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Ergenekon Verdicts Mark Milestone for Turkish Democracy

With the Ergenekon verdicts, Turkey is taking a very critical step on the path to true democracy.
An unidentified defendant waves out of a van as he's driven to a courthouse in Silivri, where a hearing for people charged with attempting to overthrow Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted government is due to take place, August 5, 2013. A Turkish court on Monday began sentencing nearly 300 defendants accused of plotting to overthrow the government, handing prison sentences of up to 20 years to some and acquitting 21 others. The court was announcing the verdicts individually. Verdicts on high-pro

The first phase of the Ergenekon trials, which began almost five years ago, ended yesterday, Aug. 5, without too many surprises. There were 254 sentences, 17 of them for life imprisonment, and 21 acquittals.

There are many senior military officers in the long list of convictions. Arguably, the most important verdict was finding a former chief of general staff guilty of a coup attempt and sentencing him to life imprisonment.

This is the first time this has happened in Turkey, which in its modern political history has experienced several coups and was subjected to military guided political engineering. The presence of several powerful commanders from those days among those convicted certainly adds to the legal and political importance of the case.

The Ergenekon verdicts mark the end of one era and the beginning of another under Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule — a long period of change driven by social dynamics.

In 2007, many dramatic events such as the assassination of Hrant Dink and massacre of missionaries in Malatya were followed by the April 27 "electronic memorandum” of generals. But with a decisive stand by AKP founders Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Presidnt Abdullah Gul and Bulent Arinc, the government stood up to the top military brass with a "counter-communiqué" and emerged victorious from the early elections.

The Ergenekon investigation started during those turbulent days and became an official a court case in 2008.

Information leaked from the national intelligence organization and from many other institutions and personal channels, and secret diaries leaked to the media, had already helped shape the idea in parliament of a clandestine entity: an operational “shadow state.”

The first Ergenekon indictment files gradually were combined with others, ending up 23 in total. Its claims initially raised hopes of speeding up the democratization of the country and settle accounts with its "tradition and culture of coup" on legal grounds. This is why there has been much support from the public that continues today.

The facts unearthed by the prosecutors and testimonies of about 200 witnesses, some of them with secret identities, were enough to show that the Ergenekon was not a figment of anyone's imagination. The collective memory of Turks had already amassed enough scary experiences.

The Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials became powerful symbols of the country’s change process. Their time span, coverage, methods of operations, legal procedures and the content of the indictments were key to satisfying consciences — and a sense of justice — as happened elsewhere in Spain, Argentina, Chile and Italy, for example.

So what kind of an scene emerged after Monday’s decisions? This exceptionally complex case will certainly have equally complex political and legal ramifications. It means the country, against all hopes, will not be ending a process of settling accounts but passing simply onto a new phase, painful as it also will be.

There are two reasons for this. One is about the legal dimensions of the verdicts. Legal experts who have followed similar cases worldwide expected the prosecutors to follow a proven and effective strategy. Ergenekon was not a classical underground organization. Instead of a vertical structure, it was a "mafia network" with a political agenda and resembled a spiderweb. Many flanks and cells were linked but operated unaware of each other.

But instead of focusing on the center of the web, the prosecutors wanted to broaden its coverage, so the case file kept getting thicker, becoming more complex and difficult to handle by the day. This made it a challenge to maintain the focus of the case.

In following stages, the problems multiplied due to the slow pace of the Turkish judiciary, similar to that of Italy. And the judges, who are nurtured in a "statist culture," implemented detentions as a norm, leading to claims of violation of European human rights precedents.

Most importantly, the requests of the accused to call in defense witnesses were categorically denied, which led to serious disputes. The course of the proceedings at the final stages created a sense of injustice among the accused. For a significant portion of the public in and out of Turkey, there seemed to be no clear answer to whether justice was being served.

The repercussions from this will last a long time. Appeals can take at least a year. The time needed for the accused to take their cases to the European Human Rights Court may be excessively long after Turkey recently made its Constitutional Court an "intermediary authority” before applying to the European court. This will also prolong the debate on the legitimacy of the case. The perception that “a worn-out judiciary cannot provide justice” already prevails.

What do the Ergenekon verdicts mean politically? No matter how you look at it, this point is a very critical threshold in the “demilitarization of politics" in Turkey.

The verdicts followed abrogation by parliament of a legal provision that gave the generals the right to intervene in politics and the decision of the government last week to replace the top four commanders of the military branches in conformity the the government’s decision. Taken together, these steps indicate that the possibility of coup has truly withered and civilian-military relations have normalized further for the benefit of democracy.

The civilian political environment of the country is much more at ease now as compared to 2007, but this hasn’t removed the challenge of institutionalizating democracy through a new social contract.

To the contrary, while a military threat makes a demoracy weaker, the imbalances between the single ruling party and the opposition have become more visible.

Yavuz Baydar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1979, he has been a radio reporter, news presenter, producer, TV host, foreign correspondent, debater and, in recent years, a news ombudsmen for the daily Sabah. His opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language daily Today's Zaman