The Ergenekon coup plot trial, the first serious judicial inquiry of Turkey’s long tradition of military coups and ‘deep state’ activities, reached an end on August 5th, 2013. Istanbul’s 13th High Criminal Court reached its final verdict (whose short form consisted of 503 pages) following over 600 hearings, about a total of 22 indictments. The Court is due to publish its detailed ruling in upcoming months. The most important element in the Criminal Court’s verdict was its recognition of the Ergenekon criminal network as a “terrorist organization” and the sentencing of 193 defendants on the charge of “membership in a terrorist organization.” The Court ruled that an additional two defendants were “leaders of a terrorist organization” as 32 defendants were sentenced for “plotting to overthrow the government.” While 21 out of 275 defendants were acquitted of all charges, the Court postponed its verdict on four fugitives. Another three defendants have lost their lives over the course of hearings.
Consequently, the Court sentenced a total of 247 defendants, including former Chief of Military Staff Ret. Gen. İlker Başbuğ, on charges of plotting to overthrow the government, membership in a terrorist organization, possession of explosives, unlawfully acquiring personal information, and seizing confidential state documents.
The Supreme Court of Appeals is due to approve the Istanbul court’s verdict. While the defendants also have a constitutional right to apply to the European Court of Human Rights, the legal marathon is effectively over. Now let us take a look at the Ergenekon trial’s history and develop a more detailed understanding of this controversial court case. After all, the Ergenekon trial marks the beginning of a new era in Turkey’s political and legal history.
The Ergenekon coup plot trial, the first serious judicial inquiry of Turkey’s long tradition of military coups, recognized the existence of a criminal network
June 12th, 2007: A man by the name of Şevki Yiğit called the Gendarmerie headquarters in Trabzon Province to report that he discovered C4 explosives and grenades on the ceiling of his former rental apartment in Ümraniye, a neighborhood on Istanbul’s Asian coast. The Gendarmerie forwarded the report to the Istanbul Police Department and police units raided the apartment to find, as the caller claimed, 27 grenades in a chest. The police took Ali Yiğit, the apartment’s last known resident, and Mehmet Demirtaş, the apartment’s registered owner, into custody. The discovery marked the beginning of a series of investigations into the Ergenekon terrorist organization and subsequent judicial proceedings that spanned over the next six years.
Initially, public opinion focused on the grenades, as media outlets dubbed the ongoing investigation as the Ümraniye probe. Chief Prosecutor Zekeriya Öz, however, engaged in a deeper investigation into the discovery that eventually led to complex relationships, military coup plots, and action plans within Turkey’s deep state.
The prime suspect in the investigation was Retired Junior Officer Oktay Yıldırım who had brought the chest of grenades to the Ümraniye apartment over a year prior to its ultimate discovery. Şevki Yiğit, who saw the bombs while visiting his son’s Ali’s apartment in Istanbul and was dissatisfied with Ali’s explanations, informed the authorities.
Ali Yiğit’s interrogation at the Police headquarters revealed that Mehmet Demirtaş had links to Muzaffer Tekin, who was detained as part of the Council of State’s investigation and single-handedly blocked further judicial inquiry, and Oktay Yıldırım, whose personal computer contained a document titled Lobi (Lobby) –a document that became public seven months later and offered detailed accounts of the Ergenekon terrorist organization’s civilian connections. Police units found the same document with the title Ergenekon-Lobi on Muzaffer Tekin’s personal computer. This was the first instance in the investigation that the name “Ergenekon” came up.
The prosecutor’s office filed a written request with the Chief of Military Staff headquarters and asked the military command to clarify whether the hand grenades were property of the Armed Forces. The headquarters did not respond. The Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation that manufactured the grenades, however, determined that they matched the explosives used in a 2006 attack against the offices of Cumhuriyet daily newspaper that took place several months after the explosives were delivered to the Ümraniye apartment.
The prosecution located confidential information regarding various meetings at the Chief of Military Staff headquarters on a Compact Disc that belonged to Muzaffer Tekin. Tekin confessed to having duplicated the contents from Fikret Emek, a retired member of the Special Forces Command. A police raid at Emek’s Eskişehir residence discovered a second Ergenekon arsenal with long-range weapons, hand grenades, explosives, and bomb setups.
