Before leaving Turkey for London with my family in 1999, I remember regularly seeing uniformed men on television commenting on something, that seemed incredibly dull to me. Back then, at the age of twelve, I used to think that those generals were the untouchable leaders of our country.
Only fourteen years later, a historic verdict has ended my childhood understanding of Turkey. Last week, on August 5, the results of the five-year-long Ergenekon trial were announced.
The Ergenekon case, which many commentators have dubbed the “trial of the century,” officially began in 2007 when an assortment of munitions was discovered by the police in Istanbul’s Ümraniye district. Prosecutors say an alleged network of secular arch-nationalists, code-named Ergenekon, pursued extra-judicial killings and bombings in order to trigger a military coup, an example of the anti-democratic forces that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) has fought to stamp out.
Critics of the trial, including the secularist main opposition party, have said the charges are trumped up and are aimed at stifling the opposition and taming the secularist establishment that has long dominated Turkey. Opponents of the case say the judiciary has been subject to political influence in hearing the case and that the AKP is taking revenge on the secularist military and its political wings in response to the four previous military coups.
The threat of a present-day coup is not far-fetched: the military staged three coups in Turkey between 1960 and 1980, and it pushed the first Islamist-led government out of office in 1997 with a post-modern coup.
But Prime Minister Erdoğan has gradually chipped away at the army’s influence since the AKP first came to power in 2002, including in the courts with the Ergenekon case and the separate, alleged Sledgehammer plot. Last September, a court sentenced more than 300 military officers to jail on charges of conspiring to overthrow Erdoğan a decade ago in the plot code-named “Sledgehammer.”
During all three general election campaigns, Erdoğan has promised an “advanced democracy” for Turkey, and with this promise, his government has attempted to remove the military tutelage in Turkish politics. But he did not want to be considered vengeful for his efforts. Last year, when former Chief of General Staff İlker Başbuğ was first put in prison, Erdoğan said Başbuğ should be tried without imprisonment, and that he had never believed the charges brought against Başbuğ. “I have never found the charges directed against İlker Pasha correct. I think claims that he is a member of a terrorist organization are very ugly,” stated Erdoğan in August 2012.
Last week, a court gave İlker Başbuğ a life sentence without parole. At the same time, it handed down harsh sentences to 275 defendants, including many former military force commanders accused of plotting to topple the government.
A day later, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) stated in its first comments on the verdicts that it believes the trial will be concluded in a fair manner as it respects the principle of the rule of law. In response to the TSK statement, Başbuğ asked how long the current Chief of General Staff Necdet Özel will wait to respond to what Başbuğ sees as an unacceptable decision.
The verdict comes at the same time as the AKP is brokering a peace process with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to end a decades-long conflict in the country’s southeast. Given the timing, not only secularists, but also nationalist Turkish citizens object to the Ergenekon verdict, stating that Erdoğan’s government has jailed members of the armed forces while opening ways for PKK members to enter into legal politics as part of the peace process.
Despite all the criticisms, many Turkish people welcome the Ergenekon verdict because they believe that the stronger the army, the less influence the ballot box will have on the country’s fate. With fewer political killings in recent years, the disarmament of the PKK and no military interference, the people of this country will eventually feel democracy.
Erdoğan’s AKP should therefore clearly state that their fight against military tutelage is for a democratic Turkey and that those uniformed men who saw themselves as being above the law now know that Turkey will never be the same again. For the first time in its long and dark history, the deep state has received a severe blow—but the people are aware that it is not dead yet.