Kafka's world and the trial of Mehmet O. – Turkey's Erasmus generation

24 July 2014
Silivri Prison Complex West of Istanbul

"The Trial" - Silivri Prison Complex West of Istanbul



Dear friends of ESI,

Mass trials in Turkey

Turkey has a tradition of rough and ready criminal justice. Judges virtually never reject an indictment, including many unconvincing ones launched by overzealous prosecutors. With a population smaller than Germany, Turkey had five times more criminal cases in 2010. Germany has 24 judges per 100,000 inhabitants; Turkey only 11. The workload for every Turkish judge is thus more than ten times that of a judge in Germany. One can see the results in any ordinary criminal court across the country, where a judge hears up to 20 cases a day.

Turkey also has a tradition of mass trials unlike any other country in Europe. There were many such trials following the 1980 military coup. In 1981, 1,477 members of the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions (DISK) were put on trial, followed a few months later by a trial of 1,243 members of the Revolutionary Left (DEVSOL).

Mass trials are often protracted affairs. The DISK case went from 1981 to 1991. The DEVSOL case took 32 years. A 1982 case against DEVYOL (Revolutionary Path) led to sentences in 1989 (including seven death sentences), which were then sent for retrial by the Supreme Court of Appeal, leading to a new set of convictions six years later. In 2012 – thirty years after the prosecution began - the Supreme Court of Appeal threw out the case under the statute of limitations. In many cases, the defendants are kept in custody during judicial processes that drag on for years.

There are many more mass trials even now. In 2012, a court in Istanbul heard charges against 205 members of the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), while in January 2014, a court in Ankara opened a case against 502 members of KESK, a public workers trade union. In February 2014, 1,309 people who took part in the Gezi protests were tried in a court in Kirklareli.

All of this means that any person caught up in a political trial in Turkey enters the world of Kafka's famous novel. This is what happened to Mehmet Orgen, a captain in the Turkish navy.


Kafka's world

Mehmet Orgen

Mehmet Orgen

The story of the trial of Mehmet Orgen is the subject of the third essay in our series – Return to Europe Revisited:

ESI essay - Kafka's world and the trial of Mehmet O.

"In May 2011, an Istanbul prosecutor summoned Mehmet Orgen for an interrogation. In June 2011, Orgen was charged with attempting to overthrow the government. A few weeks later, he was arrested and sent to a military prison. Orgen was part of a mass trial as one of 361 defendants. In September 2012 he was sentenced to sixteen years in prison. An additional 324 people were also sentenced, including former commanders of the air force, the navy and the last military head of the National Security Council. In October 2013 the Supreme Court of Appeal in Ankara confirmed Orgen's sentence. Then, on 18 June 2014, the Turkish Constitutional Court took a unanimous decision. It found that in the case of Mehmet Orgen, and hundreds of his co-defendants, the 'right to a fair trial has been violated.' It also ordered a retrial."

Mehmet Orgen was one of 361 accused tried in 2011 in a former sports hall in one of the biggest prisons in Europe West of Istanbul.

The Balyoz (Sledgehammer trial), named after an alleged coup attempt supposedly planned and led by a four star army general in early 2003, has been Turkey's most controversial and consequential court case in decades.

ESI has written and done research on court cases before. In 2011 we wrote about a murder trial in Malatya: Murder in Anatolia. Christian missionaries and Turkish ultra-nationalism. Since 2012 we have done intense research on the Sledgehammer case. We read thousands of pages of transcripts, indictments and court documents, talked to lawyers and experts, went to the trial in Silivri and to the prison where the indictees were held during the trial. A full ESI report on the Sledgehammer trial – its context, its shortcomings and its impact on Turkish politics – will be published later this summer.

However, the most urgent question raised by the case of Mehmet Orgen and his co-defendants – and by the fate of hundreds, indeed thousands, who experienced similar justice – is obvious. Despite the lack of credible evidence Mehmet Orgen, and hundreds of others, were kept in jail for years.

So what is the state of the rule of law in Turkey today? What will it be in the future, as Turkey's political battles continue to be fought in courtrooms?

"How could senior judges in the most high-profile court case in decades not focus on obvious contradictions in the evidence? Why does Turkey still hold mass trials, with hundreds of accused in one courtroom?

On 19 June 2014 the judges in charge of the retrial ordered the release of all defendants. After three years in jail Mehmet Orgen was set free. But his case is not over. Today, 299 people still stand accused of the most serious crimes. And the judicial system that sentenced Mehmet Orgen to sixteen years in jail, not once, but twice, to then dismiss it all, remains in place."

(The Return to Europe Revisited essay series is following up on developments in South East Europe since the screening of the documentary film series www.returntoeurope.eu, an initiative by ERSTE Stiftung in Vienna.

This is the third essay in this series. It follows previous publications on a remarkable economic transformation in Western Romania and Challenges to Patriarchy in Kosovo)


Erasmus, students and isolation

ESI, with the support of Stiftung Mercator, continues to work on increasing people to people contacts between Turkey and the EU.

One outcome of our recent research is a new background paper:

Turkish Students, Isolation and the Erasmus Challenge

The starting point for our research was the fact that even today very few Turkish students spend any part of their studies abroad, and that the European Erasmus student exchange program offers a lot of unexploited potential to change this.

A 2011 survey found that only 3 per cent of young Turks (age 15-35) had ever been abroad for education or training. This is extremely low.

Ever abroad for education/training (age 15-35, in per cent)





































Czech Republic













There were some 14,400 Turkish Erasmus students in 2012. However, as a share of all students in Turkey this was 0.3 per cent, the lowest ratio among all participating countries in the European Erasmus student exchange,

The ESI background paper looks at the reasons behind these numbers. It also suggests what needs to be done if Turkish authorities would set themselves an ambitious goal – such as doubling the number of Turkish Erasmus students to 30,000 by 2016.

This research on Erasmus builds on previous ESI papers on People-to-People contacts between Turkey and the EU and complements the Schengen visa liberalization White List Project, also supported by Stiftung Mercator.

Many best regards,

Gerald Knaus