Over the course of the Ergenekon investigation, the police discovered a total of five such arsenals across the country.
Public Prosecutor Zekeriya Öz’s diligent work revealed deep state structures over a short period of time that several previous judicial inquiries had failed to identify. It would be no exaggeration to state that the Ergenekon investigation and trial steadily remained a highly controversial issue over the six-year period following the prosecutor’s initiating of the investigation. Before engaging in a more detailed discussion of the Ergenekon trial, however, let us take a brief tour of the deep state’s history and analyze the striking pattern of continuity between Turkey’s deep state operations.
Having received a mandate from President Abdullah Gül to investigate the Hrant Dink assassination, the State Monitoring Board (Devlet Denetleme Kurulu) published its final report in February 2012. Believing that it would contribute to readers’ understanding of the matter at hand, I would like to share one of my op-ed pieces from that period below. Here, I pointed to the day when Turkey’s deep state became institutionalized:
“In January 1913, the Gladio organization led by Enver Pasha and Talat Pasha invaded the Sublime Porte to perpetrate a military coup d’état. This was when a Unionist assassin by the name of Yakub Cemil shot Minister of War Nazim Pasha between the eyes and Enver Pasha put a gun to Grand Vizier Mehmed Kamil Pasha’s head. It was shortly after this military coup, on February 13th, 1913, that the military junta circumvented the Parliament of Representatives to institute a Temporary Law on the Trying of Civil Servants” that granted government officials immunity before the law.
According to the State Monitoring Board, “the lack of restrictions resulted in lengthy investigations that often became subject to the statute of limitations” and that “legislation intended to protect civil servants harmed society’s sense of justice due to its practical implications.”
Thus the Board continued its striking observations:
“The Temporary Law remained in force for a total of 86 years between 1913 and 1999. The law remained in force even though the country transitioned from a constitutional monarchy into a republic and five constitutions, including the Ottoman Constitution, have been replaced. Meanwhile, legislators included the Temporary Law’s contents in Article 24 of the Law No. 657 on Civil Servants and even granted civil servants immunity before special tribunals such as military trials, jurists’ courts hearings, academic hearings among others. The regime of administrative reassurance that the Temporary Law established attained constitutional guarantees as Article 129 of the 1982 Constitution stipulated: “The opening of a criminal investigation regarding alleged offenses perpetrated by civil servants and orther public officials, legal exceptions notwithstanding, is conditional upon the permission of the administrative office designated by law.”
The ideological continuity between the 1913 military coup and the 1980 military coup is striking. Regimes changed, the military overthrew governments but the mentality remained the same.”1
And why would a political party be in such a hurry to institute a law of this nature as its first act after the military coup, amidst the dark days following Ottoman defeat in the Balkan War and right before the first World War? The new government elite clearly had serious plans in mind and sought immunity before the law.
Surely enough, the history of Turkey’s deep state networks represents a pattern of continuity and the aforementioned Temporary Law played a central role in constructing such an uninterrupted tradition. The governing elite utilized the state apparatus as a criminal instrument and, depending on the specific temporary circumstances, perpetrated criminal acts either directly and openly or through the proxy of criminal gangs and organizations. When Mustafa Kemal Pasha founded the Republic, he inherited the Unionists’ “experienced” bureaucratic class and granted them control over all strategic government institutions and agencies, including the Armed Forces and the Intelligence Agency to this group of bureaucrats. There is little question that the Unionist bureaucracy’s ability to acquire control of these institutions reflected the new regime’s ideological proximity to its predecessors as opposed to a shortage of qualified government employees at the new regime’s disposal.
Mustafa Kemal, much like the Unionist triumvirate of Enver Pasha, Talat Pasha, and Cemal Pasha, believed in a form of government whereby the country would consist of “Turks.” Unlike his predecessors, however, the Republic’s mastermind had access to necessary means to make his destructive dream come true.
Against this historic background, it would be a gross misunderstanding and mischaracterization to describe the Ergenekon terrorist network as a group of government officials that abused their official powers and their civilian collaborators. Quite the contrary, Ergenekon fundamentally represents a preferred type of government and as such a manifestation of the old state itself. This point is of particular importance.
