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ANALYSIS: Turkey's former generals walk free on ‘coup’ verdict

‘Sledgehammer’ court finding calls for prosecution of those who plotted against the military
Some of the 236 former Turkish military personnel acquitted last week in the Sledgehammer case (MEE/@MediascopeTR)

ISTANBUL - A court in Turkey acquitted 236 former military personnel in the infamous Sledgehammer (Balyoz) case last week. Charged with making preparations to topple the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government as early as 2003, some of the former top military personnel of the Turkish Armed Forces were sentenced in 2012.

The "coup plan" was discovered in a briefcase that was presented by anonymous individuals to Turkish daily Taraf newspaper in 2010. The briefcase contained plans to stir chaos in Turkey to justify a military coup by bombing mosques and accusing Greece over shooting down a Turkish plane over the Aegean Sea.

A total of 365 suspects were found guilty in 2012, mostly on the basis of the documents in the briefcase. The defendants appealed against the decision and the Turkish Constitutional Court concluded that the lower court "violated their right to a fair trial" and released them in June 2014 for a retrial.

Flawed evidence

For many observers, the entire detention and hearing process was controversial. The case was quickly linked to debates on the role of the armed forces as "self-appointed guardians of the secular system" and was constantly mentioned alongside another high-profile coup plan, the Ergenekon case.

Referring to the mythical Central Asian valley Ergenekon in connection with Turkish nationalist sentiment, the offenders allegedly formed a clandestine organisation and purportedly operated with the aim of eventually toppling the AKP government.

Back in 2008, the prime minister of the day, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, presented himself as the "nation's prosecutor" and embraced the courts' efforts to find and try those who unlawfully acted against the government.

However, since the beginning of the Sledgehammer trials, the evidence that was presented to the court was deemed to be flawed and "fabricated" in the hands of some shadowy figures within the judiciary.

No one knew who the shadowy figures would be, but speculation pointed out links to the Gulenists in the legal system, referring to the followers of the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in self-exile in the US since 1999.

Soon after the beginning of the hearings with the "evidence" presented through the Taraf newspaper, Dani Rodrik and Pinar Dogan, both professors at Harvard University, launched an initiative to discover the genuineness of the documents. Pinar Dogan is the daughter and Dani Rodrik is the son-in-law of the Sledgehammer convict Cetin Dogan, who was the commander of the First Army between 2001-2003.

"The prosecution asserted that the coup was planned in 2003, citing unsigned documents on compact discs it claims were produced by the defendants at the time. However, even though the last-saved dates on these documents appear as 2002-2003, they were found to contain references to fonts and other attributes that were first introduced with Microsoft Office 2007. Hence the documents could not have been created before mid-2006, when the software was released. The handwriting on the CDs was similarly found to be forged," Dani Rodrik wrote in 2012.

The Turkish court rejected the claims of forged evidence and the case was not dismissed as the defendants expected. It took a few more years for the Turkish courts to discover the anachronism in the evidence.

Changing priorities

The release of former officers in June 2014 came amid the unfolding of the full-fledged conflict between the AKP government and Gulenists. In the aftermath of the 17-25 December 2013 corruption probe, former allies have come to be at odds at every corner of the political and bureaucratic space.

Speaking at the War Colleges Command on 20 March, Erdogan, by now president, said the country and he himself had been deceived and misled. "We were all victims of a coup attempt by a structure that was organised within state institutions, with strong media support, which tried to seize the country," Erdogan said addressing to the cadets.

"The documents that were presented to us back then turned out to be fake and twisted with false information, but out of our respect to the judicial process, we could not do anything about it."

According to Mehmet Selim Yavuz, a lawyer and son of a Sledgehammer convict Ahmet Yavuz, though the rights of the convicts to a fair trial were violated during the first round of hearings, the second trial process did not present anything new to the court.

