Justice and the military in Turkey – an update

One faithful reader tells me every time that my articles on this blog are too long. I tend to agree and apologise at the outset for this particular (long) entry.

Outside the courtroom – Turkey’s trial of the Century @Jonathan Lewis

In April 2008 we put on our website the picture story The battle for Turkey’s Soul. Party closures, gangs and the state of democracy. There we told the story of the military coup dairies, found on the laptop of Admiral Ozden Ornek, the former Turkish navy commander, and published in the magazine Nokta on 29 March 2007:

“The diary entries contain detailed plans for a military coup, prepared jointly by the commanders of the army (Aytac Yalman), navy (Ornek himself), the air force (Ibrahim Firtina) and the gendarmerie (Sener Eruygur) in 2004.

According to the diary, it was only the opposition of the Chief of Staff at the time, Hilmi Ozkok, which prevented the coup plans from being put into action. The code name for the coup was “Blond Girl”. Later, these dairies suggest, Sener Eruygur had begun to plan another coup, code named “Moonlight.”

On 12 April, Nokta‘s offices were raided by the police in a 3-day operation at the request of the military prosecutor. Subsequently, the owner of the magazine decided to shut it down altogether.”

The authenticity of these coup diaries has since been confirmed during another court case against former Nokta editor-in-chief Alper Gormus. Tomorrow they are for the first time at the centre of the most complex court case in recent Turkish history: the so-called Ergenekon case.

A lot has happened since we wrote Turkey’s Dark Side in April 2008 and introduced the debate on what has since become known in the courtroom as the Ergenekon Terror Organisation (ETO).

A quick overview:

First, there was a wave of spectacular arrests in summer 2008. The most prominent arrest was of the former Commander of the Gendarmerie, retired General Sener Eruygur … the person singled out as the most eager general to carry out a coup in the Ornek diaries.

Then, in July 2008, the first Ergenekon Indictment was presented to the court. The document, 2,455 pages long, listed 86 people to be put on trial, among them 12 retired members of the Turkish Armed Forces. Veli Kucuk, allegedly both a leader within Ergenekon and one of the founders of the paramilitary gendarmerie unit JITEM (accused of involvement in extrajudicial executions for many years) was the most prominent.

Kucuk had also been a leading ultra-nationalist figure in the protests against Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, shortly before Dink’s assassination in early 2007. The main charge in the indictment was that Kucuk and other former military, together with police officers, nationalist journalists, academics and civil society figures, had formed an organised terror network to create chaos and thus trigger a military coup.

Weapons had been found, linking some of the accused directly to attacks against different institutions, including an attack on the highest administrative court (the Council of State) in 2006, which left one judge dead. Documents were found outlining the strategy and organisational structure of the Ergenekon network. Assassination plans were discovered, targetting politicians, liberal journalists as well as writer Orhan Pamuk.

The Ergenekon trial based on these charges began on 20th October last year.

“Ergenekon lie, American game” – Protests before trial starts October 2008 @ Jonathan Lewis

Since then there have been many more arrests. In another dramatic turn, a court decided in February 2009 that there was a strong enough case to merge the Ergenekon case with the case of the brutal murder of three Christian missionaries in Malatya (who were killed, after being tortured, in April 2006). In March 2009 death wells were opened in South East Anatolia and human remains exhumed (leading to further arrests of active military). Illegal weapons continue to be found in houses and hidden in places, marked on maps found among those arrested.

In March 2009, the second Ergenekon indictment, this time listing 56 suspects (among them 17 members of the Turkish Armed Forces, and for the first time 9 still active military) on almost 2,000 pages, was accepted by the 13th Serious Crimes Court in Istanbul. It is on the basis of this indictment that the next phase of the court case is set to begin tomorrow.

(A third Ergenekon indictment is expected to be submitted to the court any time soon).

It is certainly not surprising that this case has been controversial in Turkey almost from the beginning. Never before have so many prominent personalities, accused of being associated with the so-called deep state in Turkey, been put in court for such serious allegations. Never before have members of the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) been put in a civilian court accused of planning to topple a civilian government.