The ideological continuity between the 1913 military coup and the 1980 military coup is striking. Regimes changed, the military overthrew governments but the mentality remained the same
In the most general sense of the word, there are two fundamental types of government: (1) Governments that regard themselves to be servants of the people and (2) governments that regard the people to be the servants of the state. Mustafa Kemal Pasha, no doubt, opted for the latter approach. The Republic’s founder was aware that Turkey’s society in the 1920s did not correspond to his dream society and therefore represented a major obstacle impeding his objectives. For this reason, Turkey’s founding ideology, Kemalism, was geared toward designing a new model citizen and transforming the country’s existing human stock. Although the Kemalist ideology successfully disguised itself as a form of secular modernization project, it was really a genuine form of totalitarianism.
Having been established in accordance with the Unionist elite’s vision for the country, Turkey’s Armed Forces served as the Kemalist ideology’s self-proclaimed watchdog during the Republican period. The military believed themselves to be the masters of the nation and effectively maintained their superior position vis-à-vis civilians even after the country bowed to post-war international pressures and transitioned into a multi-party parliamentary democracy in 1946. Although the new regime did not create any problems as long as the Republican People’s Party could remain in power, Adnan Menderes’ Democratic Party won a landslide victory in the 1950 parliamentary elections and implemented populist policies to challenge the status quo at the heart of the Republic. During the single-party period between 1923 and 1946, the deep state network easily orchestrated efforts to pillage the country’s non-Muslim minorities, Kurds, the Alevi community, and its devout Muslim population through the proxy of the Republican People’s Party. The newly-elected Democratic Party leadership, on the other hand, did not agree to this role. In response, the Ergenekon network with its deep-running roots created a hospitable environment for a military overthrow of the democratically elected government, perpetrated a military coup on May 27th, 1960, and sentenced several Democratic Party leaders including ousted Prime Minister Adnan Menderes to capital punishment following a show trial off the coast of Istanbul.
From 1960 onwards, Turkey’s Armed Forces overthrew and/or determined the policies of democratically elected governments, approximately once every ten years to maintain control over the people’s demands. As such, the Ergenekon network played its party in an ever-repetitive scenario to perpetrate military coups and interventions in 1971, 1980, and 1997.
Each time the Armed Forces decided to overthrow democratically elected civilian governments, strange developments began to take place as the mainstream media embarked on a public campaign to delegitimize the country’s sitting government and acts of violence shocked and appalled the general population. Depending on the sitting government’s political leanings and platform, the deep state either stirred public fears regarding an imminent risk to Turkey’s territorial integrity or persuaded the people that a resurgence of radical Islam would jeopardized the principle of secular government to discredit the political leadership. Prior to the military coup on September 12th, 1980, street violence erupted between Leftist groups and right-wing paramilitaries. Bloodshed stopped as soon as the Armed Forces stepped in to ‘save’ democracy. On April 17th, 1993, President Turgut Özal, the most prominent politician of the post-1980 period, died in office. The public prosecutor who investigated Özal’s death found serious evidence suggesting that the former President had been poisoned. Similarly, an unholy alliance of the military, big business, universities, and the high judiciary embarked on a public campaign to discredit Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan to pave the way for a ‘postmodern’ military coup on February 28th, 1997. Again in 2002, Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit became the target of an anti-government conspiracy that involved a number of Ergenekon defendants that sought to oust the country’s chief executive citing the social-democratic leader’s diminishing health.
Although Özal, Erbakan, and Ecevit came from rather different political backgrounds, they shared a strong determination to develop a peaceful resolution to the country’s long-standing Kurdish question, a conflict that served as a great excuse to keep the military tutelage regime intact and to turn a blind eye to deep state operations in Turkey’s Southeast and elsewhere. Turkey’s deep state network targeted another democratically elected civilian leader known for his commitment to tackle the Kurdish question for once and all, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in late May 2013 through the Gezi Park demonstrations. Although the mass demonstrations initially expressed enviromentalist concerns regarding an urban redevelopment project at Istanbul’s Taksim Square, various groups sought to benefit from the protests’ democratic legitimacy to initiate a widely publicized campaign to delegitimize the country’s political leadership. Spokespeople for the anti-government campaign propogated that Erdoğan had become a dictator who brought the country to the verge of fascism while certain media outlets openly suggested that there must be alternative ‘remedies’ to the ballot box.
