Earlier this week Turkey’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, warned he would end the EU-Turkey refugees deal if visa-free travel for Turks was not delivered as promised. This was a repeat of a similar threat issued last November by President Recep Erdogan to the EU president, Donald Tusk (see below). In a separate development, the Turkish Appeals Court quashed the convictions of 275 military personnel, journalists, lawyers, academics and politicians – many of whom were opponents of the Erdogan regime, swept up in a dragnet aimed at the Ergenekon* terrorist network and which resulted in swingeing sentences. Many believe the ruling weakens Erdogan’s power base.
(*Note: Ergenekon is the name of a valley in the east of Turkey. Legend has it that the few Turks who survived a disastrous defeat fled there, grew into a strong nation and emerged under the leadership of a gray wolf to found a great empire. Many secular nationalists like the story. The wolf is their emblem.)
On Monday prime minister Davutoğlu said: “I maintain my belief that, God willing, we will have the visa exemption in June. In the absence of that, then of course no one can expect Turkey to adhere to its commitments”. The final decision by the EU on whether visa-free travel to Turks will be granted is expected to be made in June. Also, only €187m of the EU’s €3bn ‘humanitarian aid’ to Turkey has been distributed. Turkey wants much more – and quickly.
The threat by Davutoğlu is reminiscent of a similar threat made by President Erdogan to EU president Donald Tusk at a November 2015 summit in which the Turkish president reportedly stated that he would bus thousands of refugees into Europe should the EU not agree to a deal that would see Turkey get at least 3 billion euros (later upped to 6 billion euros), a visa-free arrangement for Turks to roam Europe, and a definite promise of EU membership for Turkey. The authenticity of this conversation as per notes taken, (published in March by UndercoverInfo) between Erdogan and Tusk was neither denied nor confirmed by the EU, though much of what transpired eventually took place (i.e. the conditions of the EU-Turkey deal). The Independent subsequently added their comments on that November meeting: “…President Erdogan, like Colonel Gaddafi, threatened to flood Europe with refugees and the plan worked. The EU paid up. As his advisor Burhan Kuzu tweeted: “The EU finally got Turkey’s message and opened its purse strings. What did we say? We’ll open our borders and unleash all the Syrian refugees on you.”” Peter Spiegel in the FT also went on to report on this leak.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International has released an update accusing Turkey of illegally forcing thousands of refugees to return to Syria. AI says around 100 Syrians have been sent back to the war-zones every day since mid-January – which breached international laws. Under the “non-refoulement” principle of international humanitarian law, a state is prohibited from deporting individuals to a war zone.
Another report issued this week, by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, raised serious questions about the EU-Turkey deal and the way that the EU was managing the refugee crisis. The report points out that only 1% of refugees stuck in Greece have so far been relocated to other EU member states, that the Greek asylum system is woefully under-resourced, and that the return of refugees to Turkey violates international laws.
In a separate development, the Turkish courts quashed the convictions of 275 people who had been accused of belonging to or having been associated with the ‘deep state’ Ergenekon network, which was embedded in the Turkish military and accused of plotting a coup against the Turkish government in 2003/4. In 2007 a cache of explosives was found in the home of a former military officer, who was linked to what was claimed to be a much bigger conspiracy.
The prosecution of the ‘Ergenekon case’ was subsequently filed against 275 people, including military officers, politicians and journalists, over an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.
The military (secularists) was basically accused of planning terror campaigns to forment unrest in Turkey so that the Islamist AKP would lose power. These terror measures included bombing two major mosques in Istanbul, an assault on a military museum by people disguised as religious extremists and the raising of tension with Greece through an attack on a Turkish plane that was to be blamed on Athens. The journalist Nedim Sener, however, claimed the attacks and killings were masterminded by people in government agencies (he was jailed for saying this).
— Abdullah Bozkurt (@abdbozkurt) April 22, 2016
All 236 suspects in a separate “Balyoz” (Sledgehammer) coup plot case were acquitted on March 31 after the prosecutor argued that digital data in the files submitted as evidence in the case was “fake” and did not constitute evidence.