"The current picture is not different than it was three years ago, but the court adhered to the fabrication of evidence just now," Yavuz told the Middle East Eye. "In the previous round of trial, judges and prosecutors requested extra documents, such as expert reports, even though it was unnecessary to present [them]. These requests prolonged the judicial process."

However, according to some observers, the termination of the retrial and mass acquittal of all the convicts is an outcome of the current political environment in Turkey.

For Fevzi Bilgin, the president of the Washington DC based think-tank Rethink Institute, the verdict is in line with the AKP's present mantra. "This expediency [of the verdict] is not normal, of course. A case that has been going on for years was abruptly ended," Bilgin told MEE. "It is because of the changing political priorities."

AKP-Gulen row

The Sledgehammer case was a turning point in the relationship between the civilian governments and the military elite. Though now it seems that justice is served after many years of unfair trials and convictions, the top structure of the armed forces is completely different to what it was in the pre-trial period.

When the first round of detentions started in 2010, it was something new for the military forces, as never before  had former top generals been prosecuted by a civilian court for their "illicit activities".

In reaction to the treatment of their former fellow comrades, top commanders of four forces (army, navy, air force and gendarmerie) resigned en masse in 2011. Critics argued that this move represented the end of the first republic established in 1923 by the president Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) and the beginning of  the "second republic" led by the AKP.

In other words, the "tutelage regime" of the military elites over the civilian governments in Turkey for almost a century had come to an end. After the mass resignation, prime minister Erdogan appointed Necdet Ozel as the new chief of staff and the armed forces effectively ceased their activities beyond their duties.

Given the curbed influence of the armed forces on one hand, the question now is what will happen to those who fabricated the false evidence to prosecute former generals? Alongside the verdict last week, the court indicted those who had plotted against the ex-military personnel.

Alper Gormus, a former editor-in-chief of Nokta magazine, wonders if there will be a real effort to prosecute those who plotted against the acquitted generals. The Gormus-led Nokta magazine in 2007 published special coverage named "Coup Diaries", and had to cease its activities when a former general and Sledgehammer convict Ozden Ornek sued the magazine for slander and defamation. Gormus was not convicted.

"If no one makes any effort to unearth the plotters from now on, it would then mean that this [the Sledgehammer verdict] is nothing more than an extension of an anti-Gulenist alliance of two forces, namely the ancient state power [the military] and the new state power [the AKP]," Gormus recently wrote.

Gormus' remark is plausible, and it pretty much tells another story about the AKP's fight against the Gulenists. But for Bilgin, the government has another objective in mind: "Given the fact that the Gulen movement is effectively persecuted in every sphere and has lost its power, it [the verdict] is more of a capitulation of the AKP to [the] old-guards of military tutelage in order to stay in power and cover up high corruption."

On the day of the verdict, Nilgun Dogan, the wife of Cetin Dogan, told the press that those who had plotted against the generals should be prosecuted. "Throughout the hearings we expressed that this trial process is a plot against the armed forces. Neither the president [Erdogan], parliamentarians, nor the press listened to us," Dogan said on Tuesday.

"People saw us as coup plotters, and those who did not listen to us did so because it served their purposes."

Since the beginning of the infamous corruption probe, the AKP government seems to have excessively worked on curbing the influence of Gulenists at every level. For many observers, a nationwide witch-hunt is on the way, and for the AKP only the allegiances of the plotters have changed, whereas the idea of plotting against the government remains the same.

Yavuz believes that the AKP-Gulen row had a direct impact on the final Sledgehammer verdict. "The retrial decision and forefending Gulenist elements in the judiciary in the subsequent process could have only been possible due to the efforts of the AKP government," he argued.

"This [the verdict] in fact is a mere reflection of the AKP-Gulen fight on the Sledgehammer case in the post 17-25 December period," referring to allegations in late 2013 of a multi-billion dollar corruption and bribery scandal that claimed to implicate members of the AKP government at high levels. Efforts were made to discredit the prosecutors and policemen behind the investigations and many of those involved in the inquiries were removed.

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