Turkish court acquits all suspects in Ergenekon trial

The 235 suspects in the high-profile trial of an alleged clandestine terrorist organisation nested in the Turkish state were acquitted of all charges on Monday, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

The Ergenekon case was one of a series of investigations targeting high-ranking military personnel, politicians, journalists and civil society figures accused of forming an armed organised crime empire and using their influence to attempt to overthrow Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

With the acquittal of the suspects ends a saga that has deeply and irrevocably changed Turkish history, causing deep rifts between the country’s social groups that have allowed the AKP to consolidate its power.

Hundreds of high-profile suspects – mostly secularists – were rounded up and placed in pre-trial detention for years in the Ergenekon trial, which began in 2008, and other, similar cases.

At the time, the trials were lauded by press in Turkey and abroad as a blow to the secular military officers who had guided Turkish politics for decades. As prime minister at the time, Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, expressed his support for the investigations, calling himself “the prosecutor of the trial”.

The suspects were accused of forming an organisation called “Ergenekon” after a Turkic myth held dear by Turkish nationalists, and carrying out a series of operations, including false flag bombing attacks, in an effort to destabilise the country with a view to overthrowing the Islamist-rooted AKP.

Monday’s ruling declared that no such organisation had existed, therefore acquitting the 235 suspects of “forming and managing, membership of, or aiding and abetting an armed organisation”.

The ruling party had seen off serious threats from the secular establishment after gaining power in 2002, including a case to close the AKP on grounds it had violated Turkey’s constitutional principle of secularism that it narrowly won in 2008.

This legal pressure from secular judges and prosecutors on the democratically elected party, combined with the discomfort many Turks felt towards military tutelage and the fear of a military coup, gave the momentous charges in the trial an air of credibility for many.

This was magnified by media outlets that seized on the scandal and devoted their front pages to stories linking suspects to all manner of shady activities, including gunning attacks, hidden weapons stockpiles and links to criminal organisations.

Yet the charges, as a select few on the international stage pointed out, were highly suspicious from the beginning.

Suspects were always targeted in the same way, scholar and Ergenekon expert Gareth Jenkins said, with an anonymous tip-off to police followed by the recovery of digital documents during searches of the suspects’ homes of workplaces.

Much of that evidence has been discredited by forensic investigators. A famous example of the kind of flaws plaguing the trials had a Microsoft Word document that was said to contain a plan produced in 2003, but written in a font released in 2006.

The police officers and prosecutors responsible for putting together the trials are widely thought to have been affiliated with Fethullah Gülen, a religious leader whose movement included high-ranking members of state institutions and was once a firm ally of the AKP government.

By the time the Ergenekon suspects were convicted in 2013, many to life sentences, that alliance was on the verge of collapse. The next year, after a corruption probe thought to have been launched by Gülenist prosecutors against government ministers brought the Gülen-AKP conflict into the open, many of the Ergenekon convicts were released. The verdicts in the trial were annulled for a re-trial in 2016.

The acquittal of the Ergenekon suspects on Monday marks the end of political trials that shook the nation and turned the tide against secular officers and bureaucrats in the Turkish state.

With the Gülen movement now declared a terrorist organisation and widely reviled for its suspected orchestration of a coup attempt in 2016, the judges and prosecutors who tried them now languish in prison or are fugitives from justice.

Nevertheless, the use of the judiciary for political ends is far from over in Turkey, where the AKP is widely seen as holding mastery over Turkish courts.

The ongoing cases against activists accused of “attempting to overthrow the government” in protests in 2013, and against thousands accused of membership of or aiding terrorist organisations since the coup attempt have shown the same tactics laid out in the Ergenekon trials live on in a different form, and on a grander scale.

Over 100,000 civil servants, journalists, academics and activists have been arrested or dismissed from their positions since the coup attempt.