Lawyer Among 29 Held Over Murders


The Irish Times
February 2, 2008 Saturday

TURKEY: Prosecutors claim to have unmasked a plot to engineer a coup
by murdering dissidents, writes Nicholas Birch in Istanbul

Turkish investigations into a gang suspected of a series of
high-profile killings and a plot to murder Nobel Prize-winning novelist
Orhan Pamuk broadened this week, in a crackdown some are comparing
to the anti-Mafia operations in Italy in the 1990s.

Twenty-nine people, including a retired general and a prominent lawyer,
have now been charged by an Istanbul prosecutor with "provoking armed
rebellion against the government". Their plan, allegedly, was to
assassinate public intellectuals, Kurdish politicians, even military
targets, as part of a campaign to destabilise Turkish society and
force military intervention.

Dubbed "Ergenekon" by the Turkish press, the plotters’ target date
was in 2009. But after two years of increasing social tensions
that culminated in army coup threats in April 2007, the group
already seems to have a lot to account for. One of the men charged
is Alparslan Arslan, currently on trial for the May 2006 murder of
a judge at the High Court in Ankara. The attack on this secularist
bastion triggered a backlash that culminated in last spring’s massive
secular demonstrations.

The judge’s death was blamed at the time on extremist Islamists. Yet
while Arslan himself appears to be religious-minded, many of those
behind him are secular-minded, self-styled patriots.

It’s a mix Turks call "the Red Apple coalition", a counter-intuitive
collaboration based on rabid nationalism and a determination to block
Turkey’s path from authoritarianism to full democracy.

Unsurprisingly, evidence linking Ergenekon to the murder of Hrant Dink,
a mould-breaking Armenian-Turkish journalist whose assassination last
January sparked deep social polarisation, is mounting fast.

One of those arrested last week is Kemal Kerincsiz, the lawyer who
opened dozens of cases against dissident intellectuals including Dink
and Pamuk.

A key suspect, meanwhile, is retired general Veli Kucuk, whose
presence at Dink’s trial, Dink later wrote, convinced him the death
threats he was getting were serious. Alleged founder of a shadowy
military police intelligence unit suspected of the murders of dozens
of Kurdish activists in the 1990s, Kucuk also has strong links to
Trabzon, the home town of Dink’s killers.

"He recently set up a security company there, and owns a local
magazine," explains Belma Akcura, an investigative journalist whose
book on state-mafia links was published last year. "Who writes for
the magazine? A retired colonel linked to the nationalist group Dink’s
killers frequented."

Akcura points to another of the bizarre coincidences piling up around
the Ergenekon case: the High Court gunman and the Trabzon man suspected
of masterminding the Dink murder attended the same secondary school
in the eastern city of Elazig.

Kucuk rose to notoriety in 1997 when it turned out he was the last
man to talk to a convicted nationalist multi-murderer who died when
a car carrying a police chief and a pro-state Kurdish MP crashed at
high speed. Dubbed "Susurluk", the ensuing scandal shed a grim light
on the Turkish state’s dabbling in organised crime.

For many, Kucuk’s presence in Ergenekon proves the gang is part of the
"Deep State", a shadowy nexus of politicians, civilian and military
bureaucrats and mafia many believe tries to twist Turkish society to
its own anti-democratic agenda.

Back in 1997, the then prime minister blocked a parliamentary
commission’s demand that Kucuk give evidence. The army promoted him
shortly afterwards. Some see his arrest now as evidence that Turkey
is getting better.

"It’s early days, but I’m optimistic we’re seeing signs of a
fundamental change in the balance of power between the elected
government and the state," says Alper Gormus, editor of a magazine
that was shut last year after it revealed a top admiral’s plans for
a military coup.

Others point out that Kucuk was then an active officer. Now he’s not.

"What we have here is a bunch of retired men trying to use the
influence they once had to their own ends," says Fehmi Koru, a
prominent columnist who was on the gang’s hit-list.

Most analysts think the real crunch will come when magistrates move
against acting officers whose internet chats on the finer points of
Ergenekon strategy began leaking into the press this week.

The allegations brought an uncharacteristially cautious public
statement on Wednesday from Turkey’s chief of staff. "The Turkish
armed forces are not a criminal organisation," Yasar Buyukanit said.

"Those who commit an offence as army members will be tried in court
and punished."

In an investigation whose success ultimately depends on government
determination, analysts are divided as to how far it will go. Some
think the army – whose coup threats last year served only to boost
the government’s crushing electoral victory – will think twice before
intervening again.

Others think the government’s backing for the investigation has more
to do with short-term power struggles with the army than any deep
desire to cleanse the state of its links to crime.

For Belma Akcura, the government’s limitations became evident in
its lack of interest in following up the Dink murder, an ongoing
investigation it has no vested interests in.

"I’ve looked into hundreds of political murder cases, and in all of
them all you get at the end are the footsoldiers, never the top of
the pyramid," she says. "To have the will to get to the top, you have
to believe in law, in democracy. These people do not."

Reuters adds: The Turkish government’s plans to allow female students
to wear the Muslim headscarf at university will provoke campus
chaos and street violence and end up destroying the secular state,
university rectors said yesterday.

"After such changes in the constitution and the law, the republic of
Turkey would inevitably turn into a religious state," Mustafa Akaydin,
head of Turkey’s inter-university council, said to loud applause from
dozens of academics. "We are worried that the universities will be
plunged into chaos . . . Universities are the venue for knowledge, not
for [ religious] faith," he said, reading out a statement unanimously
approved by the rectors after an emergency meeting in Ankara.

Some professors chanted, "Turkey is secular and will remain secular",
and held up a banner that read: "Enough already, wake up! Let’s protect
the principles and revolution of Ataturk and the secular republic!"