Ergenekon case reflects Turkey’s culture of impunity

“This is a horrible situation,” said Eren Keskin. “It shows how confused, how unprincipled, how worthless the mentality of power in Turkey is. The person who is currently the president of this country, once upon a time, had declared himself to be ‘the prosecutor’ of this case and, now, all of them are saying how correct and just these acquittals are.”

Keskin, an award-winning lawyer and the vice-chairwoman of the Human Rights Association, is one of the most prominent, courageous, outspoken civil rights activists in Turkey. The trial she mentioned is well-known internationally: Ergenekon — an alleged clandestine network that included, as suspects, a high number of state officials and officers.

Hers was an outcry, which she expressed ferociously on social media, when a high criminal court, after 12 years of serpentine legal process, acquitted 235 out of 239 defendants of management, membership, aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation on the basis that Ergenekon was not a real group.

From the outset, the Ergenekon case was deeply divisive. When the case was filed in 2007, Ankara was a political snake pit, a stormy capital, from which rumours were spreading of an open coup.

Revelations were made by the then-influential and independent Turkish media, that a core group of officers were plotting putsch plans to topple the elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

In a sense the case, whose prosecutors were later exposed to be Gulenists, was a response to contain and punish anti-democratic activities and end Turkey’s long-lasting “coup culture.”

Many among oppressed segments in Turkey had their hopes tied to a “justice done” but soon saw that the case was instrumentalised by then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to cement and grab more power. It became apparent years later that he was using Gulenists to that end, while the latter were hoping that they would be given a lion’s share from his power cake.

The case was severely mishandled, to the horror of dignified law experts in Turkey. Although a small core of suspects did seem to have enough evidence against them, the number of suspects swelled to hundreds as prosecutors added practically anybody “non grata” to the files.

The more people the case involved, the weaker and discredited Ergenekon became. Suspects, including the top military commander Ilker Basbug and other high-ranking officers as well as politicians, academicians and journalists, had to spend four years in prison.

It was clear this was a sheer political trial and when Erdogan broke his pledges to reformists and demolished his alliance with the Gulenists the trial’s direction turned 180 degrees with prosecutors and judges finding themselves in jail or in exile.

Given the anti-democratic conjuncture, Ergenekon symbolises a major failure of Turkey’s legal and political system.

Keskin was right when she protested about the acquittals, especially for Kurds and leftist activists, front suspect figures of Ergenekon trial who were easy to identify as bloody-handed culprits of extrajudicial killings and torture.

“We all know people like Cemal Temizoz, Veli Kucuk,” she said in an interview with Ahval Online, dropping the names of two notorious army officials. “We remember how they attacked us during the trials of (slain Armenian journalist) Hrant Dink and (Nobel Prize-wining) writer Orhan Pamuk and, with these acquittals, we, the underdogs, will have to pay their compensation with our tax money.”

Supporters of the suspects labelled Ergenekon as sham trial but, to the likes of Keskin and others, it is just another case of “justice undone’” in Turkey’s decades-long tradition of impunity. AKP has become part of the culture.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there was not a single case during its rule that has led to state officials or army officers being convicted of what Keskin calls “crimes of humanity.”

Approximately 17,000 people — mostly Kurdish civilians — have gone missing or become victims in the past three decades and, despite publication of news articles and books that offered enough evidence, court after court let the suspects go free for the undisclosed reason that they were the “men of state.”

Keskin said no such acquittal may change the fact what she and millions of others believe: That the deep state of Turkey remains intact and is operational.

“Here, impunity reigns,” she said. “No crime of state forces was sentenced. Torture goes on. Ankara refuses to sign international treaties on ‘missing under custody.’ Nothing changes. Business as usual.

“Erdogan has become the state by coming to an agreement with the deep structures of the state. Now, AKP represents the Islamist flank of the official ideology.”

Ergenekon suspects have reason to be cheerful. Their like-minded allies are mostly in cooperation with Erdogan’s power circles. However, the intricacies of the times, when Ergenekon trial was in progress, will stay in memory. His cunning role was exposed in a book by Ahmet Sever a year ago.

Sever, who served a long time as the adviser to former Turkish President Abdullah Gul, wrote: “All operations in the judiciary had been carried out by Gulenists, spies and prosecutors in close communication with Erdogan and with his knowledge and approval, the chief prosecutor of the Ergenekon trials, Zekeriya Oz, was working directly under Erdogan.”

So, the Ergenekon acquittals are a reminder of the golden rule that Turkish rulers followed across decades: To benefit from eternal impunity, when in power, you must grant your predecessors their hard-gained immunity from prosecution.

This fact is something some 45,000 political prisoners in Turkey can’t even think about.