök’s testimony, the chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu expressed his distrust about the rightfulness of the Sledgehammer case, saying, “The prosecutors’ indictments have collapsed with Özkök’s remarks. It is more clear now that those people [Sledgehammer suspects] are being kept in jail for nothing.” The CHP leader, however, did not elaborate why he thought Özkök’s remarks had refuted the indictments.
Görmüş: Özkök should have checked coup plans
Journalist Görmüş said ex-military chief Özkök should have ordered an investigation into the coup plots, Ayışığı and Yakamoz, mentioned in Örnek’s diary when he learned about their existence.
Speaking to a private broadcaster, Görmüş said he was not persuaded by Özkök’s statement that he did not take legal action about the coup plots because he was unsure of their authenticity. “You cannot know if a coup document is authentic or not just by looking at it. There were many things to show that the coup plots were authentic. They included notions peculiar to the military and other stuff. Now I am asking [Özkök] if he should not have ordered an investigation into the documents when he learned about them,” Görmüş stated.