He is not happy with the course of Turkish justice (Silivri, Ergenekon trial) @ Jonathan Lewis

And yet, while the judicial inquiry is continuing, extra-judicial challenges against the trial continue.

First there was the discovery, publicised in an article in June 2009 in the independent daily Taraf, of a plan by the Turkish military to help their accused colleagues by presenting the whole Ergenekon case as a campaign by followers of the (US-based) Sunni-preacher Fetullah Gulen; and by an AKP government bent on turning Turkey into Iran.

The document, called “Action Plan to Combat Reactionaryism” (sorry for this translation) was found in the office of lawyer Serdar Ozturk, who had been arrested as part of the Ergenekon investigation. It appears to be a product of the Support Section Directorate 3 of the Operations Department in the Office of the Turkish General Staff, drafted in April 2009! The text bears the signature of Naval Infantry Staff Senior Colonel Dursun Cicek. The text expresses profound dismay with the course of the Ergenekon investigation. It also suggests concrete ways to change the course of the case.

The Taraf article quotes directly from the text:

“Intensive activities are carried out by the religiously reactionary groups to erode the image of the official institutions of the state, particularly TAF (Turkish Armed Forces) as efforts are under way to blacken the names of retired and active military staff, who have made substantial contributions to TAF, by charging unfounded allegations against them as part of Ergenekon.”

“It will be ensured that any TAF staff members seized or agreeing to disclose would make statements in line with the themes determined by us and that such disclosure would have wide coverage in the press. “News articles will be fabricated that TAF staff members arrested under Ergenekon investigation are innocent and that they are slandered just because they effectively fight reactionary Islam. “News articles will be commissioned that no action being staged by PKK terrorist organization against any schools, classrooms and hostels in the Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia regions as well as in the north of Iraq, which are owned by Fetullah Gulen followers is a clear sign of a link between the two networks and also of an agreement between them.”

The plan calls for the following:

“to put an end to the hesitancy over this issue by revealing the internal face of the religiously reactionary elements and eradicate public support for such networks. To minimize the impact of the erosive campaigns staged under Ergenekon, to put an end to the negative propaganda carried out against TAF”.

“Information support activities will be executed to bring out to light the facts on the radical religious groups, particularly AKP government promoting the idea of establishing an Islamic state based on Islamic Law by overthrowing the secular and democratic order and various groups and Fetullah Güven group supporting it, to break the public support and put an end to their activities”.

Part of the plan covers “Black Propaganda Activities”:

“The theme, “Fettullah Gülen (FG) followers have gotten out of control, directly attacking TAF”, will be covered; in this scope, campaigns will be staged causing the citizens to comment: “This is beyond the limit! We are Muslim like them but FG followers are obviously making provocation to attack TAF”.

“Voice recordings which would be identified as having been broadcast by the religiously reactionary elements and cause listeners to find us justifiable will be arranged in order to create information pollution over the issue of voice recordings which have recently led to considerable repercussions.

“It shall be ensured that any staff members captured by fabricating cause publicly in connection with various information and documents would provide statements that they were FG followers and once such staff members were made public by the press, news articles shall be ordered about their morally negative aspects.

“It will be ensured that any objects associated with any elements (Jews, CIA, MOSSAD, Moon Sect, Khomeni, etc.) through which a link is intended to be established with FG followers, apart from any weapons and munitions there, would be on the same location by causing house raids to be staged on the basis of tips.

“It will be ensured that information and documents rekindling the Anti-Alavite feelings would be present in such houses as part of house raids.”

If you want to read the document in Turkish, go here. For the English version of the article go here. The debate about its authenticity (challenged by the military) will likely continue in the course of the ongoing Ergenenkon investigation.

If, that is, the investigation is allowed to continue normally. For there has been another major challenge recently.

Last week the Turkish press reported that some members of the Higher Council of Judges and Prosecutors in Ankara proposed to remove the current judges AND prosecutors from the ongoing Ergenekon trial. The annual decision on the rotation of judges and prosecutors has not been announced so far; it appears as if this issue has been holding up a decision.

