On 21 January 2008, news broke of a major operation by Turkish police against an ultra-nationalist network known as Ergenekon. Commentators have since argued that a number of political assassinations – including the assassinations of a priest, Father Andrea Santoro in Trabzon (2006), Hrant Dink in Istanbul (2007) and a judge in Ankara in 2006 – originally assumed to be unconnected are in fact linked to leading Ergenekon members.
The name Ergenekon (which comes from an old Turkish legend about the origins of the Turkish people in Central Asia) was made public in 1997 in a book by journalists Can Dundar and Celal Kazadagli. In the book, entitled Ergenekon – The State inside the State, a former Turkish naval general (Erol Mutercimler) tells the authors that he had first learned in 1971 of the existence of "an organization above the Government, the General Staff and the bureaucracy. It was founded on the initiative of the CIA and the Pentagon after 27 May [1960, the first military coup]."
Mutercimler also told Dundar that he himself started to investigate the group. "There were generals, security personnel, professors, journalists, businessmen, average people inside it,” he discovered. "Small units that we nowadays call "gangs" are used as triggers by the larger organization called Ergenekon." Dundar notes that such entities were set up in other NATO countries as well during the Cold War, though Turkey's was never dismantled.
A serious investigation against Ergenekon only began in the summer of 2007 when munitions and weapons were found in a house in the Umraniye district of Istanbul. Because of a press embargo, little was known about the investigation – until 21 January 2008, when 37 people were arrested on suspicion of belonging to an ultra-nationalist network (Bianet).
In March 2008, journalist Samil Tayyar, Ankara correspondent of the Star daily newspaper, published Operation Ergenekon, an account of the deeds and ideology of this ultra-nationalist network. In an interview on 2 March, Tayyar explained his findings:
"Ergenekon is a structure targeting the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the EU process, using all kinds of illegal methods to reach their aims."
In his book, Tayyar also claims high-ranking generals attempted to organise coups in 2003 and 2004 against the AKP government.
"The normalization process which began when in 2004 the coup (planning) generals retired from the Turkish General Staff created a more secure environment for Turkish democracy. But when the opposition on the anti-AKP and anti-EU axis lost hope for a coup or a military warning to the government, they went underground from 2005 onwards."
Tayyar alleges that many of the political assassinations of recent years are linked to Ergenekon. The group's strategy, he claims, was not only to organize attacks against the government, liberal intellectuals and minority leaders, but also to attack Kemalist newspapers and intellectuals – and then blame Islamists.
Oktay Yildirim, a retired general whose fingerprints, according to Tayyar, were found on grenades discovered in the Umraniye raids, allegedly left detailed information about Ergenekon's structure on his computer. The data led to more raids (in Bursa and Eskisehir) and the collection of further information. To date, 50 persons have been arrested, including former military personnel, nationalist lawyers, politicians and journalists.
According to Tayyar, the investigation would not have been possible without collaboration between civil and military forces. In the interview with Sunday's Zaman on 2 March, he underlined that within the armed forces the unease about Ergenekon had become stronger:
"I think (Chief of General Staff Gen. Yasar) Buyukanit, who will retire this August, indirectly contributed to the operation against Ergenekon… This is why there is a very serious reaction from the nationalists toward Buyukanit; they are not happy about his impartiality. Actually when you look at transcripts of the telephone conversations of the Ergenekon detainees, you can see the heavy cursing in them against Buyukanit."
On 21 March 2008, seven more persons were arrested, including Dogu Perincek, chairperson of the Workers' Party, Ilhan Selcuk, a columnist at the Cumhuriyet newspaper, and Kemal Alemdaroglu, a former rector of Istanbul University.
Who are the people charged with forming a terrorist organization with the aim of overthrowing the current government?
One prominent suspect is Veli Kucuk. Kucuk is widely considered by the press to be a former leader of JITEM (Jandarma Istihbarat ve Terorle Mucadele), the Gendarmerie Intelligence and Anti-Terror unit, which played a role in the fight against the Kurdish PKK in South East Anatolia.
It has never been officially acknowledged that JITEM even exists. However, Kucuk himself was quoted in Today's Zaman on 30 January 2008 as acknowledging his own role as "founder of JITEM." Kucuk was active in South Eastern Turkey during the war against the PKK.
