A month has passed since the outcome of the referendum held in Turkey approved significant constitutional changes, first among them the passage to a presidential regime expected to come into force in 2019. Voting took place amidst much controversy and in a very critical context due to the state of emergency, introduced immediately after the failed military coup on July 15th 2016, and renewed every three months at least until next July. In recent months daily life in this country has been marked by hundreds of thousands arrests affecting the entire public sector – ministries, schools, universities, the administration, the police, the judicial system – and a particularly aggressive attack on the media.
There are currently about 150 journalists in prison, among them some very well-known personalities in the world of Turkish journalism such as Kadri Gürsel, also a member of the Turkish Committee at the International Press Institute (IPI), and Ahmet Şık, famous for his investigation of Fethullah Gülen’s movement, which caused the withdrawal of his book from the market and his arrest. The daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, the secular Kemalist opposition linked to the CHP Party’s main media outlet, has had ten employees in prison for over 200 days. Among them there is also the famous cartoonist Musa Kart. There are famous authors in prison, such as Ahmet Altan, while others such as the well-known writer Asli Erdoğan are out on bail after being detained for a number of months, and, deprived of their passports, are now awaiting trial. Arrests have included the HDP’s opposition party leader Selahattin Demirtaş as well as many of its members. This is a pluralist progressive group that is mainly but not exclusively pro-Kurds, which following the 2013 Gezi protests had managed to become a potential force for change, innovative in its speeches and practices. To protest against these arrests, the HDP’s MPs boycotted the parliamentary debate on constitutional changes, which effectively left the other opposition party, the CHP, standing alone to oppose the reforms proposed by the AKP, changes also supported by the ultra-nationalists of the MHP.
In reality, as many politicians and intellectuals have observed, such an atmosphere was entirely unfavourable and inadequate for accompanying very significant, substantial and decisive change for Turkey. The passage to a presidential regime, in which the president of the republic has full powers while simultaneously reducing the autonomy of the executive and judicial branches, is in fact an epic change. In addition to reminding one in some ways of the political asphyxia of the one-party regime of the first decade of the republic, which appeared for some time to have been overcome, this change on the other hand appears to sensationally mark the about turn of a country that until just a few years ago was consecrated at an international level as an exemplary model of a mix of democracy, Islam and economic growth.
Although the situation concerning civil liberties is rapidly deteriorating after last summer’s attempted coup, the shift towards growing authoritarianism had actually already been reported a few years ago, as shown by the extent of the Gezi Park protests in the summer of 2013. Only a few years earlier, however, in 2010 a first constitutional referendum had been announced. For the first time the constitution implemented after the 1980 coup was questioned while the changes proposed were also a hard blow to the military establishment, which had always played an important political role, advocating itself as the only guarantor of the Turkish state’s democracy and secularism. In the early years of the AKP’s legislature there had, on many occasions, been tension and difficult negotiations between the army and the government. However, a series of wide-ranging judicial investigations, many of which much later turned out to be phony, had resulted in the sentencing and arrest of the highest ranking members of the army, also leading to a delegitimisation of political power in the eyes of public opinion that only a little earlier had seemed unthinkable. As emerged over time, in these mega-investigations a very important role was played by Fethullah Gülen’s organisation, once allied with the AKP and thanks to this alliance had a capillary presence at all government levels and in particular in the judiciary and the police. This organisation is now called in Turkish Fetö (Fethullahçı Terör Örgütü, Gülenist Terror Organisation) and is considered a very dangerous terrorist organisation as well as being accused of the attempted coup. The fact is that the operation undertaken by the AKP to discredit the army, which represented the country’s traditional elite, was a passage of significant importance for acquiring widespread consensus that went well-beyond its most loyal supporters. In the 2010 constitutional referendum most voters, generally critical of Erdoğan, had organised a widespread campaign called “Yes but not enough”, a way of supporting the vote for change while emphasising a desire for greater democratic transformation. At the time it seemed incredible that it was possible to debate at a political and public level the potential incrimination of generals involved in the 1980 coup d’état, accusing them of the torture and summary murders that followed during the years of the military regime as well as later. Furthermore, voting took place on a particular date, September 12th, exactly thirty years after the coup; an astute choice with a significant symbolic value. The ‘yes’ vote won the referendum adding yet another victory to the AKP’s history.