That this is a serious matter is made clear by a recent precedent. In 2005 a prosecutor in Van, planning to investigate the background of a terror attack against a Kurdish bookshop in Semdinli committed by plain-cloth non-commissioned military officers, was dismissed from his post (and stripped of his right to work even as a lawyer) by a decision taken by the Higher Council of Judges and Prosecutors. The accusation against him was that he was “dishonouring the legal profession.”

The further evolution of the Semdinli case also highlights a challenge to the Ergenekon case. The perpetrators of the attack were first sentenced in a civilian court to 39 years in prison (no questions were asked there about who had ordered the attack). Then a higher court ruled that since this attack was carried out by the accused TAF members engaged in military duty the conviction did not stand. A new trial started, this time in a military court. The accused were set free pending a judgement. The case has not been concluded yet, despite overwhelming evidence (the accused had been captured on the spot after having thrown the grenade).

For the Ergenekon trial the major question has always been: could the same happen here?

This renders all the more significant a recent decision by the Turkish parliament, another unexpected turn in the dramatic struggles reshaping Turkey.

On 25 June the parliament changed the Criminal Procedure Code. It requires, from now on, that civilian courts try members of the armed forces accused of specific crimes, including threats to national security, constitutional violations, organising armed groups and attempting to topple the government. On 8 July this law was ratified by president Abdullah Gul.

But that is not the end of the story. Although the reform is a long demanded adjustment of Turkish legislation to norms prevalent in the rest of Europe, Turkey’s largest opposition party (CHP) has promised to challenge the changes before the Constitutional Court. Then again, CHP leader Deniz Baykal has long attacked the whole Ergenenon investigation as a political witch-hunt, defending general Eruygur as an honourable patriot.

Thus the battle over Ergenekon is not only taking place in a courtroom near Istanbul. It is part of a wider battle over the very soul of Turkish democracy … and over the question whether in the end it is the military or the elected government, and military courts or civilian courts, that have the ultimate say. The jury on this most basic question is, unfortunately, still out.

Is the EU visa proposal anti-Muslim?

Let me first say that ESI welcomes the recent Commission proposal on visa free travel to the Balkans. Considering what expectations of progress were only 12 months ago – looking forward to a year with EU Parliamentary and German parliamentary elections, against a background of enlargement fatigue and a deepening economic crisis – this proposal is a very positive signal for the whole Balkan region.

We wrote an article on this, which you find here. The article also appeared as a commentary on BIRN.

We have a serious concern about the implications of this proposal for Kosovo. But this is not due to shortcomings in the Commission-led effort: it is rather that Kosovo is excluded from the meritocratic roadmap process. We also have one suggestion to improve the proposal for Bosnia and Albania. But much of the criticism made of the Commission proposal in the past week does not appear fair to us.

Ok, you might say, but what about the most important criticism one could hear in institutions such as the European Parliament: that the European Commission proposal on visa free travel, which was announced this week, is anti-Muslim?

A good friend and expert on the Balkans sent me the following email and question:

“I have been approached by Muslim friends from Britain, Germany and Turkey asking me whether the Commission has understood that the exclusion of BiH and Albania is sending out a negative signal to Muslim communities around Europe and beyond. Furthermore in the case of BiH where Orthodox and Catholic inhabitants have an option of joint citizenship with Serbia and Croatia, Serbs and Croats from BiH will be able to travel freely using their Serb and Croat passports while Bosniak Muslims will not. Has this rather urgent political issue been considered either by you or by the Commission?”

It is a serious question, and we have discussed it a lot inside ESI. So let me share with you the email I sent him in response:

” Yes, this issue has been considered. Anticipating these debates, we looked in great detail at every one of the five countries, producing a one page score card and a very much longer analysis of each of the conditions that still have to be met based on studying all Commission documents and expert reports.