In an interview with Today's Zaman on 30 January 2008, informant Abdulkadir Aygan, who was allegedly involved in JITEM activities for many years, talked about Kucuk's role as JITEM commander in the years 1990-91:
"JITEM's headquarters was in a large building with two floors. All personnel in the building used to wear civilian clothes. The vehicles used in official service had civilian plates; however, these were the gendarmerie's registered vehicles. It is certain that he [Kucuk] was one of the founders of the organization. However, his assertion that he founded JITEM alone is not accurate. I think that he is trying to protect the masterminds and prove that he is loyal to them."
JITEM also features in at least two official reports. One, prepared in January 1997 by Kutlu Savas, special rapporteur of the Prime Minister's Office on the Susurluk scandal, exposed connections between the security forces, politicians and organized crime in operations against the PKK. The Savas report argued that JITEM existed:
"Even if the Gendarmerie's high command continues to deny it, the existence of JITEM is an unavoidable fact. It may be the case that JITEM no longer exists, that it was disbanded, that its personnel was transferred to other units, that the documents were archived. There are, however, a number of agents who served in JITEM, who are alive today. The existence of JITEM was, moreover, no mistake. JITEM was formed out of necessity."
(Bandenrepublik Türkei? Der Susurluk-Bericht des Ministerialinspektors Kutlu")
In 2002, Veli Kucuk wrote on the website www.ozturkler.com ("the true Turks"), that "the way of the great Turkish nation is through Ergenekon.” The site was maintained by Sedat Peker who Turkish media claim had served with Kucuk in the gendarmerie in Kocaeli in the 1990s. In 2007, Peker was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment for involvement in organised crime. He is currently in prison and was recently interrogated by the prosecutor in the Ergenekon investigation.
Many Turkish papers also reported that the investigations have revealed a plan to assassinate Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. According to daily Posta, Veli Kucuk had tried to arrange – through the contacts of a former army sergeant, Muhammed Yuce – for a hit man to target Pamuk.
Lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz is another key figure in the nationalist movement in Turkey, a revered figure among nationalists and founder of the Great Union of Lawyers (Buyuk Hukukcular Birligi), a right-wing NGO. In January 2008, he was arrested on charges of belonging to "a terrorist organization" with the aim of promoting instability.
According to Bianet, Kerincsiz
"[…] first came to public attention when he filed a complaint to stop a conference entitled 'The Ottoman Armenians in the Period of the Declining Empire' scheduled for May 2005. The conference finally took place on 23 September, but only because the organisers were able to circumvent the ban by hosting the conference at a venue not mentioned in the ban."
Kerincsiz used the sections of the Penal Code that curtail freedom of expression, such as Art. 301, to sue journalists, authors and academics. Ioannis Grigoriadis described this strategy in a paper in October 2006:
"Kerincsiz skilfully exploited the remaining illiberal traits of the Turkish criminal legislation, as well as the failure of judicial authorities to readjust the interpretation and implementation of existing legislation on liberal lines… Kerincsiz targeted an increasing number of Turkish intellectuals who personified the liberal democratic face of republican Turkey, as well as minorities"
Kerincsiz and the Great Union of Lawyers were responsible for most of the trials based on article 301. These included the trials of:
- Nobel prize winning author Orhan Pamuk, charged in 2005 for comments on the Armenian and Kurdish issues
- Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, charged repeatedly for denigrating Turkishness.
- Writer Elif Safak, charged in September 2006 for passages in her book, "The Bastard of Istanbul"
- Journalists such as Murat Belge, Ismet Berkan, Hasan Cemal, Erol Katircioglu, Haluk Sahin, charged in 2006.
Kerincsiz also staged several demonstrations in front of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, demanding its expulsion from Turkey. The prosecution claims that many of these actions were closely coordinated with Ergenekon to prepare the right political climate for targeted assassinations.
Sevgi Erenerol and Kemal Kerincsiz
Sevgi Erenerol, also arrested in the Ergenekon case, is the spokesperson for the Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate, and sister of the current primate, Papa Eftim IV. The Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate is a strange organization: it was founded by ethnic Greeks who supported the Turkish side during the War of Turkish Independence in 1922 to oppose the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Istanbul (this, before most of the Greek population of Turkey was exchanged with the Turkish population of Greece under the Lausanne Treaty).
The church is something of a family enterprise: Sevgi's grandfather was the first patriarch. After the population exchange in 1924 – which forced all Anatolian Greeks to leave Turkey – and following the move of the Erenerol family to Istanbul, the church has no community of believers to speak of, aside from the family itself. This has not stopped the church from accumulating wealth (with support from the authorities), however.
