Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 137

A suspect in the Ergenekon operation

Turkish prosecutors investigating the Ergenekon network finally submitted their indictment to the court on July 14. The indictment was presented a year after the network was first discovered and many influential figures including retired army generals, journalists, businessmen and academics were arrested or interrogated as part of the investigation. This delay has caused much speculation that the investigation was being used by the government to silence the opposition. The substance of the indictment is also a matter of contention, because in the wake of different waves of arrests, the case has evolved from the investigation of a criminal organization into a probe of a network connected to the “deep state” with extensions in various sectors of civil society seeking to change the government, by staging a coup if necessary.

Istanbul’s high criminal court will examine the 2,500-page indictment and decide whether to accept it and open the case, reject it, or return it to the prosecutors for amendments. This process may take up to two weeks, and the court is currently working hard to ensure that its procedure is compatible with the penal code (CNNTurk, July 16). In the meantime, the indictment cannot be made public; but in an unusual press briefing, Istanbul’s chief prosecutor summarized the main charges. There are a total of 86 suspects, of whom 48 are in custody and 38 temporarily released. It is not clear which ones will be tried for which crimes. Sections of the indictment have been leaked to the press as well. The prosecutors accuse the suspects of various crimes including “membership in an armed terrorist group”; “attempting to destroy the government of the Republic of Turkey or block it from performing its duties”; and “being in possession of explosives, using them, and inciting others to commit these crimes.” More importantly, the prosecutors have established connections between the Ergenekon network and the 2006 Council of State shooting and an attack at the daily Cumhuriyet’s Istanbul office. Moreover, the indictment charges the suspects with inciting several unresolved murders in Turkey’s recent past, which may lead to the reopening of some closed cases (CNNTurk, July 14).

The indictment produced mixed reactions from the Turkish political community and the Turkish media. For some reformists it was a step toward further democratizing the country, while others found that it did not live up to expectations. The opposition, in contrast, believes that the case is highly politicized.

The core of the indictment is its labeling of Ergenekon as a “terrorist network.” It does not include charges related to staging a coup, and therefore the notorious “coup diaries” are not among the evidence presented. Treating Ergenekon as a terrorist organization rather than as a “junta” has enabled critics to argue that the controversy created previously around the investigation was baseless and that the pro-government media overstated its case by connecting many unrelated charges to Ergenekon (Cuneyt Ulsever, Hurriyet, July 15-16). Reformists see this move as deliberate insofar as the suspects will be tried by the civilian penal system and a transfer to the military courts has been prevented. In the notorious Semdinli case, according to the reformists, the transfer of the file to the military tribunal hijacked the entire case and thwarted the investigation into the involvement of military officers in subversive activities (Samil Tayyar, Star, July 16). For the reformists, the very act of bringing former military officers to trial under the civilian penal code, together with the cooperation of the military, is a revolutionary step for the Turkish political system (Today’s Zaman, July 16).

Avoiding mentioning a “coup” also results from the fact that the suspects taken into custody in the wave of arrests in early July are not included in the indictment. Although initially there were expectations that a complementary indictment for them would be submitted in the following days, it was later announced that there would be a separate indictment for them that might be combined with the original one in the course of trial (Milliyet, July 16, 17).

Because some former and possibly active military personnel and military-related information were involved, there was speculation at first that the military had initiated a separate investigation, but those claims were denied by the military prosecutor (Hurriyet, July 17). Aksam claimed, however, that the Air Force’s prosecutor was investigating an illegal formation in Turkish Armed Forces and whether it was tied to Ergenekon. This formation was allegedly uncovered by a National Intelligence Service report that was handed over to the military authorities by the civilian prosecutors in charge of the Ergenekon case (Aksam, July 18). An article in Taraf, however, argued that even if the case involved active officers, it would have to be heard by civilian courts (Taraf, July 15).

For reformists, the case is a revolutionary step for Turkish democracy. The liberal-left Taraf has already published documents exposing a new illegal organization named Lobi and revealing its plans of operation; and it has implied that the Ergenekon investigation might be deepened further through new waves of arrests (Taraf, July 16). For Sabah, the case is a turning point for democratization and demilitarization, because it will end a tradition of coups dating back to the late Ottoman period (Soli Ozel, Sabah, July 17). For Yeni Safak, it may uncover the Turkish Gladio and normalize Turkey (Fehmi Koru, Yeni Safak, July 17). The liberal-left Radikal sees the possibility of reopening unresolved murder cases as a light of hope for the relatives of victims and for Turkish democracy (Radikal, July 16). In Today’s Zaman Kerim Balci views Ergenekon as “the Copernican revolution of Turkish republican history.… Starting from the forced Armenian emigration, I propose [that] each and every illegal event in our recent past be reopened and re-judged” (Today’s Zaman, July 17). Some observers have even speculated that Ergenekon is tied to the PKK (Bugun, July 17).

Skeptics caution against those exaggerated claims and maintain that lumping together any and all past cases and blaming them on Ergenekon and tying all leftist, rightist, Islamist, and nationalist groups to Ergenekon could inflate expectations. It could, moreover, turn into a defamation campaign (Fikret Bila, Milliyet, July 17). The opposition Birgun (July 17) responded to these claims with the headline “Ergenekon: The new detergent!”

Whether it is a decisive moment in Turkish politics or a feint used to suppress the opposition and deflect attention away from the government’s legal problems will be seen as the case progresses. The Ergenekon case has in any event already shaped public opinion: First, the leaked information, whether true or false, has created a climate in which the majority of people believe that the “deep state” seeks to remove the ruling AKP from power through whatever means. Second, it has brought the judicial system’s credibility into question. Taken together with the closure case and the divisions created in the country, no matter what the ruling on Ergenekon will be, at least some segments of society will question it.