All of these can be found here: http://www.esiweb.org/index.php?lang=en&id=353

Concerning Bosnia, look in particular at:

Now compare these to the one page report and detailed analysis of Macedonia, and it is obvious that there is a difference.

In addition, the Commission has recently outlined itself the precise conditions that Bosnia and Albania still have to meet, sending a detailed letter to the Bosnian Ministry of Security.

In short, considering that meeting the benchmark conditions is the only criteria for visa free travel, the Commission has made the right decisions so far. Bosnia was the last (!) country to introduce biometric passports, for instance, something that was due to sheer incompetence and lack of focus. You could argue that this should not be a criteria (and Bulgaria was given visa free travel in 2001 without having biometric passports), but this is changing the rules of the game while the game is being played. This never works in the EU.

Thus, what critics of the Commission proposal for Bosnia are doing is not in fact arguing with these facts. They want to change the terms of the debate.

Critics argue that that there is a strong moral case for Bosnia to be granted visa free travel. The gist of this argument is a rhetorical question: “How can Mladic travel to the EU with his Serbian passport, but the relatives of his Srebrenica victims cannot?”

Critics also argue that this decision is inherently anti-Bosniak, as Croats and Serbs in Bosnia can circumvent the problems with the Bosnian passport by applying for Croat and Serb passports. This is of course not a new problem at all (in the case of Croatia it was always true).

I personally have a lot of sympathy for this argument (although I hope that Mladic tries out his new Serbian passport soon and ends up in The Hague as a result).

But this is an argument to give Bosnians visa free travel already in 1995! The fact that we are now talking about 2010 shows that it has not worked too well until now.

In fact, purely moral arguments for visa free travel have never impressed sceptical Europeans, only already convinced friends of the Balkans. This is, after all, not a new debate. Moral arguments have been made many times in recent years. They have been made for Serbia (after courageous young people toppled Milosevic, did they not deserve visa free travel?), for Kosovo (there was a decade of apartheid, followed by mass murder and massive expulsions in 1999: how does Kosovo deserve to be the most isolated country in the world today?), for Macedonia (having implemented the Ohrid Peace Agreement and been granted EU candidate status in 2005, did the Macedonians not deserve visa free travel at least as much as Romanians did in 2001), etc …

Moral arguments are important, but they are not sufficient. This we have learned in the past 15 years.

What brought about this week’s breakthrough, however, was the fact that the terms of debate changed recently: that the logic of the process became the slogan of our campaign “strict but fair”. Conditionality turned out to be the best friend of the region!

The argument for the roadmap process is not one of political morality. It was from the outset based on a very rational argument: that it actually IS in the EU’s security interest not to have to rely on visa, but to be able to cooperate with Balkan countries that have implemented the very demanding set of reforms described in the roadmaps. This makes everyone safer. Granting visa free travel is not a gift to a long-suffering region, but a win-win situation for all Europeans.


“How visa-free travel makes Europe safer” … meeting with former interior ministers Giuliano Amato (Italy) and Otto Schily (Germany) this week in Istanbul to discuss the ESI White List Project

We strongly supported this logic, because we felt that it would work. We were also convinced that leaders in these countries were capable of surprising the EU and actually implementing these demands faster than anticipated. And this is indeed what has happened.

Even Bosnia is today much closer to visa free travel than it has ever been in the years since 1995.

Of course, there is always a danger that despite a process of objective assessment (with numerous expert missions visiting the region in recent months) political considerations would enter at the end; that prejudices could cloud the process.

Contrary to what most friends of Bosnia in Europe believe, however, allowing a bigger role for purely political considerations would likely be harmful not beneficial for Bosnia, given its terrible image in some EU countries and the regular recurrence of articles on dangerous islamists in Sarajevo (again earlier this year in Der Spiegel, an article on “the fifth column of the prophet”). We have long warned that this image, which is not deserved, as well as regular alarmist articles that Bosnia might be about to go to war again are doing terrible damage to the European future of the country. But one effect of this bad press is that the less European decisions are based on perceptions, and the more on facts, the better for Bosnia.

