Ergenekon: Turkey's Troubling Trial of the Century

October 20, 2008
The so-called 'Trial of the Century' began here today. Eight-six people, including a number of retired generals and prominent journalists, have been accused of plotting to overthrow the government. The undertaking was supposedly called 'Ergenekon.' It is so strange, so sensational, that frankly I have no idea what to believe.
It all started on June 29 of last year, when police raided a home in the Ümraniye district of Istanbul, where they found a stock of weapons. Six months later, in January of 2008, police took thirty-three suspects into custody, claiming they were part of a terrorist group that had been carrying out political assassinations in Turkey, including the January 2007 murder of Hrant Dink, editor of an Armenian-language newspaper in Istanbul. The suspects rounded up included a former Major General by the name of Veli Küçük, a retired army colonel named Fikret Karadağ, a journalist for the newspaper Akşam, Güler Kömürcü, and several other figures. One of the most intriguing names to emerge from the early investigation was Sami Hoştan, who was involved in the Susurluk scandal from the late 90s (more on that below). Police claimed that they had found a so-called 'death list' created by the group which included the names of Kurdish political figures like Ahmet Türk, Leyla Zana, Sebahat Tuncel, and Diyarbakır Mayor Osman Baydemir, as well as Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk and Zaman newspaper journalist Fehmi Konru. The group, which police claimed was a nationalist death squad with links to the state, was called Ergenekon.
For anyone who has followed Turkish politics over the past fifteen years, all of this immediately reminded us of the Susurluk scandal, which I wrote about when I was living in Turkey back in the nineties. Susurluk had begun in 1996, when a fatal car accident close to the town of Susurluk revealed that a member of parliament, Sedat Bucak, had been riding in a car with Abdullah Çatlı, who had been a right-wing street fighter in the 1970s who was on an Interpol arrest list because of drug-running and weapons charges. Bucak was injured in the crash but Çatlı and his common-law wife were killed. Found at the crash scene were thousands of dollars in cash, numerous weapons and silencers, a cache of heroin, and a number of Turkish diplomatic passports (in fake names and bearing Çatlı's photograph) personally signed by the Turkish Interior Minister, Mehmet Ağar. The alias used in Çatlı's passport was 'Mehmet Ӧzbay," the same one used by Mehmet Ali Ağca, another right-wing murderer from Turkey's bad old days of the 1970s. Ağca is best known as the guy who shot the pope in 1981. In Turkey he is also well known for murdering Abdi İpekçi, a great journalist for the newspaper Milliyet. Ağca later 'escaped' from prison in Turkey, allowing him to return to his job as a free-lance assassin and then later take a shot at the pope under the apparent supervision of the Soviet and Bulgarian intelligence services.
 It's all pretty amazing, isn't it? What's more amazing is that no one was ever brought to justice over what clearly seemed to be a case of state support for drug-running and assassination. Sedat Bucak and Mehmet Ağar both had parliamentary immunity, and so were never brought to trial for their actions. It is widely believed that the government was financing assassinations of Kurdish leaders and, possibly, other Turkish citizens. Other allegations included that the government had been involved in assassinating journalists, as well as helping to initiate the left-right violence that plagued Turkey in the 1970s and which served as the pretext for the military takeover of September 12, 1980.
So, on the one hand, the Ergenekon investigation looks promising. After all, it's a good thing to be going after what's called the 'deep state' (derin devlet) in Turkey, the spooky death squads whose existence the Susurluk scandal seemed to confirm. Yet on the other hand, the investigation has taken a strange and troubling turn.
Three days after the police took thirty-three suspects into custody in January of 2008, investigators announced that Ergenekon was not simply a right-wing death squad, but was in fact had been planning to stage a coup in Turkey. In March, police arrested two leaders of the Turkish Workers Party, Doğu Perinçek and Ferit İlsever, a former rector of Istanbul University, Kemal Alemdaroğlu, and one of the best-known journalists in the country, İlhan Selçuk. Selçuk, who is the owner and chief columnist of the venerable daily Cumhuriyet, is one of the fiercest critics of the AK Party government on a newspaper which prides itself on fiercely attacking 'Islamists' wherever it may find them in Turkey. The arrest of Selçuk led to the protest of opposition leader Deniz Baykal, who denounced the way in which the Ergenekon investigation was proceeding.
