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Former Chief of Staff Is a Convicted 'Terrorist'

One needs to worry for younger Turkish generations as to what it means when the courts send Ilker Basbug, a former chief of general staff, behind bars for life as a “terrorist organization leader.”
Protesters run after a prison van as an unidentified defendant sticks his fist out 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 verdi

In the 321st hearing that spread over four years, producing more than 2.5 million pages of documents, leading to nearly 7,000 interim judgments, pulling together 23 separate indictments into one where 275 defendants stood trial, the board of judges at an Istanbul special court hearing this case reached a verdict on Monday, Aug. 5, and found the accused guilty of the alleged crime: that is, being members of a secret group calling itself Ergenekon, composed of former and active military personnel and their civilian counterparts, to bring down the elected, Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

In raining heavy sentences ranging from life in prison, to acquittal, the court also decided that Ergenekon is indeed a “terror organization,” and its members are “terrorists,” including Ilker Basbug, a former chief of general staff between August 2008 and August 2010, the highest-ranking military officer before the judges, sent to prison for life convicted of “leading a terrorist organization.” 

Since the first trial started in October 2008, the public split on believing the independence of this special court, and the debates on this issue turned into a political football game — forcing people to take sides with the government or the opposition. It became less and less important tying the crime to the suspects, because it’s humanly impossible to read all these record numbers of pages of indictments and court proceedings to reach a knowledgeable judgment. Moreover, there has been much digital evidence that has been proven by the defense teams to be forgeries. The public debates still became all too general, where one side made it a statement against military coups and progress toward democracy. The opposing side, in essence, argued that this was becoming a political lynching campaign, not a marathon into democratization.

No doubt that there is a “deep state” in this country, and that all would benefit to see the end to it, making state institutions transparent, treating all its citizens equally, watching out for their best interests without creating privileged classes. Conviction is, however, a personal calamity, and if there are questions about the judiciary holding up the highest standards of the rule of law, that needs to be taken into account in deciding how this case helps to normalize the civilian-military relationship or strengthen the country’s democracy. What it looks like right now is  that respect for the rule of law has taken a new blow in this country, and people are more polarized than ever in trusting the judiciary.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader, said, for example, on Aug. 5, as reaction to the court ruling, “In democracies, people are put to trial not at a special court dependent on political authority, but at normal courts respecting the rule of law. Therefore, the decisions taken by these special courts are not lawful decisions judicially, politically and morally.” He went on to say, “The verdicts reached by these courts are illegal. … These courts don’t take into account what it means to uphold the “supremacy of law.” The main function of these courts is to implement the orders of the ruling government.”

Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), said also on the same day, “It’s no doubt that the verdict is the result of a politicized, and scandalous judiciary. After all, it’s against the law of nature that a court proceeding such as this finds a place in the national conscience, where the ringleaders of the [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK are listened to as witnesses, the evidence is obfuscated and documents and information are falsified.” Bahceli stressed that this lower court’s decision will certainly go to the High Court of Appeals for the final word and until that court decides on this case, it’s not over yet. “If this injustice is not mended and objective steps based on facts are not taken, Turkey’s social and political structure will not be free of problems and chaos.”

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, however, objects to all things said by the opposition leaders, and argues that the verdict is a victory for the country and is a testimony to the independence of the judiciary. “No one is has the privilege to commit a crime. The judiciary gave the most rightful decision according to itself. We will observe all together what happens next. We’re not celebrating anyone’s conviction, but all need to respect the court order,” he said, adding that some of the sentences could have been shorter. Egemen Bagis, minister in charge of Turkey’s accession talk with the European Union (EU), celebrated the verdict. “We’re living a historic day as a country in the name of democracy and rule of law. Today, it is officially accepted that Ergenekon is a terror organization,” Bagis said. “[The decision] is also compatible with this country’s determination to become a full member of the EU.”

Metin Feyzioglu, Head of Turkey’s Bar Association, however, expressed strong criticism of the way the special court heard the case. “We are protesting the court for denying the suspects the right to fair trial, as well as the whole court proceeding, including the injustice to the legal defense teams,” he said yesterday, Aug. 5. Feyzioglu has been expressing strong dismay about the legal process of this trial from the very beginning, and arguing that this has been a politicized case.

It’s indeed that point where Western diplomats speaking to Al-Monitor express concern that Turkey failed to uphold the highest standards respecting the rule of law in a critical case such as this, which, if handled properly, could indeed have helped strengthen Turkish democracy. The current perception, however, is that it turned out to be nothing but a witch hunt in an attempt to silence all sorts of opposition to the ruling AKP government. Therefore, all eyes have turned to the High Court of Appeals for the final word on this case and that means it will take a long time to see the end of this matter.

“I understand that Turkish law allows these verdicts to be appealed, so we won’t comment on any eventual outcome from an appeal, but we’ll continue watching the process,” Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman for the US State Department, said yesterday. 

“Many Turkish citizens have expressed serious concerns regarding the length and lack of transparency of the trial process and the manner in which these verdicts and sentences were reached.”

Whatever the court decides in the end based on facts and evidence, one can’t help wondering what it would mean for Turkey to put  one of its former chiefs of general staff and a goodly number of its military personnel behind bars as members of a “terrorist organization.” People who have fought against the PKK for years in the name of defending the country today are being sent behind bars as convicted terrorists — just like them. Many in Ankara’s beltway even speculate that the government will eventually prepare a new legislation for general amnesty, freeing all those like imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and Ilker Basbug. Call it cynicism at its best, but there should be ways of expanding our vocabulary to distinguish at the least between coup-plotters and terrorists.

And if the government is really keen in its fight against terrorism, why in the world an Ankara court in February let Suleiman Abu-Gheith, the former spokesman of al-Qaeda, and son-in-law of Osama bin-Laden, go free? The answer is that because he did not commit a crime in this country besides entering “with a forged passport.” It is time to introduce new legislation and fill the vacuum in law in that respect about the lack of defining who a terrorist is before a Turkish court. If the members of al-Qaeda-like organizations don’t constitute terrorists, why should Basbug be treated now as one?

Personally, though, I worry that the court's failure in using these words properly will lead to erosion in the meaning of what actually is a terrorist or terrorist organization. I worry that our children will be confused and will grow up being exposed to hypocrisy where whoever has the power can name one or the other without really paying full attention to what these words should stand for.

In the long run, I worry that Turkish society will suffer from raising a generation of young Turks in an atmosphere where, on the one hand, terrorism is condemned and, on the other hand, who a terrorist is becomes a contested issue dividing society more and more every day. 

Tulin Daloglu is a contributor to Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. She has also written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York TimesInternational Herald TribuneThe Middle East TimesForeign PolicyThe Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report.

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