Thus, I believe that the principle of “strict but fair” is also in Bosnia’s (and Albania’s) interest. Both countries have an image problem in Europe that can best be overcome by focusing on concrete deliverables.

At the same time, Bosnian leaders need to be told by their friends that if Macedonian Albanians and Macedonians could implement these changes following their fighting in 2001, so must they. Until now at least there is no evidence that this is not actually in their hands.

There are two potential challenges to “strict but fair”:

  1. Some claim that EU leaders do indeed have prejudices about Balkan Muslims, and that even once Bosnia fulfills all conditions it will be judged more harshly than Serbia or Montenegro are now.Until now, at least, we have found no evidence that this is the case.It is a strong argument, however, for making the assessment process as transparent as possible, which is the main motivation behind our dedicated website. We believe that full transparency is in the interest of everyone, which is why you can find all relevant documents there.
  2. Some people in Sarajevo claim that Bosnian Serb politicians might sabotage the reforms needed for Bosnian passport holder, to undermine the Bosnian state, since Bosnian Serbs might in any case gain access to the EU through their Serbian citizenship.This is definitely something that needs to be monitored. Until now we have found little evidence for this. In fact, once we published the visa score card showing Bosnia in last position a few weeks ago a series of laws were passed that suggested that Bosnian politicians were sensitive to the charge of letting their people down.It is also the case that the EU would not look kindly at a sudden increase in Serbian biometric passports being handed out to Bosnian Serbs.

In short, for now the best message to give to Bosnian leaders is not to lean back and hope that Europe’s bad conscience about Srebrenica will do their work, but to sit down and focus on the roadmap. The EU should help, monitor the process closely, and respond fairly.

This has also been our answer to questions by Bosnian media in recent days:

“Yes, you have a moral case, but this is unlikely to convince sceptical interior ministers in sceptical EU member states. Dont’ rely on it. In fact, the example of Macedonia and Montenegro shows you that implementing these reforms will lead to the desired goal much faster than any campaign based on the history of a war that ended in 1995. As for anti-Bosniak prejudice, so far we have not found evidence of it in the Commission evaluations. Lets be vigilant, but lets admit also that so far the Commission has been fair according to the standards of the roadmap process.”

In fact, we feel, looking in detail at all the still outstanding conditions, that if a real effort is made, Bosnia and Albania might be able to meet these conditions within the next 12 months. That would obviously be best for everyone. All our efforts should now go towards making this possible.

This is why our protest focuses on the specific commission recommendations concerning Kosovo: Kosovo is not even being offered the chance that Bosnia and Albania have to prove that it can or cannot implement the roadmap requirements. This is the opposite of “strict but fair” … a lose-lose situation for the whole region and the EU.”

Further reading:

Where new ideas are born – ESI Anniversary Conference Story

Saturday 11 July 2009 is a special day in the life of this particular European think tank …


In summer 1999 a group of friends gathered in Sarajevo and decided to set up a new institution to analyse international policy in the Balkans. Thus ESI is born.

Ten years later a much larger group of friends, from across a much larger Europe, comes together in Istanbul to discuss the lessons of the past decade (1999-2009) and how new ideas might shape the next decade of Europe’s evolution (2009-2019).


We come together in a colourful building full of modern art, which reflects both the diverse composition of our staff and our eclectic approach to research methodologies, but built solidly on Byzantine foundations, in the heart of the old town.


Our first debate is, not surprisingly, on Turkey: how much have things really changed in the largest EU candidate country during the past decade? And what is likely to happen in the coming years?

Nigar Goksel (Turkey), ESI senior analyst for Turkey and the Caucasus, moderates and watches as Amberin Zaman (Turkey), correspondent of the Economist and columnist in Taraf, explains what it was like to work in Turkey’s South East as a journalist in the mid 1990s … and how much has changed since then. In fact, dramatic change is continuing as we meet, she notes, refering to the most recent legal changes affecting military and civilian courts


Barcin Yinanc (Turkey), editor in chief of Hurriyet Daily News (previously Turkish Daily News) explains why she, too, is an optimist concerning developments in her country … and why she is both a strong believer in EU soft power and in the power of Turkish civil society, including women’s organisations.


