The Ergenekon trial, which came to a close this week, is without question, one of the most important court cases in Turkish history. The case involved an alleged coup plot against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the successful prosecution would seem another chapter in the AKP’s important efforts in reigning in illegal and anti-democratic actions by the Turkish armed services.
I’d like this to be a simple story of military power being brought under the control of an elected civilian government. Unfortunately, the Ergenekon story is also one of missed opportunities and justice denied. The Ergenekon trial had enormous potential to uncover the crimes of the past and set the tone for real justice in the new Turkey. It failed on both these accounts.
Writing in 2011, I described my surprise at my own mixed feelings about this process:
I wish I could feel happier about all this, but I don’t. It is not that there is much to miss about the Turkish military’s meddling in Turkish politics. Beyond the coups, the Turkish military has created an undemocratic constitution, consistently pushed for a stupidly hard line against Turkey’s Kurds, engaged in extra-judicial killings and terrorism, allocated for itself unseemly wealth, worked to create an obscenely militaristic popular culture, and generally treated the country’s citizens as slightly backward children, in constant need of guidance.
The problem is that the absolutely healthy process of asserting civilian control is being undertaken by a political party that has shown an unhealthy willingness to politicize the bureaucracy [and, I might have added, the judiciary] and a marked intolerance for dissent.
The Ergenekon trial could have addressed the shocking state crimes that have gone unpunished in Turkey. The shadowy network of security services, organized crime, and political authority that has been termed “the Deep State” has not been held responsible for the remarkable human rights abuses of the 1990s, which include extrajudicial killings, torture, and “disappearances.”
As Emma Sinclair-Webb writes in a brilliant op-ed in the New York Times:
[The] court failed to look into allegations that a core group of defendants was responsible for serious human rights abuses in the areas of the country where they served in the 1980s and 1990s: torture, and thousands of enforced disappearances, killings and illegal village evacuations in the southeast, as well as political assassinations in the western part of the country. The trial also failed to look at these defendants’ possible involvement in clandestine networks connected with the state in much more recent political assassinations, such as the January 2007 murder of the journalist Hrant Dink, or the April 2007 killing of three Christians in Malatya. One defendant, Hursit Tolon, is on trial separately in connection with the Malatya murders.
Sinclair-Webb also highlights the other major problem of the Ergenekon trial: tried under sloppy anti-terrorism statutes in a Special Heavy Penal Court which allows too few rights to defendants, there are fundamental questions about the trial’s fairness.
The Ergenekon proceedings were also overshadowed by concerns about the fairness of the trial. These ranged from questions about the flimsy nature of evidence against some defendants, the implications for media freedom arising from the prosecution of journalists as coup plotters, concerns about the appropriateness of the application of terrorism charges, objections to the misuse of protected witnesses, which impeded the defendants’ ability to challenge the evidence against them, and in particular the prolonged pretrial detention of some defendants. Some saw the trial as no more than a witch hunt by the governing AKP against its political opponents.
There was an opportunity to prove those critics wrong by ensuring a scrupulous commitment to fairness throughout the process. But as with many trials, that opportunity was missed.
These problems are not, of course, limited to just the Ergenekon trial. Thousands of the left and right have had their rights trampled by politicized courts and dangerously vague anti-terrorism statutes.
To quote Sinclair-Webb yet again:
Over the years human rights groups have repeatedly expressed serious concerns about the fairness of trials in Turkey, in particular those held in special courts dealing with terrorism and organized crime. Such courts and trials follow a practice of virtually mandatory pretrial detention for extended periods. So although these are not new concerns, they have deepened with the proliferation in recent years of “mass trials” – with multiple defendants alleged to have been part of terrorist groups. The thousands of people on trial for alleged membership in the Union of Kurdistan Communities and association with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party face even less fair proceedings and flimsier evidence, with a large number still held in prolonged detention pending verdicts.
The AKP-led government has adopted a series of “judicial reform packages” aimed at mitigating the worst abuses. Yet the broad and vague nature of “terrorism” offenses and the use of special courts to try these cases have left the problems largely in place.
The Ergenekon trial has been lauded by Turkish government officials as the foundation for a new era in Turkey. Unfortunately, it has failed to address fundamental questions of past crimes and failed to offer the accused a basic standard of justice. The new era has gotten off to a very shaky start.