Turkey: What Happens After the "Sledgehammer" Verdict?
Like so many other recent political and judicial moves in Turkey, the final verdict that was handed down the other day in the "Sledgehammer" case -- in which more than 300 active and retired military officers, among them some generals, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on charges of plotting to overthrow the government -- offers little resolution, only further deepening the political divide in the country.
To be sure, the 21-month case and the sentencing of the officers were history-making, the first time that members of Turkey's previously untouchable military found themselves on trial and then convicted for planning to do the kind of thing that their predecessors had done four times in the past. Needless to say, the final verdict makes it clear that the power equation in Turkey has changed for good and that the powerful military has been neutered as a political force. The military's rather tame response to the verdict, saying that it "shares the sorrow" of those were convicted and their family members, is a far cry from the more muscular kind of pronouncements the Turkish generals used to make when they weren't happy with things.
But little is clear about the case beyond that. As many observers have noted, the Sledgehammer trial -- which got its start after the Taraf newspaper received a few years back a suitcase full of cd's, audiotapes and documents that, among other things, contained what was alleged to be an outline for staging a coup -- was riddled with inconsistencies and questions about the evidence for the start. Documents supposedly written in 2003, for example, referred to organizations that only came into existence several years later and were written using Microsoft Word 2007 (for a good rundown on the case's inconsistencies, take a look at journalist Alexander Christie-Miller's superb blog post on the subject).
There may be reasonable explanations to some of the questions raised about the evidence of the case, but the trial itself offered little in the way of answers. In fact, as Harvard professor Dani Rodrik -- whose father-in-law, Cetin Dogan, was one of the officers on trial -- pointed out in the Washington Post last Friday:
In violation of both Turkish and international law, the court rejected all defense requests for independent authentication of the evidence, ignoring the numerous anachronisms and other indications of forgery. It refused to allow the defense to call key witnesses, including the former commander of the land forces whom the prosecution credited with preventing the coup even though he has publicly denied any knowledge of it. It violated attorney-client confidentiality by installing microphones on courtroom ceilings.
Rodrik, of course, is biased, but even supporters of the case and the effort to rein in the military's political power have suggested some questions remain about how the trial was conducted. While praising the verdict as a serious blow against Turkey's "coup culture," analyst and columnist Yavuz Baydar, writing the other day in Today's Zaman, says "question marks" remain about how the trial was conducted. Writes Baydar:
The judges may have made a major mistake by disallowing the presentation of some evidence, a key part of universal court procedures. The accusations of forgery of some documents in the trial must also be investigated and brought to a fair conclusion. This may lead the Supreme Court of Appeals to order a retrial.
What's also not clear in the wake of the Sledgehammer trial is just what are the plans of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government for the Turkish military, especially in in terms of much needed modernization and professionalization? Even without the trial, it was fairly obvious that numerous reforms and changes instituted by the AKP after it was first elected in 2002 were weakening the military's hold on Turkey's political system and putting it much more firmly under civilian control.
But as the continuing success of the of militant Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in inflicting high numbers of casualties on Turkish forces and a munitions blast earlier this month that shockingly killed 25 soldiers (many of them poorly trained conscripts) show, the Turkish military -- though large and powerful on paper -- is in urgent need of reform. In fact, the real danger for Turkey today is not a military that doesn't know its place, but rather one that all too frequently doesn't seem to know its left from right. At a time of increasing instability on Turkey's borders and a flaring up of the conflict with the PKK, getting the military's house in order is something that the AKP and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan can't afford to put off (although some critics suggest this is exactly what they are doing).