Turkey: Ergenekon Case Ends with Heavy Sentences and Big Questions Unanswered
After a lengthy five-year trial, a Turkish court today delivered its verdict in the now notorious “Ergenekon” case, in which several hundred were accused of taking part in a plot to overthrow the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But while the court may have made its decision, the case leaves behind many unanswered questions about the fairness of the trial and the sentences handed down, as well as about whether the proceedings were able to succeed in fulfilling one of the original promises of the Ergenekon case: to shed light on some of the dark chapters of Turkey’s recent history.
At the heart of the trial was the discovery in 2007 of a stash of hand grenades found hidden in the home of a retired military officer in Istanbul’s Umraniye neighborhood. From there, Ergenekon grew into a sprawling and sometimes bizarre case that involved 275 defendants, many of them pillars of Turkey’s secular establishment, and 23 different indictments, each more complex than the other. What kept it all together was the state’s contention that there existed a widespread ultranationalist plot to bring the government down, through a combination of destabilizing violent attacks, the spreading of anti-government propaganda and other means (one indictment suggested investigators had found evidence that some of the defendants had drawn up plans to manufacture and sell chemical and biological weapons, using the proceeds to bankroll their other activities).
The case was problematic from the start, a bewildering mix of solid evidence and outlandish claims and involving an outsized cast of now convicted characters that included both seriously dangerous and loathsome individuals as well as seriously cartoonish ones. Among those convicted today, for example, were Veli Kucuk (two consecutive life sentences) and Arif Dogan (47 years), two former high-ranking military officers who were instrumental in sowing terror throughout the predominantly-Kurdish southeast during the 1990’s and whose hands are most certainly covered in blood (although they were not really on trial for those crimes). At the same time, among those receiving heavy sentences were non-military figures like Ergun Poyraz (29 years), a crank author most famous for a series of “investigative” books that claimed to uncover Jewish heritage for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and several other AKP leaders and Sevgi Erenerol (life imprisonment), press officer of the Turkish Orthodox Church, a marginal rump religious group created by the Turkish state in the early days of the Republic as a nationalist and domestic answer to the established Eastern Orthodox church. In the middle of these two extremes, meanwhile, were a mixed bag of journalists, politicians and academics – most of whom received extremely heavy sentences – and even a recent Chief of Staff, Ilker Basbug, who was sentenced to life in prison for being a member of a “terrorist organization.”
When the Ergenekon trial started, it was billed as the “case of the century,” one which would shed light on the work of Turkey’s long-standing Deep State, a shadowy network of criminal and state elements believed to have been behind numerous unexplained violent events in the past. In the end, despite the voluminous indictments produced and the massive number of defendants in the dock, the trial did little to explain the mysteries of the past, let alone just what many of those on trial did to earn the severe sentences they were given. “This has become more of a political than a legal case,” Turkish commentator Cengiz Candar told the Financial Times. “It looks like settling scores against an old military authoritarianism by a new civilian authoritarianism.”
Rather then help Turkey move towards a better understanding of itself and its past, the Ergenekon case appears to have only reinforced the country’s already deep political divide. While AKP officials have urged everyone to respect the court’s ruling, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said today’s verdicts were “not legitimate from a legal, political or moral point of view.” Perhaps the trial’s failure on that front shouldn’t be surprising. On the most basic level, Turkey’s judiciary, which struggles with properly investigating and resolving individual cases, simply doesn’t have the capacity to handle a massive case of such complexity – one made up of “catch all” indictments, as one European Union official described it today – or the independence to render a decision that would be free of the taint of political influence. On a deeper level, courts and antagonistic legal proceedings like the Ergenekon trial are really not the right vehicles for bringing about truth and reconciliation. In that sense, the Ergenekon case was oversold from the start.
In 2009, veteran Turkey analyst Gareth Jenkins, one of the Ergenekon trial’s earliest critics, wrote what remains one of the best studies of the case. Although written several years back, Jenkins’ conclusion remains both timely and prescient. As he wrote:
The Ergenekon investigation is a product of its time. The impunity with which the prosecutors have arrested scores of prominent secularists, including many retired members of the military, would have been unthinkable prior to the AKP’s landslide election victory in July 2007. But, in addition to all its abuses and absurdities, it is also a wasted opportunity. There is evidence to suggest that, even if they were not members of a vast organization called Ergenekon, some of those detained were involved in some form of criminal activity. But they have now been lumped together with the majority of the accused who appear to be guilty of nothing more than holding strong secularist and ultranationalist views. Even if some of the latter occasionally descended into racism, holding racist views is not a crime in Turkey and it is not the reason they have been indicted. Given the size and nature of the Ergenekon case it is unlikely that any of the accused – whether the few who are guilty of criminal activity or the majority who are innocent – will receive justice.
From a broader perspective, the public debate triggered by the discovery of the crate of grenades in Ümraniye in June 2007 could have provided an opportunity for the establishment of an independent truth commission which could perhaps have enabled Turks – including both secular nationalists and Islamists – to come to terms with the realities of recent Turkish history. But, in the short-term, a more pressing concern is not the wasted opportunity for Turkey to confront its past but what the Ergenekon investigation might be saying about its future, and the disturbing questions it raises about the prospects for democracy and the rule of law in the country.
The end of the Ergenekon case certainly takes Turkey further away from the days of coup mongering, the sentences given sending out a chilling message to anyone who might even be thinking about somehow undermining the government. Still, despite the case’s conclusion, rather than truth and reconciliation, what Turkey has gotten out the Ergenekon trial is more murk and polarization. Rather than answers, the country has been left with questions.