On June 22, 2012, an F-4 Turkish air force plane was shot down by Syrian air defenses. Two pilots were killed in the plane that crashed into the Mediterranean. Multiple investigations were carried out, but the prosecutor is investigating only a lawyer who is charged with "revealing state secrets" and "endangering the state’s military operations." How Syria’s shooting down a Turkish plane ends with an investigation targeting a lawyer in Turkey is an interesting saga that would make anyone ponder.
After the shooting down of the plane, there was a long debate both in Turkey and abroad whether the plane was shot down over Syrian territorial waters or in international airspace. Further questions remained, such as: What was the Turkish plane doing there? And how will Turkey respond? One month after the incident, Sedat Ergin of Hurriyet Daily patched together statements from the Turkish military command and pieced together, in detail, the circumstances of the incident. Ergin wrote:
"On June 22 at 10:30, the plane takes off from the Malatya Erhac base first flies toward Cyprus ... then turns toward Syrian airspace, and at 11:42 it enters Syria’s 12-mile-wide airspace at an altitude of 200 feet, about 70 meters. According to the official Turkish account, the plane remains in Syrian airspace for five minutes, exits at 11:47 and directly enters Turkish airspace west of Hatay. The second test flight leg starts from Hatay ... Contact was lost with the plane one mile outside Syrian airspace."
Everyone knows the rest. The Turkish plane was shot down by Syrian air defenses. There is a dispute whether the second leg of the flight violated Syrian airspace. Even if it had, Syria’s shooting it down without warning is a matter of contention from the international law angle. But this article will try to dwell on what happened after the plane was shot down.
Ergin's article asks why the F-4 violated Syrian airspace for five minutes in the first flight leg. As pilots cannot decide their flight paths by themselves, Ergin wonders who ordered them to fly this course and why. When one looks at the details, other reasonable questions come to mind, such as why the F-4 was at such a low altitude; why it was a single plane mission; and why the plane was unarmed.
The Turkish chief of general staff’s military prosecutor also investigated the incident. In a statement to the public on September 2012, it was confirmed that the plane was shot down by Syrians 8.6 miles from Syrian territorial waters. The statement did not refer to any of the questions above. At the moment, there are no legal proceedings against anybody.
But the families of the pilots killed in the incident were not satisfied with the information made public by military authorities. Last January, they initiated legal action at the Malatya public prosecutor's office through their lawyer Mehmet Katar. In his petition, the lawyer acknowledged that although Syria was responsible for shooting down the Turkish plane, there may have been incidents of negligence and malice on behalf of the Turkish authorities.
Katar came up with interesting claims after conducting his own investigation and making contacts with the military unit where the pilots served. According to Katar, the plane’s flight course for the day was determined solely according to a request of the National Intelligence Service (MIT). Katar said that although military officials warned that the breaching of Syrian airspace would be risky, MIT insisted on this particular flight plan. The true objective of the flight, according to Katar, was the MIT and air force's desire to test a newly developed air defense system and mobile radar. They wanted to test an ELINT, or electronic signals intelligence system, that would augment electronic intelligence data acquisition.
Prosecutors in Malatya, where the pilots were based, must have taken the claims of the lawyer seriously. They asked in writing the permission of the prime ministry, as required by law, for the MIT undersecretary to testify.
It was bewilderment after this point. The MIT undersecretary filed a criminal complaint against the lawyer and the relevant prosecutors who were investigating negligence and malice charges against himself and the Air Force Command.
Of course the MIT’s legal complaints had immediate effect, and the Malatya prosecutors decided in June 2012 that this investigation was not in their jurisdiction and passed the file to the chief of general staff's military prosecutor.
Katar said the MIT’s complaint against him actually verifies his claims: "Nobody, including the MIT and the air force, has said that the MIT did not request such a flight. Could MIT say that it had nothing to do that with the air force and that flight? No, it couldn’t."
The only ongoing investigation is now the one against Katar, which is based on Article 304 of the Turkish Penal Code that regulates "war provocation." If the prosecutors so deem, the lawyer could be imprisoned, if convicted, for 10 to 20 years.
We will probably never known whether the flight course was drawn by the MIT, and, if so, why. The victims' families will probably never learn for sure the course of events that led to their sons' deaths.
Although it seems that we will not be fully enlightened as to the events that led to the crashing of the F-4, we understand that his plane type doesn’t have much life left in Turkey’s defense. According to reports, the military command wants to totally phase out about a hundred F-4s before 2020 and replace them with American F-35s. In short, the bill for the shooting down of a Turkish F-4 comes out to a lawyer and an F-4 plane. Though we don’t know what will transpire in the legal process against the lawyer, we know that we won’t be seeing F-4s for much longer in Turkish skies.
Orhan Kemal Cengiz is a Turkish lawyer, journalist and human rights activist. A former president of the Human Rights Agenda Association, a respected Turkish NGO that works on human rights issues, since 2002 he has been the lawyer of the Alliance of Turkish Protestant Churches. He writes for Today’s Zaman and Radikal.
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