On 30 January 2008, Hurriyet wrote about "a patriarchate without community, but real estate". The Church currently owns three churches and many buildings in the centre of Istanbul seized from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. Mustafa Akyol wrote on 2 February 2008 that the "mini-size but super-rich Turkish Orthodox Church has become a devotee of the most radical version of its founding ideology.”
According to daily Milliyet, the Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul served as the place for regular Ergenekon meetings. Erenerol has herself been linked to the extreme right for many years. She was once a candidate of the nationalist MHP for Parliament.
In March 2008 police raided the offices of the small radical nationalist Worker's Party (IP). IP's leader, Dogu Perincek, was arrested on charges of "being a senior member of a terrorist organization and obtaining and possessing classified documents" (Today's Zaman).
According to Taraf daily, material was found at IP's headquarters which included detailed descriptions of the security protocol for Chief of General Staff Yasar Buyukanit's visits to two cities, as well as detailed drawings of court room buildings in Ankara. This is seen by some as evidence that Ergenekon was plotting further assassinations – to later be blamed on "Islamists". Perincek denies the allegations. He suggested that the Ergenekon investigation constituted an attempt to "exhaust the Turkish Army" (Today's Zaman) with unfounded allegations.
The number of individuals implicated in the Ergenekon investigation is growing by the day. The list of those arrested reads like a who's who of extreme right-wing nationalists, hard-line Kemalists, retired military, mobsters and nationalist intellectuals.
Ergun Poyraz: his bestselling book "Children of Moses: Tayyip and Emine" suggests that Prime Minister Erdogan's rose to power as part of a "Zionist conspiracy." He wrote a similar book about Abdullah Gul. As reported by Today's Zaman on 31 March 2008, a CD found at the nationalist Workers Party (IP) headquarters revealed that Poyraz received payments from JITEM.
Fikri Karadag: a retired military officer, today officially leader of the ultranationalist Association for the Union of Patriotic Forces
Muzaffer Tekin: arrested earlier in the context of an investigation into the assassination of State Council Judge Mustafa Yucel Ozbilgin in Ankara in May 2006 (four other judges were wounded in the attack). The assassination triggered anti-AKP demonstrations: Kemalist media had claimed that the murder was the result of "Islamic fundamentalism".
Sedat Peker, Sami Hostan (also called "Sami the Albanian"), Ali Yasak ("Drej Ali") and other alleged ultranationalist mafia figures.
According to numerous newspaper reports (such as Stargundem on 26 January 2008), the current investigation has already revealed links between the Ergenekon group and the 2006 State Council attack. The Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office has received a photo in which retired general Veli Kucuk is seen with Alparslan Arslan, the murder suspect currently on trial in the State Council case. Phone calls between the two, from before the attack, have also allegedly been recorded.
According to a Bianet report on 6 March 2008, the Ergenekon gang is suspected of involvement in bomb attacks on the Cumhuriyet newspaper in 2006, as well as the murder of historian Necip Hablemitoglu in December 2002. Durmus Anucin, one of those arrested, has apparently told the prosecution that he and Ibrahim Cifti were responsible for Hablemitoglu's murder. Cifti was subsequently murdered himself. The hand grenades used in Ciftci's killing are reportedly of the same series as those discovered in the arsenal in Umraniye in 2007.
On 1 April 2008, Lale Sariibrahimoglu commented in Today's Zaman:
"Today, those linked to the Ergenekon gang come from every walk of life and are ultranationalists, anti-European and believe that democratic reforms have been threatening the state's traditional sovereignty at the expense of enlarging citizen sovereignty."
According to numerous newspaper reports, the group was preparing a series of bomb attacks aimed at stirring up chaos ahead of a planned coup against the government in 2009. This would have brought Turkey's democratisation process and EU accession negotiations to a precipitous end.
What is the significance of this investigation? For the optimists among Turkey's commentators, it offers a vital opportunity to finally get to the bottom of a series of never investigated crimes and to strengthen the rule of law. Pessimists note that what is visible today is only the tip of the iceberg and doubt that a full-fledged crackdown will ever take place. As Radikal's Gokhan Ozgun notes, the Ergenekon gang is a large and dangerous formation, stretching beyond the limits of one's view of a "gang".