Turkey: Highly Anticipated Trial of Ultra-Nationalist Group Starts with a Stop
The trial is being held at the Silivri courthouse in Tekirdag, about 40 miles outside of Istanbul. According to the massive indictment of almost 2,500 pages, the defendants -- including retired senior military officers and prominent secularists -- are charged with a variety of crimes, including membership in "an armed terrorist group" that attempted to overthrow the government by "inciting people to rebel against the Republic of Turkey." The alleged conspirators all belonged to a group, dubbed Ergenekon, which sought to promote a nationalist-secularist political agenda. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The court adjourned the trial until October 23 to work out the logistics of accommodating such a large number of defendants, along with their attorneys, and cope with the swelling desire of the press and general public to observe the proceedings.
The Ergenekon case came to light last June, when 27 hand grenades matching those used in a 2006 attack on the Istanbul office of the independent daily newspaper Cumhuriyet were discovered in the home of a retired Turkish army officer. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The subsequent investigation led to the detention and interrogation of scores of journalists, military officers, politicians, alleged gang leaders, and security officials.
Numerous nationalist groups attended a vocal, but peaceful demonstration against what many of them described as a politically motivated trial. Many of the protesters accused the governing Justice and Development Party [AKP] of wanting to take Turkey in a dangerous direction, adding that the party was attempting to use the justice system to neutralize political opponents. "A very small few may be guilty, but these people [the defendants] are nationalists who are proud of their country and their flag; that is why the AKP are prosecuting them," said one protester, who refused to give his name.
Ergenekon is accused of setting up subversive groups within the intelligence, police, and armed services and attempting to sow unrest through assassinations, strikes and civil disorder. Had the first part of their master plan succeeded, the alleged conspirators supposedly intended to use domestic instability as justification for a military coup that would have been attempted at some point in 2009, according to the indictment. The word "Ergenekon" refers to an ancient Turkish story from pre-Islamic times that details Turkey's victory against enemies under the guidance of a gray wolf.
Although the case focuses attention on the future aims of the alleged conspirators, reported members of Ergenekon have been implicated in acts of political violence dating back more than 15 years. The group, for example, is accused of being behind a bomb attack on the Armenian genocide memorial in Paris in 1984, and carrying out the 2006 killing of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Ergenekon also supposedly played a role in the recent murders of a judge, an Italian priest, and three Christian missionaries. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The group also allegedly plotted to bomb the Istanbul hub of Taksim Square, and murder Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Prosecutors have faced scrutiny over both their motivation and their methods. Criticism has centered on the way in which the case has been structured. Pro-AKP officials and experts insist the trial will serve to strengthen democratic institutions in Turkey.
But other observers note that the arrests in the Ergenekon case appeared to be well timed -- occurring just as a trial was getting underway that was to consider a ban on the AKP. Turkey's Constitutional Court ended up ruling that the AKP's actions did not merit a ban. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Once the Ergenekon trial gets underway in earnest, experts say the process could last months, a few even predict that it could last for up to two years.
Jonathan Lewis is a freelance Irish reporter and photographer based in Istanbul.
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