This time around, however, the general population approached the anti-government demonstrations with caution –mainly due to a series of new information that the Ergenekon trial and other coup plot investigations revealed to the public. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Erdoğan correctly interpreted the nature of the mass demonstrations and rapidly gained control over the situation at hand. Erdoğan also succeeded in averting several decisive efforts to create divisions within the Justice and Development Party ranks. The general population accurately understood that the anti-government demonstrations sought to derail the government-initiated Kurdish Peace Process and to challenge the government’s democratization efforts. As such, public opinion carefully distinguished between the Gezi Park demonstrations’ legitimate propositions and an array of anti-government messages emanating from certain groups among protestors.
There is little question that a wounded Ergenekon network would have sought more active and widespread participation in anti-government demonstrations had it not been for the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials. It was thanks to the judiciary’s commitment and resolve to shed light on the inner workings of Turkey’s deep state networks, coupled with the Justice and Development Party government’s decade-long struggle against the military tutelage regime, that the general population developed a better understanding of the Ergenekon network’s tactical repertoire.
Clearly, the Ergenekon network was no ordinary criminal organization but a concise strategy that the country’s old elite class formulated to cling onto power. It was therefore that the coup plot trials had to proceed under heavy criticism from certain groups who argued that the Justice and Development Party government had ‘forged’ a criminal case to eliminate its opponents. The court cases, they claimed, were politically motivated. And to no avail, they propogated that perfectly reputable secular opinion leaders of the Republic faced trial over fabricated evidence and empty accusations.
Provided that the vast majority of Turkey’s population would agree that perhaps the greatest challenge to the country’s democracy has been (and continues to be) the lack of a strong parliamentary opposition, the fundemental line of reasoning against the Ergenekon trials remains out of touch with political realities. Given the situation at hand, the Justice and Development Party government did not need to ‘forge’ a criminal case of such magnitude. The Republican People’s Party, ever distanced from the general population and close to the tutelage regime, stood no realistic chance in free and fair elections. Nonetheless, the main opposition party pioneered efforts against the Ergenekon trials and proceeded to have two Ergenekon defendants, Mustafa Balbay and Mehmet Haberal, elected to Parliament in the 2011 general elections. In later months, Republican People’s Party MPs clashed with police forces as they attempted to break into the courtroom at the Silivri Correctional Facility to interfere with proceedings. Kemalist hardliners, neo-nationalists and other groups whose sole hope to attain political power depended on military coups and who therefore regarded devout Muslim and other discriminated groups as unequal citizens, targeted the court precisely due to the Ergenekon trial’s historic significance.
The Ergenekon fundamentally represents a preferred type of government and as such a manifestation of the old state itself
Despite widespread domestic criticism from aforementioned groups, Ergenekon defendants’ appeals to the European Court of Human Rights proved inconclusive. In an earlier ruling, the ECtHR had concluded that perpetrators of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink’s January 2007 assassination –to which a document discovered as party of the Cage investigation referred to as ‘the operation’- were members of “a covert organization claiming to safeguard the secular order and Turkey’s national interests.” The Court aptly characterized the network as ultra-nationalist. In a 2010 ruling, the ECtHR referred to the organization as Ergenekon for the first time.
Muzaffer Tekin was the first Ergenekon defendant to submit an application to the European Court of Human Rights. Shortly afterward, a number of Tekin’s fellow defendants including Tuncay Özkan, Gazi Güder, Lieutenant Mehmet Ali Çelebi and Colonel Levent Göktaş as well as Oda TV defendants Şükrü Doğan Yurdakul, Barış Terkoğlu, Sait Çakır and Coşkun Musluk followed suit. By the end of 2011, the Court had received a total of 29 applications with regard to the Ergenekon trials.2
The applicants presented the same arguments to the European Court of Human Rights that the Republican People’s Party leadership and the mainstream media repeated to their domestic audience day after day: The evidence was inadmissible. The proceedings were unjust. There arrest warrants were procedurally problematic. The Ergenekon trial was but an effort by the Justice and Development Party government to take revenge against its opponents. The prosecution and the court had overstepped their legal authority and violated the law. The reasons for defendants’ pre-trial detention, they argued, remained unknown.
Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights processed almost thirty applications and ruled that it encountered no violation of the European Convention on Human Rights during its examination of the Ergenekon investigations, the arrest warrants, and the judicial proceedings. Furthermore, the ECtHR dismissed a number of Ergenekon-related applications during its pre-evaluation of defendants’ submissions. It was not surprising, of course, that the mainstream media failed to show a lot of interest in the ECtHR’s above mentioned findings. Similar applications regarding the Sledgehammer trial also resulted in the Court’s failure to identify any violations of the ECHR. As such, the Court effectively asserted that the evidence was indeed admissible and arrest warrants reflected defendants’ flight risk. The ECtHR rulings referred to the Ergenekon network as “a criminal organization working to overthrow the government.”
Another curious development was that politically motivated assassinations and suspicious mass actions ceased as soon as the Ergenekon investigation began on June 12th, 2007. Once part of Turkey’s daily routine, politically motivated violence had stopped almost overnight.
Let us now recall the deep state’s activities since the Justice and Development Party’s rise to power in the 2002 parliamentary elections that would later come under scrutiny as part of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer coup plot trials. In 2003 and 2004, the deep state network attempted to bring in motion a series of anti-government conspiracies, including Sledgehammer (Balyoz), Blonde Girl (Sarıkız), Sea Sparkle (Yakamoz), and Glove (Eldiven). Retired General Hilmi Özkök, an opponent of military interference in civilian politics who served as Chief of Military Staff during this period, successfully resisted strong pressures for the military to intervene. Özkök’s anti-interventionist position caused quite a stir among proponents of the government’s ousting from power and became the target of a widespread smearing campaign. The Kemalist hardliner Cumhuriyet daily newspaper effectively provoked lower ranks of the military by famously claiming that “the young officers are uneasy” and portraying Özkök as a traitor who collaborated with the Justice and Development Party government.
Unable to orchestrate a military coup, the deep state network initiated a new plan to sever the civilian government’s ties with the international community and sabotage the country’s European Union membership bid. As such, deep state operatives sought to alarm the international community by targeting members of Turkey’s non-Muslim communities and striving to raise questions about the future of secularism in the country. The first of a series of politically motivated assassinations took place in 2006, when a juvenile hitman claimed the life of Antonio Santoro, a Roman Catholic priest, in Trabzon. The deep state network perpetrated another attack only months later against the Council of State headquarters in Ankara. Alparslan Arslan, a seeming radical Islamist, murdered Judge Mustafa Özbilgin and declared that he attacked the Council of State to protest its 2006 ruling that upheld the headscarf ban at public institutions. On January 19th, 2007, another juvenile hitman assassinated Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink in front of the Istanbul offices of Agos, the Armenian community’s leading periodical. The rampage claimed new victims in May 2007, when a group of young men murdered three Christians who worked for Zirve Publishing House in Malatya. The mainstream media portrayed the attacks as a sign that the devout Muslim government’s rise to power in the country effectively triggered a resurgence of radical Islam.
Over the course of 2004 and 2005, certain public figures that would later face trial as part of the Ergenekon case pioneered efforts to warn the general population about the threat of Christian missionaries in Turkey. Meanwhile, the Armed Forces overstepped their constitutional mandate to create propaganda websites about missionary activities in the country –an operation that the Internet Memorandum trial established to be a criminal offense. At the time, Ergenekon operatives enjoyed almost total control over the media: Every night on prime time, television channels propogated that the country was faced with a serious missionary invasion and that the Justice and Development Party government failed to respond against this imminent threat due to its commitment to Turkey’s European Union membership bid. According to some commentators, Christian missionaries turned young Turks against their motherland in exchange for material gain. Their purpose, commentators stipulated, was to jeopardize the country’s territorial integrity. A professor of theology went as far as to provoke the general population by stating on live television that “the people will know what to do [about Christian missionaries] if the government fails to take necessary precautions.”