Former chief of staff, retired Gen. İlker Başbuğ, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in the coup trial, was released in March 2014, following a ruling by the Istanbul 20th Heavy Penal Court. Several of Basbug’s former subordinates or colleagues also received life terms. Hursit Tolon, former First Army commander, was sentenced to life in prison on the same charge as Basbug. Former General Staff Second Chief, General Hasan Igsiz, was also consigned to a life sentence. Retired General Nusret Tasdeler and Retired Colonel Fuat Selvi were similarly sentenced to life in prison. Former Gendarmerie Forces (National Police) Commander Sener Eruygur received an “aggravated life sentence” – a punishment reserved for terrorism cases, in solitary confinement, with limited exercise time and contact with other prisoners or by telephone with family, and no opportunity for parole. Retired general Veli Kucuk saw a double-aggravated life sentence imposed on him, plus 99 years and a month. Kucuk and retired colonel Arif Dogan were accused of creating and directing a terrorist effort to subvert the current authorities. Dogan was purportedly the mentor of a Gendarmerie Intelligence Anti-Terrorism Unit, a covert, seditious organization, the existence of which has been questioned by such Turkish media as the daily Hurriyet [Freedom]. In the Ergenekon affair, he was sentenced to 47 years in jail.
Other former Erdogan supporters jailed for life in the Ergenekon trial include Kemal Kerincsiz, a fanatical nationalist attorney. Kerencsiz had persecuted the Armenian Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, who edited Agos [The Furrow], a weekly Armenian-language newspaper with sections in Turkish and English. Dink, whom Kerincsiz claimed “insulted Turkishness” – currently redefined as “denigration of the Turkish nation,” and a serious offense – was murdered early in 2007 while awaiting indictment. The law that criminalizes “insulting Turkishness” was introduced under Erdogan and pursued with zeal by Kerincsiz. Among the political and media victims of Ergenekon “justice,” Mustafa Balbay, a writer for the daily Cumhuriyet [The Republic] and a parliamentary deputy of the long-established secularist Republican People’s Party [CHP], was also senetenced to life in jail, as was his co-defendant, Tuncay Ozkan, another secularist journalist.
The Appeal court explained that the 275 people who were imprisoned had their convictions quashed because there was no evidence that Ergenekon ever existed. The court’s ruling clearly weakens Erdogan’s power base. As to the existence of Ergenekon, the evidence is plentiful – see Appendix below for a list of its activities up to 2013.
11) The release was reportedly part of a secret deal made between #Turkey‘s corrupt political Islamist rulers & xenophobic neo-nationalists
— Abdullah Bozkurt (@abdbozkurt) April 22, 2016
Nothing is quite what it seems in Turkey and this week’s ruling by the Appeals Court is yet another example of the convoluted political situation in that country, which is largely defined by the tension between the forces of old guard military-backed secularism and the forces of new-guard police-backed Islamism.
In summary, the Ergenekon trials undoubtedly functioned as a useful vehicle for Erdogan to push his Islamist political agenda, enhance anti-terrorism laws, instill a state of fear, and neuter his opponents. Indeed, some may argue that, as with ISIS, Erdogan ‘allowed’ Ergenekon to exist – until, that is, it suited him otherwise. That still leaves the old guard at large, bowed but not broken.
(Incidentally, Ergenekon is also alleged to have been part of the Türk Mukavemet Teşkilatı that operated in North Cyprus and whose aim was to combat Greek EOKA and force through partition.)
Appendix: Ergenekon activities 1997 – 2013 (courtesy of Al Jazeera):
|1997 – 2007|
1997: The name “Ergenekon” was first used in reference to the “deep state”.
2001: The first official document related to Ergenekon was found. Tuncay Guney, an eccentric character of dubious credentials, was brought in on ordinary fraud charges and told Istanbul police about Ergenekon. His questioning formed the basis of the first Ergenekon indictment.
January 18, 2007: Armenian human rights journalist Hrant Dink was shot dead in front of the offices of his newspaper Agos. The Government blamed ‘unknown terrorist forces’ and shed crocodile tears.
