Navy unrest alerts Erdoğan
Prior to the May 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago, Turkish Naval Forces Commander Admiral Murat Bilgel published an article in the U.S. Naval Institute’s “Proceedings” magazine. The article was about the reformation of the Turkish navy in accordance with NATO’s new Smart Defense doctrine.
Indeed some important steps have been taken in the last few years to enhance Turkish naval capabilities. That included the expansion of the domestically designed and built corvette program and launching of a new class of anti-missile frigates as well as multi-task landing platform programs.
But the Turkish Navy is unearthing problems one by one as the retirement of Adm. Bilgel looms in August of this year. Adm. Nusret Güner, the Navy Commander to replace Bilgel, resigned in December 2012 reportedly in protest of the extended arrests of officers under his command, including seven commodores, four rear admirals, two vice admirals, numerous captains and lower-ranking soldiers. Güner’s chief of staff, Rear Adm. Kemalettin Gür, had resigned earlier in the year.
In September 2012, a number of retired and active duty officers, including former Chief of Naval Forces Özden Örnek, were sentenced to heavy imprisonments in the “Balyoz” case for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the government. The arrested officers were parts of another case called “Ergenekon,” in which not only officers but suspects from different walks of life are being tried and have been under arrest since 2008.
Güner’s resignation was made public right after another court case in which 33 navy and army personnel were accused of being part of an espionage ring, without clarification in the indictment as to who they were spying for. Turkish media reported on Jan. 27 that Rear Adm. Şevki Şekerefeli, the commander of the Naval Shipyards in which the new class of platforms are to be constructed, also resigned.
It appears that the unrest in the Turkish Navy (and not only in the Navy) was brought to the attention of President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan by Gen. Necdet Özel, the Chief of Turkish General Staff in meetings on Jan. 24 in Ankara.
In a Jan. 25 TV interview on Kanal 24, Erdoğan said that he was uncomfortable that there were not enough commanders to promote in the navy ranks and to captain even the existing war ships, because of the number of officers under arrest without being sentenced. Not only regarding the navy, Erdoğan repeated his discomfort regarding the arrest of his former Chief of Staff, İlker Başbuğ, on the grounds of “running a terrorist organization.” “If there is evidence, the courts should punish them as soon as possible,” he said. To Erdoğan, otherwise, it would not only cripple the morale of the Turkish military, but the military itself.
Long and extended arrests are not only a problem for military officers but journalists, lawyers, academics and others accused as well. A major subject of criticism toward Turkey in the international world nowadays, it not only involves Ergenekon and related cases but also ongoing cases against the alleged members of the outlawed Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK).
Long and extended arrests have been on the rise after a revision in the Anti-terrorism and Criminal Proceedings laws in 2006 gave prosecutors the flexibility to make broader accusations of terrorism and for judges to approve them, as criticized in the 2012 report of Thomas Hammerberg, the Human Rights Commissioner of the EU.
Erdoğan’s public complaints might be an indication of possible amendments on those laws in the much-talked about Fourth Judicial Reform Package. It is ironic that such a move might be a relief both for the military and for what Erdoğan has labeled the “peace process” regarding the Kurdish problem.