Our next debate is on the new contested neigbourhood and the Southern Caucasus. What is the likely future of EU – Russia rivalry and/or cooperation in this region? Does the EU have any soft power here?

Ivane Chkhikvadze (Georgia) and Arzu Geybullayeva (Azerbaijan), ESI analyst and author of Flying Carpets and broken Pipelines, an excellent English-language blog on Azerbaijan, explain how things look from Tbilisi and Baku (where some bloggers have just been arrested on trumped up charges)


… while the co-author of one of the most interesting recent texts on the EU and its neighbourhood, Nicu Popescu (Moldova), explains the dangers should Europe continue to pay too little attention to its Eastern neighbourhood. Keti Tsikhelashvili (Georgia), presenting ESI’s ongoing research in Georgia, agrees. There and then the idea is also born for ESI to establish a program looking at Moldova sometime in 2010. Of course, first funding must be found, but such details cannot spoil the visionary mood …


Hungry for new ideas the group moves a few steps down the road to have lunch, overlooking Topkapi Palace and the Golden Horn: here you see your Rumeli Observer (Austria), Rakel Dink (Turkey), Minna Jarvenpaa (Finland), Eggert Hardten (Germany), Marcus Cox (Australia) and Emanuela del Re (Italy) discussing the future of the world over Kebab.


After lunch Verena Knaus (Austria), ESI senior analyst based in Kosovo, talks about the EU and Kosovo, a topic of inexhaustible complexity, while ….


… ESI friend Arbi Mazniku (Albania) listens and recovers from an intense national election campaign in Albania.


Here Kristof Bender (Austria) and Alex Stiglmayer (Germany) listen carefully as Besa Shahini (Kosovo/Canada) explains the European future of the Balkans and what ESI should do about it …


The last discussion is about the future and impact of think tanks. Jordi Vaquer (Spain), director of Cidob in Barcelona, explains the plans of the Spanish EU presidency, the outlook of the policy elite in Madrid, and the possible role of think tanks in influencing the Spanish policy debate.

Kristof (Austria), Goran Buldioski (Macedonia), director of the OSI Think Tank Fund based in Budapest, and your Rumeli Observer listen, wondering why Spanish foreign policy is so peculiar.


When all is said about Turkey, the Balkans, the Caucasus and the role of think tanks participants gather for a group picture in the garden of the conference venue, next to a sculpture which expresses well the complex nature of EU foreign policy ….


At this stage a happy Rumeli Observer realises that with the ideas generated by this one day of brainstorming another two dozen ESI reports could be written. At least …!


The next agenda item is continued debate, now focusing on the Istanbul urban experience, and furious networking, this time on a boat: here Alida Vracic (Bosnia), Marcus Cox (Australia), Kristof Bender, Piotr Zalewski (Poland), Yana Zabanova (Russia), Engjellushe Morina (Kosovo) and Gerda Vogl (Austria) contemplate an uncertain future.

Once these new questions have been exhaustively discussed, some can no longer sit still …


… and start moving uncontrollably to the rythm of Turkish music…


This continues until the CD-player breaks down and serious conversation about the state of Europe becomes possible again, this time in Rumeli Hisari


… overlooking the narrowest point of the Bosporus. Over some food, raki and wine new plans are hatched, networks are woven and conspiracies developed which future historians of ideas will find hard to disentangle …


… until, at the end of the day, even the most energetic members of the ESI family are exhausted, including Yana Zabanova (Russia) …


… Robin Gosejohann (Germany), who used to run ESI’s administration from Istanbul and is now project manager at Erste Stiftung in Vienna, Besa Shahini (Kosovo) and the youngest ESI analyst of them all, all dreaming of an even more democratic and self-confident Europe in 2019.

All photographs: Jonathan Lewis, www.jonathanlewisphoto.com