By Summer, the Ergenekon story was being referred to mainly as a plot against the government. The orginal story--that the 'deep state' had again been exposed in Turkey--was largely forgotten. On July 1, two high-ranking former generals, the Chairman of the Ankara Chamber of Commerce, and the Ankara Bureau chief of Cumhuriyet were taken into custody. One of the generals, Şener Eruygur, had been a major figure in the organization of rallies against the AK Party in the runup to the July, 2007 elections. Eruygur is also the head of the Atatürkist Thought Association--an organization with an Orwellian name but which, up to now, had mainly been known as an informal (and non-violent) branch of the opposition Republican People's Party. Several other members of the association were also arrested at this time. Once again, Deniz Baykal denounced the detentions, and as a result was himself accused of 'acting as the attorney' of the Ergenekon gang. In the days that followed, the investigation reported that coup plotters had planned to set off a bomb in Istanbul's busy Taksim Square in the hopes that it would lead to a military takeover.
Before long, police had found connections between Ergenekon and countless attacks, including the armed attack on the US consulate in July of this year. The former leader of the Kurdish Worker's Party, Abdullah Öcalan, was also reported to have been involved in Ergenekon's activities. On July 28, Cumhuriyet's Selçuk was named by investigators as the civilian wing leader of the Ergenekon conspiracy. On the same day, it was announced that Ergenekon had ties not only with the PKK, but also Hizbullah. Ergenekon, reported investigators, was responsible for planning innumerable acts of terrorism, was the hidden hand behind Turkish-Kurdish conflict, had tried to block the ascension of the AK Party's Abdullah Gül to the presidency, was responsible for the notorious Taksim Square massacre on May Day 1977, and was involved in the murder of Cumhuriyet journalist Uğur Mumcu in 1993.
My apartment in Nişantaşı was broken into in the Spring of 1994. The burglars were never apprehended. Something tells me Ergenekon must have been involved.
What to make of all this? On the one hand, nothing surprises me in Turkey. The existence of secret state-supported death squads in Turkey is not news to anyone who followed Susurluk. On the other hand, much of this seems very strange. İlhan Selçuk working with Hizbullah? Scores of social democratic left-wing republican/secularist Turks conspiring with the PKK to murder prominent left-wing republican/secularist journalists in hopes of...what? Bringing down the government? In 1997, the Turkish military effectively overthrew Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan simply by holding a series of press conferences in which the country's leading generals announced that 1) Turkey was a secular country, 2) the Army has a responsibility for maintaining the country's secular character, and 3) the Army believed Erbakan was putting that secular character at risk. Erbakan got the message, and resigned before things got out of hand. The claims of the Ergenekon investigators that a vast conspiracy tried again and again to overthrow the government, without success, therefore strike me as very difficult to believe. And since when do plots to take overthrow the government in Turkey involve journalists and university professors?
Indeed, just as Erbakan's ouster came to be known as the 'soft coup' or 'postmodern coup' in Turkey, during the Summer of this year--at the same time in which the Ergenekon probe was transformed into an investigation into anti-government plotting--the country's Supreme Court was widely expected to hand down a verdict closing the AK Party and banning several dozen of its parliamentarians from politics. I had written about this last June, and felt quite confident that the party would be closed down. It wasn't. In a move that surprised everybody, the Supreme Court ruled that the AK Party only had to pay a fine.
Was the Ergenekon investigation a pre-emptive strike to intimidate those who would shut the AK Party down?
I truly hope that there is some basis to the Ergenekon charges. I really do hope that the AK Party has not somehow managed to hijack an investigation into the deep state and transform it into a witchhunt against its political rivals. But frankly, I find all of this too unbelievable. That a single organization is responsible for seemingly every crime ever committed in Turkey seems preposterous. That a conspiracy of academics, journalists, generals, and right-wing fascists worked together to carry out assassinations of Kurds and republican/secularists strikes me as totally unbelievable.
But like I said, I hope I'm wrong.
I guess we'll find out more as the trial unfolds.