The next chapter addresses the 2010 constitutional referendum and the political implications it had not only at the time but also during later years when the alliance with Fethullah Gülen’s organisation ended brutally with serious consequences for the whole of Turkish society. An excerpt from Basharat Peer’s book entitled ‘A question of order’ helps one understand how a significant role is played by what at times appear to be phenomena involving quick successes, impossible to undermine and surprising, such as the statements of strongmen – more specifically Narendra Modi in India and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey – actually have a rather complex history in which the ability to promote change and break with the past by promising prosperity and glory, but effectively increasingly restricting the possibility of freely expressing dissent as far as new powers are concerned.
The following is an excerpt from Basharat Peer’s A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen, out March 21, 2017, from Columbia Global Reports.
THE FEAST OF THE GENERALS
On July 20, 2010, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave a nationally televised speech to the AKP members of Parliament. Erdoğan is known for his menacing tone, but this afternoon he turned to poetry, as he had in 1997 when he was jailed for reciting what the courts considered an Islamist poem. But now he was in charge, and he used the occasion to talk about the notorious 1980 military coup that saw the junta murder young Turkish men across the political divide. Erdoğan spoke of Necdet Adalı, a 22-year-old leftist who was sentenced to death by the military three years after his arrest. The poet Nevzat Çelik’s “The Dawn’s Song” reimagined Adalı’s last letter to his mother before his execution:
One morning, Mother, one morning
When you open the door to brush your pain away
Many of my peers
Whose names are different, whose voices are different
With flowers in their arms
Will a new country bloom.
Erdoğan cried as he recited the poem, though it was clear that the tears were designed to garner support for his next major political move, one targeted at the decades-long entrenchment of the unelected wings of the Turkish state: the military, the judiciary, and the bureaucracy, all of them long been dominated by the Kemalist elite.
Erdoğan wanted to change the constitution, which had been written by the military after the coup. He planned a referendum on a broad package of 25 amendments which would reduce the jurisdiction of the military courts, empower civil courts, remove immunities for the generals who were behind the 1980 coup, strengthen data privacy laws, expand collective bargaining rights, and increase welfare provisions for children, the elderly, and the disabled. He scheduled the vote—a single yes or no for all 25 amendments—for September 12, 2010, the thirtieth anniversary of the 1980 coup.
One of the amendments in the package increased the number of judges in the country’s powerful Constitutional Court from 11 to 17. The additional judges would be appointed by the president—who at the time was Abdullah Gül, Erdoğan’s trusted right-hand man and the co-founder of the AKP—and approved by a majority vote in Parliament. Erdoğan claimed that the move would democratize the highest court of the land, but opponents saw it as a court-packing plan to control the judiciary, which had supported the military and banned the Islamist predecessors of the AKP and various Kurdish parties. Breaking the Kemalist hegemony in the Constitutional Court would certainly remove the old threat of closure of the AKP for “violating” secular norms of the republic.
Erdoğan framed the referendum as settling the score with the military. On polling day, the amendments passed with 58 percent of the votes. Erdoğan had once again leveraged the support of the electorate to deal the Kemalists a decisive defeat.
The courts were to become a key ally to Erdoğan in his plan to chip away at the military’s power and its interference in government and civil society. The old Kemalist junta was the target in two polarizing cases in Turkish courts that spanned eight tumultuous years between 2008 and 2016: the Ergenekon and the Sledgehammer trials.
In the summer of 2007, Turkish police found hand grenades in the house of a retired, low-ranking army officer in Istanbul. The seizure was followed by several waves of arrests encompassing more than 200 military officers, journalists, academics, and lawyers. More weapons, several computers, and hundreds of documents were seized. Turkish prosecutors alleged the documents revealed the existence of a hitherto unknown terrorist organization named Ergenekon, which had plans to attack newspapers, down Turkish planes, assassinate religious leaders, and create chaos in the buildup to a military coup against the AKP government.
The list of men arrested and accused in the Ergenekon case featured some names that haunted Turkish liberals and the Kurdish population. Retired general Veli Küçük had founded the Gendarmerie Intelligence Organization of the military, which used disappearances, torture, and death squads in the war against the Kurds in the 1990s. Sedat Peker was a flamboyuant mob boss who was also an ardent nationalist. Kemal Kerinçsiz, a nationalist lawyer, was notorious for filing cases against writers and journalists (including Orhan Pamuk, Elif Shafak, and the Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink, who was murdered by a 17-year-old nationalist in 2007) for “insulting Turkishness.”
