Turkish Courts Try Shadowy Military Group

Just outside Istanbul last week, the Ergenekon trial opened. The name refers to a clandestine group with ties to the military that is allegedly dedicated to toppling this, and indeed any, Turkish government they disapprove of. Bizarrely, the courtroom was too small to seat all 83 defendants and their lawyers. Add family members and journalists, and the result was chaos. It was a bad start to a trial based on an overbroad 2,455-page indictment with murder and subversion at its heart. There are elements of an airport thriller here, and it is tempting to write it up as satire. The bloodshed, however, has been real. So is the threat to democracy.

In May 2006, a young lawyer named Alparslan Arslan shot and killed a senior Turkish judge, wounding a number of his colleagues. "I am a soldier of God," Arslan reportedly shouted as he opened fire. He said his actions were a protest against the court's decision to uphold the dismissal of a primary-school headmistress who had removed her headscarf on school premises, as Turkish law requires, but worn it to and from work. The shooting led to anti-Islamist protests directed at Turkey's AK Party-led government, which had criticized the court's ruling. Secular protesters accused the AKP of inciting "Islamist" violence. Arslan also admitted to throwing a hand grenade at the offices of Cumhuriyet, a solidly secularist newspaper. He was convicted of murder.

In June 2007, though, the Turkish police discovered a cache of hand grenades in a poor Istanbul neighborhood. Their serial numbers were adjacent to the one used against Cumhuriyet. Their "owners" were not Islamists, but retired military men who proved to be the tip of the Ergenekon iceberg—a rare public manifestation of what Turks call the "Deep State," a shadowy confection centered on the military but reaching into politics, the police, the courts and the bureaucracy. Prosecutors now allege that Arslan was no Islamist but an Ergenekon pawn, part of a plan to foment chaos, destabilize Turkey's AKP government and persuade the military to mount a coup.

Not that some generals required much persuasion. In March 2007, Nokta magazine published alleged excerpts from the diary of Navy Cmdr. Adm. Ozden Ornek, which detailed coup proposals circulated in 2003 and 2004 among Turkey's top officers. Apparently, they failed to garner sufficient support and went nowhere. This being Turkey, Nokta was promptly hauled into court for libel, and the magazine died. The electronic information leaked to the magazine, it later emerged, had indeed come from a Navy server, and the libel case was dropped, though without an unequivocal determination that the diary was genuine. Most commentators, however, now accept that it was. Among those the diary says favored a coup was Gen. Senur Eruygur, then commander of the Jandarma, Turkey's militarized police. The now-retired Eruygur was arrested this July in connection with the Ergenekon investigation along with Hursit Tolon, another retired four-star general.

This is a sampling of the better-established allegations surrounding Ergenekon. Whatever is ultimately proved in court, most Turks will accept that there is fire somewhere within the smoke. Confirmed sightings of the Deep State are rare, but they do exist. One such incident occurred in November 2005, in the small eastern town of Semdinli. A bomb exploded in the shop of a PKK sympathizer and killed a man. Other bombs had gone off in the area, but this one was different: the bombers did not melt into the night. A crowd of bystanders gave chase and cornered them. The police arrested them but discovered they were noncommissioned officers of the Jandarma, a rural police force. They were released, rearrested, indicted, convicted and sentenced to long jail terms. The first prosecutor showed signs of asking who was backing them, but he was hastily dismissed and his replacement did not pursue the question. Recently, Turkey's top criminal court overturned the convictions saying the case belonged in the military courts. A retrial is proceeding without prosecutorial urgency or determination.

Today, the Ergenekon probe is a political football. The opposition CHP denounces it as a government attempt to distract the public. This is an odd allegation considering that the government does not control prosecutors. If it did, one top prosecutor would hardly have tried—and narrowly failed—to close the ruling party this summer. Newspapers have also taken sides, depending on their political predilections. Meanwhile, riots are shaking Turkey's Kurdish areas, fueled by rumors that PKK leader Abdullah Occalan has been beaten up in prison. It is a plot to distract attention from Ergenekon, some say. Others disagree. It is difficult to know what to think, for the effect of Ergenekon is to render all solid ground quicksand—which was, of course, the organization's objective.

The prosecutors' central point, if they can prove it, is different from anything that has gone before: not only are "bad" people being killed by the Deep State, they allege, but "good," respectable secularists have also been killed in order to damage the "dangerous Islamists" politically. For many who have hitherto tolerated and protected those who take the law into their own hands, this may well be a step too far. The military is evidently split between modernizers who aim for professional, Western standards and others who wish to continue dabbling in politics—some of whom, it appears, have been willing to get their hands very dirty indeed. A similar split almost certainly exists within the police and the judiciary, and, indeed, all of Turkish society.

It would be easy to mock the Istanbul prosecutors for their mammoth indictment, which seems too broad to be true. A narrower focus and a more manageable trial would have served their cause better. If, however, they can carry the decent majority of their fellow Turks along to the point where enabling the Deep State becomes unacceptable, Turkey will have taken a giant step toward membership of the First World. And it is well to remember that these prosecutors are risking their reputations, and maybe their lives, to make the attempt.