As the first major trials of military personnel accused of involvement in the failed July coup get underway, many people are eager to learn exactly what happened that night.
Instead of combining the cases into a single trial, the Turkish authorities have divided them according to their importance and location. The intention is to expedite the court process and make the events more understandable.
The first major case involves the Marmaris resort in southwest Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was vacationing at the time of the coup. On trial nearby in Mugla are elite personnel from the special forces, the air force's search-and-rescue teams and the navy's underwater assault teams.
The other major case concerns events at the Special Forces Command headquarters near Ankara, where Senior Master Sgt. Omer Halisdemir was killed. Halisdemir is hailed as a hero for killing Brig. Gen. Semih Terzi, who is thought to have led some of the coup plotters. That case is being tried in Ankara.
The indictments are very serious. Most of the defendants in both cases are accused of attempting to eliminate constitutional order, attempting to eradicate the Turkish government and national parliament, and murder — crimes that call for two or three consecutive life sentences. Mihrali Atmaca, charged with killing Halisdemir, could face four life sentences. Capital punishment was abolished in Turkey in 2004 as part of Turkey’s accession process to the European Union. Since the coup attempt, Erdogan has been saying that if the parliament were to approve reinstating the death penalty, he would endorse it immediately.
A few defendants could face lighter sentences of 7½-15 years if convicted of belonging to an armed terror organization.
The Marmaris case and the events at the Special Forces Command headquarters have some important similarities, but also some key differences.
First, all of the main defendants are officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) who serve in Turkey’s elite units. Both cases have attracted exceptional public interest. The important difference between the cases is that the special forces personnel involved in the Ankara operation were part of an established unit with an intact chain of command, brought to Ankara from Diyarbakir by Terzi and 12th Battalion Commander Maj. Fatih Sahin. The personnel involved in the Marmaris operation who were seeking to detain Erdogan or, as some say, to assassinate him, were mostly individual officers on leave, assembled from courses they were attending or on temporary duty in different units. They were not a coherent unit with a proper chain of command.
Many of the defendants are alleged to be followers of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan said organized the coup.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Gokhan Sahin Sonmezates, who led the Marmaris attack, said in his court defense, “I am not a Gulenist, but a coup maker. I joined this operation, and I am paying the price. The order was given by Terzi. We were told that Turkish Armed Forces [TSK] had taken over the government and the order for the action came from the chief of general staff.
"I have nothing to do with FETO," he said, referring to the so-called Fethullah Gulen Terror Organization, which is how Ankara refers to Gulenists.
Sonmezates' statements raise some questions. If he, who was earlier identified by the news media as a Gulenist, had no affiliation with the group, then it's not clear what motivated him to assemble such an assortment of personnel. Also, he claimed he had received orders from Terzi, who was a brigadier general like himself and so could not have given Sonmezates orders.
Another defendant, Maj. Taner Berber, commander of the air force's search-and-rescue teams, also denies being a Gulenist. Instead, he said, he is a “nationalist officer loyal to principles of [Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk.”
Maj. Sukru Seymen, who led the special forces team at Marmaris, was more defiant than other defendants. “I am not afraid of anything. I attempted a coup. If the punishment is to be hanged, so be it. The only thing I did was to carry out the orders given to me by Gens. Gokhan and Semih. Our mission was to transfer the president to Ankara in good health,” he said at the trial.
Capt. Bahadir Sagun, who put the blame on Sonmezates, made headlines when he said, “The chief of general staff did not realize that his aide-de-camp, the officer closest to him, was a FETO adherent. How was I supposed to know that my commanding general was from FETO?”
In the Ankara special forces case, defendants argued about who gave the order to shoot Halisdemir and who actually killed him. Sahin and the other team commanders and NCOs repeatedly emphasized that they came as a coherent, structured single unit to Ankara on Terzi’s orders. The NCOs told the court they had only carried out the orders of their commanders and therefore should not be held responsible. Maj. Gen. Zekai Aksakalli, a special forces commander, is scheduled to testify March 20. If he shows up, many hazy aspects of the failed coup night will be cleared up.
For one, is it realistic to expect soldiers to question TSK commanders’ orders?
According to laws regulating civil servants, it is a crime for an employee to carry out an “illegal order.” But the TSK’s internal regulations require "absolute obedience to superiors" and metes out stiff punishments to subordinates who disobey orders. In other words, in a rigidly hierarchical body like the TSK, questioning orders is never easy. It's little wonder that all of the NCOs present at the special forces command center on the night of July 15 told the court they simply carried out the orders given by Terzi and Sahin. It will be interesting to see how civilian judges, who are not familiar with military rules and regulations and the traditional mindset, will interpret the regulations.
In the testimonies of defendants in both cases, some important points emerge. In both cases, none of the 50 defendants who have testified so far have admitted any connection with the Gulenist movement. In the Marmaris case, NCO Zekeriya Kuzu, who is reputed to have been the top Gulenist at Izmir Cigli Air Base and who is also labeled as the movement’s local leader, denied any relationship with the Gulenists. He said his son had attended a Gulenist school and he as a parent might have met some Gulenists, but none of that would prove he is a Gulenist.
So the defendants of both cases can be grouped into four categories:
The first contains those who accused others, as Sonmezates did by putting the entire blame on the deceased Terzi, saying he took orders from him. That pattern of blaming a dead officer is likely to continue. This category includes the lower-rank officers and NCOs who said they knew nothing but were simply following orders.
In another category are defendants who had, in their earlier testimonies, admitted their affiliation with Gulen, but later recanted. Prosecutors will have to submit concrete evidence to show these defendants had ties to the movement.
Another is made up of those who said they are nationalist, Ataturkist officers and have nothing to do with FETO. We will need to hear why they took part in the coup attempt.
The last category, small so far, comprises those who have expressed defiance, saying, “Yes, I did it. I have my reasons.”
Under Turkish law, military personnel facing coup-related charges are to be tried in civilian criminal court. With the testimony by defendants and witnesses, the Turkish military's "black box" will be opened and its internal workings, culture and intricacies will be extensively discussed. In the past, we have expected soldiers to understand civilians, but now it seems we need for civilians to understand soldiers. Given the reluctance of civilians to get involved with the military and their lack of knowledge about the TSK’s workings, it's not going to be easy.
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