BACKGROUND: On November 3, a retrial of 236 acting and former military officers -- who in 2012 had been convicted to prison sentences up to twenty years for having allegedly attempted to overthrow the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – started at an Istanbul court. The 236 suspects of the infamous “Sledgehammer” case include former Navy Commander Admiral Özden Örnek , former Air force commander İbrahim Fırtına, former 1st Army Commander General Çetin Doğan, retired General Engin Alan and former Commander of the War Academy General Bilgin Balanlı. The officers had been found guilty of having prepared a plan – codenamed “Sledgehammer” – at a seminar at the War Academy in Istanbul in March 2003, which was alleged to outline how the AKP government was going to be undermined by acts of sabotage against mosques and by shooting down Turkish war planes; the ensuing chaos was supposed to lead to the fall of the AKP government.
The defendants vehemently denied the charges. Critics pointed out that the case was based on apparent fabrications and that the supposed “evidence” was doctored. Nonetheless, the verdicts were acclaimed by pro-democracy intellectuals and pundits in Turkey, but also internationally, as a major advance for the cause of Turkish democracy.
In June 2014, little more than two years after the convictions, the constitutional court ruled unanimously that the defense rights of the 236 Sledgehammer suspects had been violated. In February 2014, the constitutional court had similarly voided the life sentence against former Chief of the General Staff İlker Başbuğ, who had been convicted in yet another infamous case, the Ergenekon case, ruling that his rights had been violated.
In its June ruling, the constitutional court stated that the Sledgehammer case was flawed, pointing out that mishandling of digital evidence had violated the convicted officers' rights. The refusal of the initial trial to hear testimonies requested by the defendants was another of the reasons cited for overturning the convictions.
When the retrial started on November 3, the former Chief of the General Staff (2002 to2006) General Hilmi Özkök and former Army commander Aytaç Yalman gave their testimony for the first time. Özkök testified that he had heard coup plot rumors during his term in office from the media and anonymous letters, but that he had concluded that these were not substantiated. "I did not receive information that a coup plan was made. There were some rumors but they were not serious enough for a case to be opened or an investigation launched against anyone," said Özkök.
The supporters of the Sledgehammer case had claimed that General Özkök and former army commander General Yalman had prevented the coup from being carried out. But Yalman said that "I have neither heard of nor tried to prevent, as claimed, such a coup plan. The seminar was held under my orders, but I could not attend."
Özkök and Yalman had faced harsh criticism from the families of their convicted colleagues for their reluctance to refute claims that they had known about and thwarted a coup plot. In interviews, Özkök had been circumspect, which sustained the impression – propagated by the liberal pundits who supported the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases -- that he had helped “save democracy” during his tenure as Chief of the General Staff.
In hindsight, it seems that the reluctance of Hilmi Özkök to speak out in the way he now has done was grounded in the fear that he too otherwise could have ended up in jail. The testimonies of the former generals in favor of their colleagues are but one of many signs lately that the military is no longer in the grip of the fear that held it back for years.
IMPLICATIONS: The Sledgehammer convictions, as well as the conviction of General Başbuğ in the Ergenekon case, were held to be the ultimate proof that the military had been domesticated and that it had ceased, once and for all, to be of any political relevance. That was supposed to have been Erdoğan’s historical accomplishment. Yet the fact that the convictions of the military have been overturned – and no one doubts that the Sledgehammer retrial is going to result in the acquittal of all the suspects -- and the convicted officers have been set free in a sense restores status quo ante.
It was the “civil war” that broke out late last year between the new owners of the Turkish state -- Erdoğan’s AKP and the followers of the cleric Fethullah Gülen -- that brought the military back into the power equation. Erdoğan had had no qualms when Gülenist prosecutors, judges and police officers carried out the operation against the military; that operation could only take place because it had the approval of Erdoğan.
But when the Gülenists turned their arsenal against Erdoğan, launching the graft probes on December 17 and December 25, 2013 against Erdoğan’s close circle and family members, he turned to the military in his search for a new ally. Yalçın Akdoğan, then Erdoğan’s chief advisor, today deputy prime minister, announced the change of the attitude toward the military when he in December 2013 wrote that the military had been the victim of a conspiracy. Subsequently, Erdoğan let it be known that he favored a retrial of the convicted officers. Upon the release of the former Chief of the General Staff Başbuğ in February 2014, Erdoğan called him and expressed his relief over his release.
Fethullah Gülen, meanwhile, expressed his dissatisfaction with the retrial of the military officers. Interviewed in the Wall Street Journal on January 21 of this year, Gülen said that “Retrial in the light of new evidence or demonstration of improprieties in the legal proceedings is a universal human right. However, if the intention is to completely abolish the verdicts of thousands of trials, then such a move would both undermine the credibility of the justice system and reverse the democratic gains of the past decade. It would be very difficult to explain such a move to the 58 percent of the Turkish population who supported the constitutional amendments of 2010 which made it possible to try former coup perpetrators in civilian courts for the first time in Turkish history.”
Historically, the military in Turkey has been empowered when conflict is rife and when security threats to the state mount. The conflict that ripped apart the Islamist power coalition also flung open the prison doors for the military; what have further set the stage for a reassertion of military power are the mounting security threats along Turkey’s southern border. The growing threat – as the Turkish military is inclined to see it – of Kurdish empowerment offers it another golden opportunity to assert its power.
Indeed, the military no longer holds back its views; after years of muteness, the General Staff has since the beginning of this year once again taken to regularly issuing statements to the public on its website. These are almost exclusively related to the Kurdish issue. On August 30 this year, General Necdet Özel, the Chief of the General Staff, went a step further when he publicly vented his displeasure with the “solution process” that the AKP government has been conducting with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). General Özel expressed dissatisfaction at not having been consulted by the government. He reminded the country that the military’s “red lines” – the unity and territorial integrity of the nation – remain unchanged. And he vowed that the armed forces will “act accordingly” if those red lines were to be crossed. Such action may already have been taken.
According to the main pro-government daily Yeni Şafak, the military vetoed the government’s plan to assist the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq when the militants of ISIS threatened to overrun the capital Erbil. Abdülkadir Selvi, the chief political correspondent of the daily, wrote that the failure to aid the KRG -- with which the AKP government entertains a close relationship -- was regretted by the government, but that “a certain mechanism within the state” had refused to go along with helping the KRG. There is no doubt that the “certain mechanism” to which he referred to is the military.
CONCLUSIONS: Erdoğan invited the generals back into the power equation when, faced with the Gülenist challenge to his power, and in need of a new ally, he gave the signal to open the prison doors for the convicted officers. It is no coincidence that the General Staff has returned to issuing frequent statements to the public and that the Chief of the General Staff in no uncertain terms has warned the government not to cross its “red lines.” The generals are no longer afraid to speak out and they exert influence over government policies.
But more than anything else, it is the persistence of an authoritarian mindset that sets the stage for the recurrent assertion of the power of the military. Ultimately, the military in Turkey has been able to wield power because, even though democratically elected, the civilian rightists who have been in charge of the government for most of the time have themselves been authoritarians. When also those who are democratically elected almost always turn out to be yet another embodiment of authoritarianism – Erdoğan is far from unique in this respect – the moral defense of democracy is hollowed, and other expressions of authoritarianism are inevitably legitimized.
Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow and Editor of the Turkey Analyst, at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
(Image Attribution: http://www.basbakanlik.gov.tr/)