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Turkey's Sledgehammer Case: A Severe Blow to Militarism Within

After a painful, intensely debated judicial process which took 21 months, Turkey's most spectacular and critical coup trial, branded by its code name "Sledgehammer," ended with not much surprise when 326 people, almost all of them officers, were sentenced to long imprisonment by a court in Istanbul.

All in all, the trial was about a large group of high and mid-ranking army staff accused of plotting a coup, with the 1st Army Headquarters (in İstanbul) as the "epicenter," against the then-freshly elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

The case is not only historic but, in the global context, also rather unique. The court tried to establish whether or not these officers really "attempted" to overthrow the elected government -- a very tough legal task. Prosecutors went through loads of documents, some of them with original signatures, secret lists, data and graphics compiled in the digital domain and, most importantly and decisively of all, witness accounts.

The real challenge in the Sledgehammer case was its very nature: It was, in essence, a trial about organized crime. As with some major mafia cases we remember from the USA, it was a challenge to unravel the webs of secrecy, fight for the coverup, endless denials and, specific to Turkey's domain, massive counter-propaganda through the media.

As much as the hard evidence, therefore, the "conviction on conscience" of the judges, as much as the circumstantial evidence, seems to have defined the outcome.

The background, simply put, is this:

In early November 2002, in the wake of a devastating national economic crisis, Turkey's voters elect the then-new AKP as a majority political force in Parliament. But (as later confessed by its top figures) the army becomes very uneasy about what they saw as an "Islamist take-over." So, as the freshly elected AKP is busy preparing its government declaration to parliament, a number of top commanders in a closed door meeting "suggest" to their chief, Gen. Hilmi Özkök, that they should issue a tough "memorandum."

Özkök, a "lone wolf" in the military headquarters because he believes that the civilian democratic process be left on its own course, rejects the proposal but is unable to calm them down. Land Forces, Navy, Air Force and Gendarmerie commanders go on with weeks-long intrigues and negotiations amongst themselves.

The intense plotting continues into early 2003 (as we learn from two secret, key journals, leaked to the media and seeming to "overlap flawlessly," by Özden Örnek, a navy commander, and Mustafa Balbay, a journalist with the Cumhuriyet daily). In the course of the process, 1st Army Command sets a date for the coup, March 16, 2003. But, because of deep distrust amongst them, some top commanders step back.

The Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT), meanwhile, had already received a number of alerts and had followed the group's activities (to later inform Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan).
By March 2003, the 1st Army becomes the focal point. In a so-called "plan seminar" -- a simulation workshop -- Gen Çetin Doğan, its commander, defies warnings from his superior, Land Forces Commander Aytaç Yalman (who were among those who had already copped out from plotters), and leads a (taped) meeting, which is about real political actors, such as Erdoğan and political movements. These tapes constitute a first class exhibit of what the officers present at the meeting are after.

Doğan, a staunch and vocal AKP opponent, is later called to a tête-à-tête meeting with his superior, Özkök in late May 2003, and is told that his activities have been "known" by Özkök. Still defiant, he is forced to retirement in August of the same year.

Evidence of the plans is strong, particularly the "tapes" of the session which, from a legal point of view, constitute a uncrackable proof of what the officers were trying to achieve.

But the defense remains very critical of the verdicts. Some claim the case is a product of fabrication -- namely, there was no attempted coup -- while others point out to what they see as series of flaws and oversights. Law experts argue that the court did not seem to make any distinction between those who gave orders and those who took them. This they see as the soft spot of the entire trial process.

There are two major repercussions of the historic Sledgehammer trial for Turkey:

Politically, the verdicts have largely been regarded as yet another severe blow to the "coup culture" that crippled Turkey's civilian politics for decades and created a constant climate of despair and fear among citizens. Without a doubt, the sentences delivered will have a deteriorating effect on adventurers and enemies of democracy, as some top brass figures have been known.

In an interesting comment, Özkök, the prime "eyewitness" of the time as chief of General Staff, said: "There is to be no revenge in law. But the results will play a deteriorating role; everyone will have to draw lessons from these [types of] trials. These lessons will be about understanding the changes in Turkey and the world."

The outcome of the case will also help the Turkish army -- a vital element of security in a sensitive, turbulent geography, crucial for NATO -- to give up acting with a culture of immunity and stop blocking all afforts to update its structures and make it more efficient and professional. It teaches a bitter lesson, too, to focus solely on its duties to defend national territory than rather than brutally engineer domestic and national security politics.

Yet, the Sledgehammer trial may have only limited resonance. It falls certainly short of abolishing the deep-rooted regime of bureaucratic tutelage. The ruling AKP government continues to drag its feet in abolishing all the laws that allow the army to interfere in civilian politics and to establish the transparency needed for a thorough monitoring and accountability of the institution.

Judicially, it will be a big challenge, as well. "There will also be lessons about fair trials, but I can not say that it was an unfair one," stated Özkök.

But certain question marks loom. The judges may have made a major mistake by disallowing the presentation of some crucial evidence, a key part of universal court procedures. The serious accusations of forgery of some documents in the trial must also be investigated further and brought to a fair conclusion. This may, if found problematic, lead the Supreme Court of Appeals to order a retrial.

The case is surely not over; it may take some more time. But some points are certain. Some of the evidence that led to the judges' ruling was strong enough. Circumstantial evidence (Özkök's statements at earlier stages, for example) seems to have played an important part in the decision, as well as in the considerations on the grounds of "public conscience."

A fair guess is that the detailed ruling may also have set a precedent for a similar organized crime trial, whose end is near: Ergenekon.

Surely all those trials that must be seen as "organized crime in political disguise" have led, in Turkey, to nasty debates and sharp polarization. Simply because they are legal processes that are political in essence. Thus, a lot of dust is being raised in the western media which, due to its lack of proper factual coverage of its case, is vulnerable to all sorts of manipulations and propaganda.

Certainly, and understandably, the relatives of the sentenced, the "privileged old elite," were assisted to discover a human rights dimension in Turkey that they had for decades ignored; and an outdated, too slow judicial system (which they also looked indifferently at, because they were enjoying impunity) as well.

As for the "civilian militarists" in the society (a reminder of those in Spain), namely all those entrenched in the media, bureaucracy and business, it has become a case where they reveal their true selves as anti-democrats, judging by their reasoning and reactions.

But for many, many others, the masses (Sunnites, Alevis, Kurds, Armenians, leftists, liberals... ), who have been subjected to harassment, brutality, threats, forced deportations and death, the case -- despite its legal shortcomings -- seems to spread rays of hope for a democracy -- justice for all.