In one of the most awaited trials in Turkey, nicknamed the "Sledgehammer Case," the court convicted and sentenced a large number of active and retired Turkish officers accused of trying to foment a coup d'état against the democratically elected Justice and Development Party (AKP). This judgment represents another step in the long process to end the military tutelage system in Turkey. Paradoxically, the generals have only themselves to blame for this outcome.
The trial's serious procedural and evidentiary problems notwithstanding, the verdict is unprecedented in Turkish civil-military relations. Except for a colonel who was convicted of mutiny in the 1960s, Turkish officers and certainly high-ranking generals had never faced a court proceeding for attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, much less for actually doing it as they did in 1960, 1971, 1980 and even as late as 1997.
Accountability in civilian courts is the penultimate stage in the civilianization of the Turkish military. Next, the armed forces will have to be subordinated to a civilian defense minister. From now on, no officer will ever dare to contemplate participating in any effort to overthrow an elected government. The era of military tutelage over civilian life — when officers not even directly in power exercised a great deal of influence on day-to-day politics and policy-making — is over.
The sheer scope of the case both in terms of the number of officers accused and the extent of the charges is a body blow from which the military will have a hard time recovering. The verdict will both legitimize and strengthen those in society who had labored against what The Economist had aptly labeled "Turkey's meddlesome generals." Among the 326 officers convicted are three retired four-star generals, including the former commanders of the air force, navy and the 1st Army in Istanbul who were sentenced to life imprisonment (the punishment was then reduced to 20 years). In addition, a number of three-stars were also condemned to 16–18 years in prison.
The Turkish military started intervening directly in 1960. It overthrew a three-time elected government and then hung its prime minister and two cabinet members on flimsy and even non-existent evidence. Although it left office quickly, the damage had been done because it had created an expectation among different groups in society and among members of the armed forces that whenever politicians proved or appeared to be incapable of dealing with societal challenges, the military had a duty to intervene. The officers appropriated for themselves, as opposed to the public and its elected politicians, the right to know what is best for the country. From school textbooks to the media, the military ensured that the public was socialized into accepting its preferences as those of the collective.
In 1971 and 1980, too, they overthrew governments on the grounds of incompetence. The officers who claimed to represent the modernizing elements of society defending secularism and "democracy," were in fact prone to paranoid delusions about enemies at home and abroad. These enemies consisted of Kurds, Muslim activists, religious minorities and anyone who disagreed with them. Politicians were unwitting accomplices; they cowardly acceded to the wishes of an unaccountable institution, which engaged in thousands of "disappearances" and occasionally wholesale terror.
Working in conjunction with their allies in the judiciary, the generals meted out arbitrary justice. Tens of thousands of people spent untold years in jail being tortured. They told newspapers what to publish and what not to, and ordered publishers to fire journalists and columnists at will. In sum, even when not directly in power, they ruled through forced acquiescence, which, in turn, misled them into believing they had far more societal support than they did.
The officers' self-confidence and arrogance proved to be their Achilles' heel as it caused them to commit grave strategic errors. They failed to see that their tutelage undermined the natural course of politics and weakened traditional political parties. Following the mildly Islamist AKP's 2002 electoral victory and assumption of a commanding parliamentary majority, the generals went to work to plan the overthrow of the government. When one of the AKP's founders, Abdullah Gul, sought the presidency in 2007, they issued a poorly worded online ultimatum against his candidacy. Their objection to Gul derived from the fact that his wife sported an Islamic headscarf and would therefore violate the tenets of the secular state by residing in the presidential mansion. They also mistrusted the AKP, which controlled both parliament and the presidency.
Their ultimatum was a monumental mistake: The AKP called the generals' bluff and organized parliamentary elections that were contested over Gul's right to be a candidate. The AKP won an overwhelming victory and saw its votes increase from 34% to 47% and, in due course, Gul was elected president. With the military's defeat, the government emerged from the shadows of military tutelage to introduce new changes and unleash a series of court cases against officers, only one of which concluded on Friday, Sept. 21.
The conclusion of this case does not mean that Turkey has completed its transition to democracy. The greatest irony of all is that the judicial system that convicted the officers is the same arbitrary system that they were instrumental in constructing. It is capricious; it judges people on the basis of identity rather than evidence. There are thousands of people incarcerated — politicians, activists, journalists and ordinary citizens — awaiting trial, sometimes for as many as two or three years. The charges are often laughably absurd.
The generals convicted today and their supporters who are crying foul at the conduct of their trial had the benefit of the glare of Turkish and world media. Their families have been visible and able to make their case. Other victims of this judicial system have not been so lucky; there are those in jail based on the testimony of secret witnesses the prosecutors themselves cannot produce, or even acknowledge do not exist.
Still, two rights do not make a wrong; future civil-military relations would have benefitted from a trial free of suspicion. This would have helped bring a more decisive closure to the military's involvement in politics. The AKP government has used the deeply flawed judicial system to prosecute and imprison people just as its predecessors have. Civil-military relations may be on the mend, but there is a great deal more work ahead for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has been slow to change the constitution and the laws emanating from it to bring about a system that truly adheres to the principles of the rule of law.
Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.