What to make of Turkey’s first ‘coup trial’?

What to make of Turkey’s first ‘coup trial’?

Last week, the judges in the “Sledgehammer Case,” in which nearly 400 Turkish officers were being tried for a coup plan in 2003, announced their verdict: 324 of the accused got prison sentences ranging from 13 to 18 years. It was certainly a heavy decision that traumatized many families. But, arguably, it was also a key nail in the coffin of Turkey’s decades-old military tutelage over politics.

Like most political phenomena in Turkey, the Sledgehammer Case has been very controversial. One side, which consists mostly of hardcore Kemalists, has denounced the case as a conspiracy against patriotic officers whose only crime was doing their job. (On the very day of the verdict, one the lawyers of the accused told cameras that this was all “an imperialist attack on the Turkish military.”) On the other side, most conservatives and some liberals saw the case as Turkey’s finest hour, and a most righteous expression of justice.

The reality, I believe, is more complex. Here are some of the nuances.

First of all, there is enough undisputed evidence in the case that justifies the prosecution and at least some of the verdicts. The audio recordings of the “seminar” in question, which has held by General Çetin Doğan in May 2003, show that this was not really a legitimate “war game.” It was, rather, what I would call “coup brainstorming.” The commanders sat down for three days and discussed how they would crack down on “religious reactionaries” if and when needed. Real names (including the name of Tayyip Erdoğan, the prime minister) were mentioned as the “domestic enemies” that the military would have to deal with. Surely this was no normal affair.

No wonder the chief of staff of the time, retired General Hilmi Özkök, who is known to have resisted the coup inclinations of his subordinates, recently told the press that “the seminar extended beyond its purpose.”

However, the case also has disputed evidence, including jaw-dropping scenarios such as the bombing of a mosque and the intentional downing of a Turkish plane by the would-be junta, in order to lay the ground for the operation. The documents outlining these plans are separate from the audio recordings and they are disputed for good reason: they include a number of logical inconsistencies, as demonstrated best by two Harvard professors, Pınar Doğan and Dani Rodrik, who also happen to be daughter and son-in-law of the number one suspect (now convict) in the case, General Çetin Doğan.

I must say that so far I have found Doğan’s and Rodrik’s arguments — if not necessarily their conspiracy theories — pretty convincing. Therefore, I think that the court should have considered such disputed evidence as null, at least out of the principle of the benefit of the doubt for the accused. The fact that they dismissed all the arguments from the defendants leaves a black stain on the trial.

Moreover, the number of the officers convicted - 324 - is simply too much. Most of these were lower ranking officers who had to be in the seminar simply because that they had to obey orders. Others were even less involved: they were only names in lists, some of which are disputed.

That is why I have mixed feelings about the Sledgehammer Case. On the one hand, it is a heavy and welcome blow to an overbearing military establishment. On the other hand, it is a case that does not seem to have fulfilled some of the basic criteria for a fair trial.

Note: I will be off for a week. See you back on Oct. 6.