During this time period, people like attorney Kemal Kerinçsiz, whom the Istanbul 13th High Criminal Court recently found guilty on the count of “membership in a terrorist organization” and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, sued liberal public intellectuals such as journalist Hrant Dink and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk on superficial grounds. Without exception, public prosecutors took the complaints to trial. On court dates, violent mobs gathered outside courthouses to verbally abuse defendants and even physically assault them in courtrooms. Ergenekon defendants Muzaffer Tekin, Sevgi Erenerol, Levent Temiz, Kemal Kerinçsiz and, of course, Retired General Veli Küçük emerged as puppeteers in these real-life shows.
The almighty General Küçük’s arrest in January 2008 marked a turning point for the entire Ergenekon investigation. Following the general’s arrest, a number of four-star generals including Şener Eruygur, Hurşit Tolon and Özden Örnek, all masterminds behind anti-government conspiracies between 2002 and 2004, became the first high-ranking military commanders to face justice in Turkey’s history. The court reopened the Council of State investigation as part of the Ergenekon proceedings and established that the Ergenekon terrorist organization perpetrated the fatal attack. Almost all aforementioned figures received severe prison sentences as a result of the Ergenekon trial.
Provided that the Italian courts need almost ten years to conclude the Clean Hands (Mani pulite) investigation and trial in the 1990s and questioned a total of 7,000 people including the country’s President, we must recognize that the Istanbul 13th High Criminal Court reached its final verdict in the Ergenekon case in a record period of time after scheduling hearings almost every day. Keeping in mind that the public prosecutors and judges involved in the Ergenekon trial came under heavy attack from the trial’s opponents and that the proceedings faced strong resistance from the Armed Forces as well as members of the civilian bureaucracy, the trial’s conclusion in under six years represents a remarkable success.
The Ergenekon network was no ordinary criminal organization but a concise strategy that the country’s old elite class formulated to cling onto power
There is no question that not all aspects of the deep state’s activities fell within the scope of the Ergenekon trial. Even the Hrant Dink assassination case, among others, would have proved too challenging and too comprehensive for the court. However, the Ergenekon trial’s successful conclusion will no doubt encourage future judicial inquiries into a number of politically motivated assassinations and anti-government conspiracies including, of course, the Hrant Dink ruling currently pending that the Supreme Court of Appeals upholds the decision. Provided that the Justice and Development Party government’s indisputable anti-military coup stance facilitated the Ergenekon trial as well as other coup plot cases, future inquiries will without a doubt require commitment from the country’s political leadership.
The Ergenekon coup plot trial with its extremely broad scope has been a particularly high-profile case from its onset. In addition to various ideological challenges, the prosecution and the judges had to work within an obsolete judicial system where the old state’s ideology continues to exert vast influence. Furthermore, many of the 275 defendants were either serving military and civilian bureaucrats or seemingly retired officials of continue to hold a great deal of influence. The case represented a transformation of what old officials believed to be their duty into criminal acts thanks to Turkey’s democratization and reforms. Prior to the Ergenekon coup plot trial, perpetrators of military coups had never faced justice and instead received widespread praise. This sharp contrast was no doubt a leading factor behind strong criticism of the court case at hand.
There is little doubt that the prosecution and the judges, whose predecessors either lost their jobs or ended up dead, could not have successfully held the old elite accountable before the law without strong support from the Justice and Development Party government. A 2010 constitutional referendum that eliminated remnants of Turkey’s tutelage system from the judicial system played a rather important role in these proceedings. Democratic reforms effectively broke the cycle of co-optation and forged a more pluralistic judiciary. As such, new legislative steps removed various obstacles so the judiciary’s could effectively function independently.
In conclusion, the Ergenekon coup plot trial triggered a series of developments that paved the way for a new Turkey. Without doubt, the military’s loss of control over civilian politics as well as the near-total elimination of the risk of future military coups owes a great deal to this historic court case. Coming to terms with the Ergenekon criminal network represented Turkey’s transition from the laws of rulers to the rule of law. It was also the Ergenekon case that initiated what I believe to be a much-needed process of addressing historic grievances in the country.
- “DDK Raporu ve Dokunulmaz Devlet,” Markar Esayan, Taraf Daily Newspaper, 23.02.2012.
- Kafası Karışanlar İçin Ergenekon, Hanım Büşra Erdal, Ufuk Yayınevi, Temmuz 2013, pp. 259-270.