March 25, 2007: Nokta, a political magazine, published the Coup Diaries, chronicling plans to stage a military takeover. The magazine was shut down almost a month later. The diaries formed the basis of the second Ergenekon indictment (see below).
April 18, 2007: Three Christians were killed in an attack at a publishing house in Malatya. The case was later merged with the the Ergenekon case on November 21, 2008.
June 12, 2007: After a tip-off, police discovered and confiscated 27 hand grenades and TNT moulds in a shantytown of Istanbul’s Umraniye district. The subsequent investigations led the prosecutors to unfold a series of coup plots against the government.
January 21: Thirty-one people were arrested following the first Ergenekon indictment including a retired general and columnist.
March 21: More generals and columnists were detained.
July 7: Some previously detained retired generals were arrested.
July 23: A new wave of arrests in the investigation led to 26 people detained around the country, including senior members of the Workers’ Party and staff members of a nationalist magazine.
July 25: After the submission of the indictment to the court the trial period officially began.
August 14: In another round of arrests, police found large amounts of explosives and weapons (two Kalashnikovs, 1,000 bullets, 1,000 empty bullets and 280 hand grenades).
September 23: Sixteen more people were detained, including a former police chief, a former mayor and journalists.
October 20: The first Ergenekon trial began.
January 7, 8: More people were detained, including academics and generals, and more arms caches were unearthed at various places.
January 22: More than 20 police officers were detained in connection to Ergenekon.
March 10: The second Ergenekon indictment was submitted. It was accepted by the court on March 22.
June 4: Army officers were arrested as part of an investigation into the ammunition found in Poyrazkoy, Istanbul. Twenty people, including 16 army officers on active duty, were detained in simultaneous operations, conducted in five Turkish provinces.
July 20: The Istanbul Criminal Court began trying 56 suspects under the second indictment of the Ergenekon probe. The 1,909-page indictment consisted of accusations against 56 suspects, including retired generals.
The third indictment was submitted to the court. The 1,454 page document indicted 52 people – 37 of whom were under arrest. The suspects were arrested between January 10, 2009 and April 17, 2009.
November 19: The ‘Cage’ (Kafes) coup plan was revealed by the daily newspaper, Taraf.
January 20: The Sledgehammer, or Balyoz, coup plot was revealed to the public through Taraf.
February 22: About 50 retired and active duty military officials were detained because of their alleged involvement with the Sledgehammer plot.
March 4: Police detained 10 people, mostly journalists, as part of an investigation into Ergenekon.
May 5: A case filed against a plot to assassinate the Istanbul-based leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians was merged with the Ergenekon case.
July 30: Turkey’s top military leaders quit. The mass retirement notices came hours after a court charged 22 suspects, including several generals and officers, with carrying out an internet campaign to undermine the government.
September 19: A Turkish prosecutor, conducting the investigation into the assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, said that the murder was committed by Ergenekon’s cell in the Black Sea province of Trabzon.
January 5: Turkey’s former Chief of Army Staff, Ilker Basbug, was called to court over allegations of his involvement in the creation of websites to discredit Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, and the governing Justice and Development Party.
January 6: The Court ordered Ilker Basbug to be remanded in custody over charges of attempting to overthrow the government.
March 26: Ilker Basbug goes on trial on charges of “leading a terrorist group”, accused of plotting to overthrow the government of Erdogan.
August 5: A Turkish court announced verdicts on nearly 300 defendants in the Ergenekon case. Ilker Basbug was sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiring to overthrow the government. The judges also sentenced three serving parliamentarians from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to between 12 and 35 years in prison. 21 defendants were acquitted. Protests erupted as the judgement were handed down.
- Ergenkon and Sledgehammer: building or undermining the rule of law,
- Former deputy Uras: Erdoğan struck deal with Ergenekon against Gülen movement,
- Between Fact and Fantasy: Turkey’s Ergenekon Investigation
- Ergenekon Verdicts: Erdogan Silences Dissent in Divided Turkey
- Erdogan, Ergenekon, and the Struggle for Turkey