The trial suggested that rogue elements of the old establishment could be held accountable for their crimes. “We were initially excited about it,” Emma Sinclair Webb, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, told me. “It offered the possibility that a group of military officers who were on trial might be investigated for the enforced disappearances, torture, and evacuations of Kurdish villages.” Family members of Kurdish victims tried to attend the trials, but were turned away. “Then we saw the trials weren’t fair either, and they expanded to include a very wide range of people,” Webb said.
The police soon began arresting more people who opposed Erdoğan and the AKP. A 73-year-old academic who founded a charity to help educate poor, rural girls was arrested during a chemotherapy session. Emin Sirin, a founding member of the AKP who had fallen out with Erdoğan, was charged with being a member of Ergenekon. Ergun Poyraz, whose book, Children of Moses: Tayyip and Emine, alleged that Erdoğan and his wife are secret Jews who rose to power as part of a Zionist conspiracy to undermine Turkish secularism, was also charged with being a member of Ergenekon. Mehmet Haberal, a surgeon who pioneered kidney transplants in Turkey, was accused to trying to mistreat then–prime minister Bülent Ecevit in 2002 when he was admitted for surgery to a hospital at Haberal’s Bishkent University. The surgery had been successful; Ecevit had returned to work and lived years after that. Haberal was convicted of “founding and running a terrorist organization” along with Yalçın Küçük, a socialist writer, and İlhan Selçuk, retired editor of a prominent Kemalist newspaper. All of them were critics of the AKP. Haberal was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison. A group of scientists led by Nobel Laureate and MIT economist Peter Diamond visited Haberal in prison in 2013 and wrote in their report: “Dr. Haberal, who is 69 years old, looked pale, tired, and perplexed.”[i]
A British researcher named Gareth Jenkins took it upon himself to read through the indictments and evidence in the Ergenekon case. He concluded that “hundreds of pages of transcripts of wiretaps included in the two indictments contain no evidence even to suggest the existence of an organization called Ergenekon.”[ii] Jenkins saw Ergenekon as the creation of a conspiracy theorist and argued that the absence of proof of Ergenekon’s existence seemed to have reinforced the investigators’ fear of “its awesome power and capacity for secrecy.”
A growing number of arrests included critics of a Muslim preacher named Fethullah Gülen, himself alleged to head a vast, global network of followers collectively referred to as the Gülenist Movement, who had over the years become a key ally of Erdoğan’s. Ahmet Sik, a reporter with the left-liberal Radikal newspaper, was accused of being an Ergenekon member shortly before he was about to publish The Imam’s Army, a book that investigated whether Gülenists had infiltrated Turkey’s police force and its intelligence wing. Charged along with him was his colleague Nedem Sener, who worked at the Milliyet, and whose reporting into the murder of Hrant Dink had pointed fingers at members of the Turkish police.
Zaman and Today’s Zaman, the most prominent newspapers in the Gülenist media empire, were the loudest cheerleaders of the Ergenekon trials. Andrew Finkel, a journalist who has reported from Turkey for some 30 years and a columnist for Today’s Zaman, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times criticizing the arrest of Sik and Sener; he was fired from Today’s Zaman soon after.
In 2013, 19 of the alleged leading co-conspirators of the supposed Ergenekon network were sentenced to life imprisonment; some 250 other defendants received prison terms of several years’ length.
An idea had been taking hold that Gülen’s followers had infiltrated the police and the courts, and in alliance with the AKP, they had managed to arrest and convict their enemies—ironically, by accusing them of being in a terrorist organization. A confidential 2009 cable from James Jeffrey, then U.S. Ambassador to Turkey (which became public as part of the Wikileaks trove), echoed the rumors. “Gülenists also reportedly dominate the Turkish National Police, where they serve as the vangard for the Ergenekon investigation,” Jeffrey wrote. “The assertion that the TNP is controlled by Gülenists is impossible to confirm but we have found no one who disputes it, and we have heard accounts that TNP applicants who stay at Gülenist pensions are provided the answers in advance to the TNP entrance exam.”
Fethullah Gülen was born in 1941 in an Eastern Anatolian village. His father was an imam and his mother taught the Quran, although Islamic education was banned by the Kemalists. That didn’t stop him from becoming an imam himself; by the 1970s, his charisma and oratory attracted a growing number of followers. Gülen propagated a mixture of moderate Islam, prosperity gospel, and Sufism that offered the alluring possibility of being Muslim, modern, and rich at the same time—a middle ground between authoritarian Kemalism and utopian Islamism. Tapes of his speeches circulated widely.
