Başbuğ’s release a sign of changing balances

Başbuğ’s release a sign of changing balances

A local court ordered the release of Turkey’s former Chief of General Staff İlker Başbuğ on March 7.

The ruling follows a decision by the Constitutional Court a day before, which stated that Başbuğ’s rights were violated by arresting him in the first place.

Başbuğ was sentenced to life by a Specially Authorized Istanbul Criminal Court in 2013 for “establishing a terrorist organization” in order to topple the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan.

He was actually Erdoğan’s land forces commander from 2006 to 2008 and chief of staff from 2008 to 2011, and was accused by prosecutors of forming a plot to overthrow the government. He was first asked to testify as a witness but was then arrested as a suspect on Jan. 6, 2012.

Erdoğan objected to the arrest of Başbuğ, saying the latter could be tried but he did not believe that there was any reason to keep him under arrest.

The arrest was actually one of the first open indicators of the coming confrontation between Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, the moderate Islamist scholar living in the U.S. with a global network of sympathizers. Gülen was actually a close ally of Erdoğan during the investigations and trials in order to clear the way against the military, the secular establishment, and the Kurds.

The prime minister got his second alert when the same group of prosecutors sought to interrogate Hakan Fidan, Erdoğan’s intelligence chief, on Feb. 7, 2012. It was then that the confrontation really started. But the Dec. 17, 2013 graft probe made the conflict public and Erdoğan openly denounced the prosecutors, judges and policemen involved as Gülenists attempting a coup against his government.
Başbuğ has denied all charges against him from day one, but his complaints started to be taken seriously by the government only after the Dec. 17 graft probe. Başbuğ’s release was made possible after the new law that introduced more political influence on the appointment of judges and prosecutors, and the abolition of Specially Authorized Courts (ÖYM). The abolition of those courts was something that opposition parties have been demanding for years, but Erdoğan only decided to abolish them after he believed they were infiltrated by Gülenists.

By coincidence or not, President Abdullah Gül approved and put into effect the law to abolish the ÖYMs at almost the same time as the Constitutional Court decided that there had been rights violations. As a result, the release request file was sent to a local criminal court instead of an ÖYM, as Başbuğ’s lawyers believe the latter insisted on the first decision not to release him.

The March 7 release is likely to affect the fate of many other prisoners, which is not likely to make everyone happy.

For example, hours before Başbuğ, Erhan Tuncel, an accomplice in the murder of Hrant Dink, an Armenian-origin Turkish journalist, was also released.

Ironically, the releases were made possible by the new political atmosphere, in which former allies Erdoğan and Gülen are in a fierce fight. This new atmosphere seems like it will have further effects on political life as Turkey heads for critical local elections on March 30.