Analysis: Breaking down Turkey's ‘Ergenekon’ coup case

Harsh sentences handed down to high-profile politicians, academics, journalists, writers and army officers spark speculation about a possible political motive behind the case.

Erdogan jazz hands 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Erdogan jazz hands 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
ISTANBUL – A Turkish court on Monday found 254 of the 275 defendants in the “Ergenekon” case guilty of one or more of the 23 charges listed in the case that has gripped the public’s attention for the past five years.
Only court personnel, accredited journalists and members of the opposition party were allowed into the courtroom to hear the judge hand down unusually harsh sentences for the defendants, many of whom are high-profile politicians, academics, journalists, writers and army officers.
According to the court, they all banded together in a conspiracy that aspired to form an armed group and overthrow the government.
The security situation was extremely tight, with a temporary no-fly zone imposed over the jail and courthouse complex in Silivri, just west of Istanbul. Relatives of the accused and supporters of various ultra-nationalist opposition groups rallied behind the line of gendarmes holding riot shields and spraying tear gas about a kilometer outside the complex, while a number of people protested inside the courtroom.
One of those sentenced to life imprisonment is retired Gen. Ilker Basbug, who was the military’s chief of staff until 2010.
Basbug, who has rejected the allegations, responded to the verdict by stating, “The nation will say the final word. Let no one forget that there is divine justice.”
Turkey’s main opposition leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroglu, issued a statement on Monday, in which he said, “In democracies, people are judged by independent courts that believe in the superiority of the law, and not by ‘special authority courts’ that are dependent on the political authority. Hence, verdicts by special authority courts as such are not legitimate – neither legally, nor politically or morally.”
The decision has also generated reactions abroad.
In response to the verdict, Peter Stano, the spokesperson for EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle, said, “The EU does not comment on the substance of individual court rulings, but on the way the judicial process is carried out in Turkey, as a candidate country, in the light of European standards.
In this context, the commission has indicated on a number of occasions its concerns over the rights of the defense, the lengthy pre-trial detention and the excessively long and ‘catch-all’ indictments.”
Stano added that he believed that “judicial proceedings need to be sped up and the rights of the defendants should be properly ensured in the proceedings to increase Turkey’s compliance with EU standards and, more importantly, the public’s trust in the judicial system.”
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who would have been the main target of the alleged coup, had not commented by press time, but his deputy Bülent Arinc issued a statement Monday evening.
Assuming a conciliatory tone, Arinc said, “We are not happy that anyone is convicted. We won’t clap. But there is a court decision here, and the politicians should be more careful in making statements.”
Over the course of the investigation, the existence of the alleged “Ergenekon” organization has been called into question by many of those involved in the case, which gave way to speculation about a possible political motive behind the case.
The first crackdown on the group came in 2007 as a result of seemingly serendipitous events, including an investigation into a simple racketeering scheme involving cars and the discovery of a hidden cache of explosives in a makeshift apartment in the conservative working-class neighborhood of Umraniye on Istanbul’s east bank.
Within a year, a great number of documents emerged about hidden caches of weaponry across the country and details on relationships among various public intellectuals and army officers. Eventually, the prosecution linked the shadowy group to criminal cases that had polarized the nation over the last decade, including a fatal attack on Constitutional Court judges, the bombing of the Kemalist newspaper Cumhuriyet and the murder of three Christians at a bookshop in the eastern town of Malatya. According to the prosecution, these crimes were false flag operations blamed on Islamists in order to create justification for a coup against the government led by Erdogan’s AK Party.
As serious as the charges are, many in the public remain convinced that the prosecution intends to erode political opposition in the country. A separate case involving the so-called Sledgehammer Affair resulted in the conviction of about 330 officers in September for similarly plotting to overthrow Erdogan’s government.
Ergenekon and Sledgehammer have obliterated the army’s long-standing influence over state affairs.
Coming on the heels of massive street protests against the government, the verdicts in the Ergenekon case are virtually certain to create more friction in the political debate.
Erdogan has repeatedly accused the organizers of the widespread demonstrations of trying to overthrow him undemocratically, saying that the AKP “will continue to walk this road with our coffins in hand,” a statement that implies that Erdogan has no intention of backing down from his political agenda due to fear of the secular establishment.
The AKP’s back story is particularly relevant to the Ergenekon case because many of the party’s founders were targeted by the army’s latest intervention 16 years ago. At the height of its popular support, AKP predecessor the Welfare Party was declared unconstitutional following the army memorandum, and was then shut down by the Constitutional Court on the grounds of undermining the pillars of the republic.
In the process, Erdogan, who was a prominent member of the Welfare Party, was imprisoned for four months for reciting a poem that, according to the court, “incited committing an offense and religious or racial hatred.”
His tenure as prime minister also witnessed attempts to topple him outside of the ballot box. In 2008, the AKP very narrowly averted a similar closure case by the Constitutional Court on the same legal grounds. Now, many of Erdogan’s opponents argue that he has opted for the same tactic of using the legal system as a tool to suppress political dissent.
While the special court for Ergenekon has reached its verdict, a number of legal experts have stated that, in all likelihood, there will be a lengthy appeal process for some of the sentences, and several of the experts have argued that the government might eventually consider a general amnesty for the convicts as a political maneuver ahead of the general elections in 2015. Taken together, these predictions suggest that this case is far from over.
The writer is a business development executive and a freelance journalist. His blog can viewed at