The lessons of the ’Sledgehammer’ verdict

On Friday a civilian court sentenced 330 military officers, including former top »»

On Friday a civilian court sentenced 330 military officers, including former top commanders, to prison terms of up to 20 years following a trial that took nearly two years.

The officers were accused of planning a coup against the elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) government under the cover of a military seminar that took place in March 2003 at army headquarters in İstanbul. The verdict does not, however, mean the end of the judicial process. It will certainly be appealed against at the Court of Cassation, and perhaps eventually at the Constitutional Court in Ankara and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

What are the lessons to be drawn from the case known as Sledgehammer? I have not had any doubts about the legitimacy of the prosecutors' case. I belong to a generation in Turkey that has witnessed not only military coups that overthrew the elected governments in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, but also many coup attempts and coup threats throughout those decades. No one can convince me or the vast majority in the country that the case has been fabricated by the prosecutors, as claimed by defendants, since there is plenty of evidence that supports it. I also believe that the case will contribute towards putting an end to the age of military interventions in Turkey, which have hampered the consolidation of democracy here.

I am not insensitive towards the grief shared by the families of the defendants, particularly those defendants who sincerely believe that they were unfairly tried and sentenced. There is no doubt, however, that had the plotted coup materialized, it would have led to grave sufferings by millions of citizens similar to those experienced following the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup.

The above constitute only one side of the coin. But there is also another side. The defense lawyers have claimed that evidence in favor of the defendants was not considered in the indictment, important witnesses were not called to court and that the court did not fully respect the defendants' rights. I believe that the appeals process, which may even extend to the court in Strasbourg, will provide ample opportunities for the correction of possible injustices that occurred in the trial.

The fact that even officers beyond the 50 who participated in the seminar, including a few who were not even in the country at the time, were convicted and that the sentences were in the higher limits may be the main issues that will be considered by the higher courts. In short, whether the officers who were not directly involved with the coup plot should also be incriminated, and whether the sentences meted out was too high are questions that are likely to be addressed in the appeals process. What Gen. Hilmi Özkök, the chief of General Staff at the time of the seminar, who is believed to have helped prevent various coup plots from materializing, said about the sentences according to the Milliyet daily is highly significant: “There is no place for revenge in the law. Judicial results have a deterrent character. There are lessons to be drawn for all. All will draw lessons that both the world and Turkey has changed. Lessons also will be drawn concerning the conduct of the judicial process.”

There is no doubt that at least a majority of the defendants in this case believe that they have not committed any crime but simply acted in accordance with the Kemalist ideology they were inculcated with in military schools and in line with the duty of “defending the republic” which was assigned by the Constitution and laws. Their widespread reaction over the sentences received surely has to do with this. It cannot, unfortunately, be argued that they are entirely mistaken.

Unless the principles and values which are inculcated in military schools and inscribed in the constitution and the laws of the country inspire and require full respect for the rule of elected governments, the “substructure” of the political role of the military in Turkey will remain in place. The constitution and laws drawn up by the military in the wake of the 1980 coup are, however, not entirely but mostly still in force. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) remains an entirely opaque institution. We have no idea if the education in military schools is in line with the requirements of a democratic society. Yes there is a widespread impression that the majority of officers have increasingly come to realize that the political role assigned to the military is not only corroding the credibility of the TSK, but obstructing it from properly performing its professional duties. This is probably (and hopefully) the main reason why the coup attempts against the AKP failed.

Objective civilian control of the military is surely an absolute precondition for democracy. For democracy to be consolidated, it is, however, also necessary that elected governments fully respect not only the individual rights of citizens but also the rights of all ethnic and religious minorities.



Columnist: ŞAHİN ALPAY