The Ergenekon Case and Turkey’s Democratic Aspirations
Since its foundation in 1923, the Republic of Turkey has endured three military coups against democratically elected governments, in 1960, 1971, and 1980. A fourth military intervention—in the form of an ultimatum—brought down a coalition government led by the Islamist Refah Partisi (Welfare Party) in 1997. Since 2002, however, the Adelet ve Kalkına Partisi (Justice and Development Party, or AKP) has consolidated power, offering a platform of political conservatism with an Islamic bent and neoliberal economic development that has garnered unprecedented popular support.
The AKP’s reform program, intended to bring the country’s political institutions in line with European Union standards, has earned praise for considerably hindering the political power of the military. According to a 2009 poll, 65 percent of Turks agree that the military should stay out of politics. Some, however, see the AKP’s reform effort as an opportunistic means of arrogating power and weakening the traditional guardians of Turkish secularism. Indeed, the political situation is typically characterized as a contest between proponents of democracy and defenders of secularism, but events in the last few years indicate that this simple dichotomy is insufficient. Chief among these developments is the ongoing investigation of the so-called Ergenekon organization.
Ergenekon is an alleged clandestine ultranationalist group that aims to overthrow the AKP. It is said to consist of elements of the military and police, terrorist or paramilitary groups, nongovernmental organizations, organized crime, journalists, politicians, judges, and government officials. While reminiscent of a conspiracy theory, Ergenekon is by no means the first such organization popularly believed to exist in Turkey. Clandestine nationalist organizations are said to have formed in the 1970s as a part of a CIA-backed effort to combat communism in Turkey, and continued to exert influence in Turkish society through criminal and political manipulation, including assassinations. Ergenekon is characterized as a successor of these elusive networks, dubbed the derin devlet, or “deep state,” in the Turkish media.
The current investigation began in June 2007, after an anonymous tip led police to a stash of explosives connected to two retired officers, whose computers allegedly contained information about an organization called Ergenekon. The resulting 2008 trial of 86 individuals, including retired senior military officers, was initially lauded as a success for civilian democracy.
In 2009, the Ergenekon probe underwent a major expansion. New evidence regarding four concrete coup plots surfaced in high-ranking officers’ testimony, and documents detailed planned assassinations of major political and intellectual figures, including Nobel-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk. The revelations sparked a series of aggressive police raids, which uncovered arms caches in Ankara and Istanbul. In June 2009, police found a document detailing military plans to undermine the AKP and eradicate the influence of a movement led by Muslim theologian Fethullah Gülen. The 300-page document implicated active military officers, including Chief of the General Staff İlker Başbuğ.
In 2010, serious concerns arose regarding the use of various provisions in the penal code—such as Article 285 on privacy and Article 288 on attempts to influence a trial—to imprison journalists who criticized the Ergenekon prosecutions. By the end of that year, there were thousands of open investigations against journalists, and 43 were in pretrial detention.
As of January 2012, this number had increased to over 100, due in part to the December 2011 arrest of 38 journalists accused of producing propaganda for Kurdish terrorist groups. In a speech following those arrests, Minister of the Interior İdris Naim Şahin said there were “a great number of people who support terrorist organizations through their works, paintings, articles, poems and other art forms.” The remarks indicated that the AKP will treat criticism of its policies regarding Ergenekon or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group as collusion with those organizations. In the long term, this will serve to homogenize the Turkish media landscape, as publications self-censor to avoid incurring massive fines.
The March 2011 arrest of two renowned journalists, Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık, confirmed that the AKP was targeting its most serious and effective critics. Şener, a popular investigative journalist, wrote a book in 2009 about the possible complicity of government forces in the murder of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. At the time of his arrest, Şık was writing a book about the Gülen movement’s infiltration, since the AKP’s first electoral victory in 2002, of the bureaucracy and police force. Both men, who have remained in detention since their arrest, categorically deny involvement in Ergenekon and insist that their cases are simply a form of retribution for their writings.
The sprawling nature of the Ergenekon case makes precise data difficult to ascertain, but according to conservative estimates, well over 300 individuals linked to the probe are awaiting trial behind bars. It is no coincidence that the two groups most affected—journalists and military officers—are seen as the most significant obstacles to the AKP’s political and ideological agenda.
By using problematic articles in the penal code to attack critics and dissidents, the AKP and its prosecutors have transformed a legitimate attempt to dismantle an antidemocratic, criminal organization into a series of show trials, during which innocent and guilty alike languish in jail. Some analysts claim that the phenomenon represents the growing pains of a burgeoning democratic society. There may be some truth to this argument, but it does not justify the abuses, nor does it address their international implications. These capricious, vengeful arrests undermine Turkey’s aspiration to serve as a model and champion for the democracy movements of the Arab Spring, as well as its status as a potential member of the European Union.
It is indisputable that the AKP has made progress in democratizing Turkey’s government institutions and bringing the military under civilian control, but there is much still to be accomplished. The articles in the penal code that restrict freedom of expression should be removed, the antiterrorism laws should be narrowed in scope, and the judiciary must be reformed to allow for due process and eliminate improper detention. In short, the AKP should use its popular mandate not to marginalize its opposition and attack dissidents, but to implement positive legal and institutional reforms. Far from fettering its stated agenda or diminishing its public support, this would empower the government’s international ambitions, both in Europe and the Middle East.
* E. P. Licursi is an editor at Bidoun, a cultural journal based in New York. He was the Turkey analyst for Freedom in the World 2012.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.