A historic court case under a political shadow

A historic court case under a political shadow

The Balyoz or “Sledgehammer” case is the first big court case trying top military officers to come to an end; the officers were accused of attempting to overthrow the elected government of Turkey.

The 10th Istanbul Criminal Court sentenced on three top former commanders of the Turkish Armed Forces on Sept. 21 to life imprisonment for conspiring to overthrow the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government between 2002 and 2006. The prison sentences for former Navy Commander Adm. Özden Örnek, former Air Force Commander Gen. İbrahim Fırtına and former First Army Commander Gen. Çetin Doğan were reduced to 20 years each because the plot was not “completed,” i.e. it remained at the “attempt” stage.

This was the first court case to try top military officers for trying to overthrow an elected government. In a NATO-member country that experienced three military coups, in 1960, 1971 and 1980 during the Cold War, it naturally sounds like an achievement in the name of the progress of democracy. After all it should be encouraging to see that anyone, including a top soldier, who attempts to intervene in democratic rule using anti-democratic methods, will be held accountable for what they have done.

Yet the penalties are seen as harsh, and there is suspicion of political manipulation on the part of most commentators, including those closer to the government. The main reasons for this are some technical reports claiming that some of the evidence presented by the prosecutors was fake, breeched or manipulated. Only reports from the government-run Turkish Scientific and Technology Institution (TUBİTAK) cleared the evidence. When lawyers for the accused attempted to object and question the evidence, they were barred from hearings, and the court came to the final stage of making its decision without a proper defense stage, which attorneys pointed out following the announcement of Friday’s ruling.

Lawyer Hüseyin Ersöz said afterwards that the court had “destroyed all the bridges on the road to justice.” Another lawyer, Celal Ülgen, said it was not possible to call this “display of revenge” a court in search of justice.

As main opposition Republican People’s Party deputy Ali Özgündüz, who had been observing the hearings, slammed the court’s decision as politically motivated, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ said the ruling was not the final word and that the road was open for the Supreme Court of Appeals to reconsider it.

The investigation before the court case began in January 2010, following a report in daily Taraf about a war game held at the First Army’s headquarters in Istanbul, which allegedly included a scenario of intervention in the ruling Justice and Development party under circumstances of war and a threat of abolishing the secular order of the Turkish state. A group of relatives of the sentenced soldiers shouted slogans in front of the courthouse in Silivri in western Istanbul, saying “Turkey is secular and should remain so.”

The court ruling is likely to cause tremors in Turkish politics. Perhaps the last-minute cancellation of a trip to the U.S. by Prime Minister Erdoğan, with the AK Party Congress on Sept. 30 given as justification, will help him to handle the tense situation in his office.