Turkish generals on trial have a lot to say

Turkish generals on trial have a lot to say

When retired Gen. Ilker Başbuğ, the former head of the Turkish military, walked out of the hearing room at the Istanbul Criminal Court last Tuesday, it was obvious that the trials on coup allegations, which have been going on since 2008, have entered a new phase.

Before walking out in anger, Başbuğ had told the judges that he would refuse to answer any questions based on such a “frivolous” indictment as that which accuses him of heading a terrorist organization in a plot to overthrow the government. That was too much for the general, who was running the Turkish army, fighting terrorists, up until his retirement in 2010, and has now been under arrest since January 2012. Walking out of the court was also illegal; in order not to escalate the tension further, the judge called for a break, after which Başbuğ took his place before him but declined to defend himself against the accusations.

He is accused of giving orders to officers under his command to establish fake internet sites in order to discredit the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government, as psychological preparation for a bigger move. Başbuğ used to be the Land Forces Commander when the military -- then led by Yaşar Büyükanıt -- issued a statement (since known as the “e-memorandum”) against the probability of then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül’s being elected president by Parliament on April 27, 2007.

But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not like former prime ministers of Turkey, who were weakened by coalition governments, and Turkey is not the same country it was before the European Union democratization reforms. The next day Erdoğan issued a strong statement to the effect of “mind your own business,” declared early elections, issued a referendum on a public vote to elect the president, and summoned Büyükanıt to his office in Istanbul, not Ankara. Following that meeting, the probe into the coup allegations was kicked off.

Gen. Ergin Saygun, who was the deputy chief at the time of the e-memorandum, has also appeared before another Istanbul court, to testify in another coup probe called “Balyoz,” the “Sledgehammer.”

“In the police interrogation,” he told the judges, “They asked me where was I when a synagogue and a bank were bombed in 2003. At first I thought it was a joke. But now I understand that if I had said I was in Istanbul as a joke, perhaps I would have been accused of bombing those places.” The Istanbul bombings had been carried out by al-Qaeda, which claimed responsibility for them, and some al-Qaeda members have since been arrested and found guilty by the courts.

The Sledgehammer case is about a March 2003 military simulation exercise at the First Army Headquarters in Istanbul, under the command of then-Gen. Çetin Doğan, which prosecutors claim actually involved discussing a scenario to overthrow the government. Recently a document was submitted to the court claiming that the alleged evidence may have been created after the fact, because the fonts used in the documents in question were produced by Microsoft in 2006, triggering yet another debate regarding the indictment.

Saygun asked to court to call the Land Forces Commander of the time, Ret. Gen. Aytaç Yalman, as a witness. And Başbuğ made a reproachful remark in the court, asking: “Where are our former commanders?,” possibly meaning Büyükanıt and his predecessor Hilmi Özkök. “If something like this had happened to them, I would support their case.”

It is inevitable that trend for Turkish generals on trial to be likely to have a lot to say will find its echo in public life.