The Turkish Parliament’s adoption of an amendment made during a late night debate on June 25 to the Code on Criminal Procedure (CMK), which has paved the way for the trial of military personnel in civil courts, marks an important step towards curbing military power in politics and in meeting one of the critical criterion set by the European Union in Turkey’s membership bid. The amendment allows the civil courts to prosecute military personnel in peace time for anti-government activities, threats to national security, constitutional violations and organized crime. The law also transfers the power to prosecute civilians in peace time for offenses currently under the military penal code. The opposition criticized the bill, saying it aims to influence ongoing probes into the alleged plots to discredit or topple the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government (Hurriyet, June 29.)
Ironically, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) as well as the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), raised their objections to the amendment the day after it was adopted in parliament. Moreover, their objections came despite the fact that they were aware of the amendment to the CMK proposed by the ruling party. The two parties urged President Abdullah Gul to return the bill to parliament for its detailed review, while the former Secretary-General of the National Security Council (NSC) retired General Tuncer Kilinc also criticized the bill (www.cnnturk, June 30).
The CHP said it will take the amendment to the constitutional court. Criticism from both the CHP and MHP toward the bill reflected the lack of dialogue and spirit of compromise between the main political parties. This has a negative impact on the smooth functioning of Turkish political institutions. Indeed, the AKP’s sudden move to change the CMK came in the midst of controversies surrounding an "action plan" allegedly designed by a colonel in the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) outlining the details of a plan to discredit the ruling party and Islamic Preacher Fetullah Gulen’s movement through a smear campaign.
The E.U., which has been asking Turkey to bring its military under full civil control, supported the latest amendment made to the CMK. Krisztina Nagy, the spokesperson for E.U. Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, said the amendment seemed to be going in the right direction. Stressing that aligning civil control of the military with E.U. practices is one of the top priorities in Turkey’s accession process, Nagy said that military courts should only deal with the duties of servicemen according to Turkey’s E.U. accession partnership document (Today’s Zaman, July 1).
The amendment to the CMK made it possible for Colonel Dursun Cicek (whose signature appeared on the action plan) to be arrested following an almost nine hour long interrogation by an Istanbul civil court on June 30. The following day he was released due to lack of evidence. His brief detention resulted from allegations that he was a member of the Ergenekon organisation, a clandestine ultranationalist group accused of masterminding an armed uprising to unseat the government. Around 200 suspects including retired generals and colonels as well as academics and journalists are being tried or awaiting trial over charges of being a member or leader of the organisation.
Amid the controversy surrounding the action plan, a critical 8-hour long meeting of the NSC composed of Turkish civilian leaders and top generals took place on June 30. It also came soon after the Turkish Chief of the General Staff General Ilker Basbug’s description of the action plan during his press conference on June 26 as bogus and a "piece of paper," following its examination by a military court -highligting the rigid divide among the military and the civil courts.
A brief statement was released after the meeting stressing the importance of refraining from statements and publications aimed at weakening Turkish institutions, since Basbug had claimed during his press conference that the TSK has become the target of a "growing and organized" smear campaign. Turkey implemented several military reforms in 2003-04, which attempted to reduce military influence within politics as well as making its budget accountable and transparent as part of the E.U. reforms.
However, as the E.U. noted in its November 5, 2008 Turkey Progress Report, the TSK have continued to exercise significant political influence via formal and informal mechanisms. No change has been made to the TSK internal service law or the law on the national security council. These define the role and duties of the Turkish military, which grants wide room for maneuver by providing a broad definition of national security, said the same report. No progress has been made on strengthening parliamentary oversight of the military budget and expenditure, the E.U. report added. Meanwhile, the former military prosecutor Umit Kardas, stated that military crimes must be more narrowly defined to solely encompass military matters. In other words, military crimes should be considered as those crimes committed by its personnel and related to duty and service alone. These must be defined as those acts that directly affect military discipline and infringe upon military service and duty, he added (Today’s Zaman, July 1).
The Turkish political authorities have a long way to go to end the era of coups in Turkey, where the TSK has intervened directly and indirectly five times in Turkish politics. In addition to the latest amendment made to the CMK paving the way for the trial of military personnel in civil courts, there needs to be several other reforms relating to the role of the military. These include abolishing Article 35 of the internal service law adopted after the 1960 coup, which gives the TSK as opposed to the civil political authority, the duty of protecting and watching over the Turkish homeland and the republic of Turkey as defined by the constitution. This also gives the TSK the authority to carry out a coup in the event that it perceives the secular order of the country to be under threat.