Turkey’s coup case and the mathematics of politics
The “Balyoz” (Sledgehammer) case that ended on Sept. 21 constituted Turkey’s first trial in which military officers were sentenced by a civilian court for attempting a coup against an elected government - the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government in this case.
Three former top officers each got 20 years in prison; even heavier punishments than the prosecutors had requested. The verdicts came amid criticism of the court for ignoring defendants’ objections to the prosecutors’ allegedly manipulated, conflicted, or doubtful evidence. These objections were even shared by a number of commentators who have been strong supporters of the trial from day one.
The opposition parties’ reactions to the court case were strong but limited to paying the dues, if not the lip service. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader, slammed the court for being under the political influence of the government. The reaction of Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), was stronger than Kılıçdaroğlu, as one of his elected deputies - retired army Officer Engin Alan - was among the convicted. For Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-chairman of the Kurdish problem-focused Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the whole thing was a “let them eat each other” affair.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reaction after the verdict - with a slight smile that he could not hide - was that the ruling was not yet the final one, and that the legal path was open for Supreme Court of Appeals. Like his three opponents, Erdoğan quickly returned to other issues on Turkey’s agenda.
In order to better understand what has been going on, one has to look a bit closer at what happened between Sept. 19 and 21.
On Sept. 19 there were two important developments. It became clear that on Sept. 20 the Court would ask for the last words from defendants in the Sledgehammer case. Also, the head of the Constitutional Court, Haşim Kılıç, had invited the Ankara bureau chiefs of national newspapers for a breakfast on Sept. 21, in order to announce a new process that would start on Monday Sept. 24 (today).
In the morning hours of Sept. 20 it was clear that the judges had completed the defense process and started their assessment for the ruling. In the afternoon, Prime Minister Erdoğan convened an extraordinary meeting in the AK Parti headquarters with only a handful of deputies. Amid expectations for a decision, the Court announced late in the evening that that they were going to make the ruling public the next day.
Kılıç announced in the Sept. 21 breakfast that after Monday those who were not happy with the rulings of the Turkish judicial system had to apply to the Constitutional Court before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This was approved by the constitutional referendum in 2010. As a result, from Sept. 24 onwards, no Turkish citizen could go to ECHR for the next two years, which is the trial period. Toward the end of the morning the Prime Minister’s office announced that Erdoğan’s trip to the U.S. to attend the U.N. General Assembly had been cancelled due to the heavy workload regarding the upcoming AK Parti Congress on Sept. 30. Late afternoon, the Court’s ruling was announced.
Perhaps it is difficult to prove any concrete links, but when listed together it is possible to come up with a number of conclusions:
- The Balyoz case could be considered a political trial, no different than Nürenberg trials, as Turkish commentator Cengiz Çandar wrote in Radikal on Sunday.
- As in all political trials, deterrence is more important than pure justice, so there might be heavy mistakes regarding heavy penalties.
- Because of those heavy penalties, to commit a military intervention into politics in Turkey, which experienced three coups during the Cold War, is more difficult today.
Despite the fact that the road to the court of appeals is open, the government has made it sure that the officers - who it still sees as a potential threat - will stay in prison long enough to secure the year 2015. That is the last year of three consecutive upcoming elections - local, presidential and parliamentary - and sums up the dynamics of a political milestone in Turkey.