Turkish Tensions Deepen As 86 Accused In Coup Plot

Mark Mackinnon

Globe and Mail
July 15 2008

ISTANBUL — Turkey’s vast secular-religious divide – and the
high-stakes struggle between the two sides – was on spectacular
display yesterday as prosecutors accused dozens of senior military,
business and media figures of planning a coup against the country’s
mildly Islamist government.

Depending on which side of the divide you stand, the indictment is
either an instance of the judicial system acting to preserve democracy
against an interventionist military, or a spectacular example of the
governing AK Party persecuting its opponents.

Turkey’s religious and secular elites have been at odds for decades,
but now the struggle for power seems set to be decided in the country’s
courtrooms. The coup plot allegations come as the AK Party is facing a
constitutional court challenge, brought forward by its secular foes,
that could see Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President
Abdullah Gul forced to resign and their party banned from politics.

The stakes clearly couldn’t be any higher. The 2,455-page indictment
filed yesterday by Istanbul’s public prosecutor, Aykut Cengiz Engin,
accuses 86 individuals of being members of a secret ultranationalist
organization called Ergenekon that sought to defend Turkey’s secular
traditions by bringing down Mr. Erdogan’s government.

The alleged conspirators were accused of planning to spread violence
and chaos through the country, eventually forcing the army to intervene
and seize power in the name of maintaining order. The case first
came to light last year, when a cache of grenades and explosives was
discovered during a police raid on a house in Istanbul.

Prosecutors have linked Ergenekon to a number of violent incidents
around the country in the past two years, including the assassination
of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007.

The shadowy organization is allegedly headed by Sener Eruygur, the
retired head of the Gendarmerie, a branch of the Turkish armed forces
responsible for maintaining public order, and Hursit Tolon, another
retired general. Though the details of the indictment will not be
made public until a court agrees to hear the case, many of the names
and specific allegations have already been leaked in the Turkish press.

Most of the other alleged conspirators are reported also to be retired
military officials, while several prominent journalists and academics,
as well as leaders of the left-wing Workers’ Party, are also believed
to have been named in the indictment. Forty-eight of the suspects
are already in police custody, some of them having been arrested as
far back as a year ago.

Mr. Engin told a news conference here that the charges filed against
the 86 included counts of membership in a terrorist organization and
attempting to overthrow the government by force. A court must decide
within two weeks whether to hear the case.

The group is actually alleged to have plotted to depose the government
on four separate occasions after the AK Party’s sweeping victory in
2002 elections. The most recent plot was to have unfolded earlier this
month with a wave of bombings and assassinations – Nobel Prize-winning
author Orhan Pamuk is believed to have been one target – creating
widespread unrest that would force the army to step in.

Turkey’s military, which sees itself as the defender of the secular
constitution in this overwhelmingly Muslim state, has staged four
coups in the past 50 years. "The military interferes in political life
in Turkey. They try to influence elections, they tried to pressure
the government into not electing the current president," political
analyst Andrew Finkel said. "There’s obviously an issue where people
who had power think they can hang onto power."

Mr. Finkel said Ergenekon is perceived to be just one incarnation of
what many Turks refer to as "Deep State" – members of the military
and political elite who have long controlled the country from behind
the scenes. The name Ergenekon refers to a legendary mountain in Asia
where, according to myth, Turks gathered to escape the Mongol hordes.

The government’s opponents, however, say that the case is little
more than the official persecution of the AK Party’s enemies. In his
retirement, Gen. Eruygur headed the Kemalist Thought Association –
named after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey’s secular
republic – a group that was involved in organizing mass rallies
against the AK Party ahead of elections last year. The effort failed,
and the AK Party was resoundingly re-elected.

Indeed, many see the Ergenekon investigation as the government’s
attempt to strike back ahead of the looming Constitutional Court
ruling on the legality of the AK Party. Some of the Ergenekon
arrests were carried out hours before an Ankara court was to hear
the 162-page indictment alleging that the AK Party intends to create
an Islamic state in Turkey, a charge the AK Party denies. A ruling
on the Constitutional Court case is expected some time in the next
three weeks.

"I want to believe that there was no political motivation, or
there was no link between this case and the closure case at the
Constitutional Court against the ruling AKP … [but] it is obvious
that prosecutors will have a difficult time to prove their thesis
that there was a terrorist establishment aimed at toppling the elected
government. … Proving these charges will be an uphill task for the
prosecutor," said Yusuf Kanli, a columnist with the Turkish Daily News,
an English-language newspaper seen as pro-secular.

The AK Party is an offshoot of the Welfare Party, an Islamist movement
that was declared unconstitutional and banned in 1997. Mr. Erdogan,
who at the time was mayor of Istanbul and a Welfare Party member,
was sentenced to 10 months in prison for reciting a religious poem
in public that was deemed inflammatory.


A tumultuous past

Governments in Turkey have often faced coups or the threat of one
when secularists feel in jeopardy.

1920 A revolt led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a distinguished Ottoman
general, led to the collapse of the sultanate centred in Istanbul and
the establishment of the new state of Turkey. In 1928, Turkey became
a secular republic.

1960 The government was overthrown by a military coup led by General
Cemal Gursel, who accused it of betraying Ataturk’s principle of
secularism. Work on a new constitution began immediately and it was
approved by a referendum in July of 1961. An election was held in
October of that year and the army withdrew from active political

1980 After a long period of political instability and violence, mainly
between left-wing and right-wing groups, the army seized power in
a bloodless coup and abolished the assembly, political parties and
trade unions, jailed thousands of dissidents and put Turkey under
martial law. In November of 1982, a national referendum approved a
new constitution and in December a new election was held.