Gülen urged his followers to build dormitories in Turkish cities where rural students could find shelter and support for their careers. By the 1980s, after Turgut Özal’s economic liberalization and easing of restrictions on Islam, the Gülen movement had created a vast network of schools—considered some of the best in Turkey—that provided secular education along with a course in religious studies. The education system requires students to pass an exam that determines his or her placement at a college or a university. Gülen built a chain of preparatory schools that helped thousands of students to score higher and get into the colleges of their choice. They also became the perfect recruitment grounds for the organization. “Despite what we think of them politically, we would tell our relatives in the villages to send their children to Gülen schools,” a Kurdish activist told me.
A decade later, Gülen-controlled businesses and schools had spread globally, from Tajiskistan to Australia, Brazil to Pakistan, Houston to Chicago, adding to his empire’s soft power and connections with the elites of the host countries. In the early 2000s, as Erdoğan founded the AKP and positioned it as a party of globally minded conservative democrats, he found it wise to join hands with the Gülen movement.
By then the Gülenists had established an increasingly impressive number of universities, construction companies, television networks, and newspapers across Turkey. The global Gülen networks were of use to Turkish diplomats. The Gülen media companies championed the AKP and its policies. Together they undermined the old Kemalist order.
Gülen himself had been living in rural Pennsylvania since 1997, when he ostensibly traveled to the United States to treat a heart condition and diabetes. His critics believe he was avoiding prosecution by the secularist establishment. In 1999 a video surfaced that purportedly showed Gülen telling a group of his followers, “You must move in the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers. You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey. Until then any step will be too early.” Gulen claimed the video had been tampered with. The next year, he was charged with anti-secular activities and running a covert operation to undermine the integrity of the Turkish state. A Turkish court acquitted him in 2006, but Gülen remained in Pennsylvania, communicating with his followers through online videos, web postings, and interviews with carefully chosen journalists. Hakan Yavuz, a professor at the University of Utah, estimated the number of Gülen followers to be around five million, but the Gülen movement has not revealed any numbers or a clear organizational structure. A strong sense of suspicion and wariness appears when you mention the Gülenists. An air of obfuscation and secrecy shrouds the movement despite its success. Joshua D. Hendricks, an American sociologist whose book, Gülen, is the best study of the movement, describes it as “strategic ambiguity.” “Masters of spying!” a politician in Istanbul told me when I asked about the Gülenists.
The suspicion that the Gülen Movement used its sympathizers in the police, judiciary, and intelligence networks to persecute its critics and opponents strengthened over the next few years.
In January 2010, Taraf, an upstart newspaper patronized by the liberal intelligentsia, filled its front page with details of a 2003 coup plot, code-named Operation Sledgehammer, that was supposedly hatched by Turkish generals to overthrow the Erdoğan government. The military allegedly planned to destabilize the country and justify a coup by bombing the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul, downing a Turkish jet, and blaming it all on Greece. Taraf claimed that the mastermind of the coup was retired general Çetin Doğan, a dogmatic Kemalist and opponent of the AKP. Doğan had played a part in the imprisonment of Erdoğan in 1999. Doğan had also backed the forced resignation in 1997 of prime minister Necemuddin Erbakan, Erdoğan’s mentor.
Doğan and hundreds of alleged co-conspirators were arrested and sent to prison. Erdoğan vouched for the veracity of the plot, and the pro-government press went after the generals. Gülenist media outlets were the loudest. Yet scant evidence was offered for the accusations, either by Taraf or by the prosecutors. Only six months after the arrest of Doğan did the court provide copies of the evidence to the general’s lawyers.
Doğan’s daughter, Pinar, and her husband, Dani Rodrik, both economists at Harvard, began investigating the hundreds of pages of documents. They discovered increasing evidence of forgery and fabrications.
The coup documents were supposedly saved and burned onto a CD in 2003. Pinar quickly found dozens of anachronisms that referenced names and events from years later, including a nationalist youth organization that wasn’t founded until 2006. In one file, there was a mention of the pharmaceutical company Yeni Recordati, which wouldn’t exist until the Turkish firm Yeni Ilac was taken over by the Italian group Recordati in 2008.
Encouraged by what they could find just through Google, Pinar and Rodrik hired a forensic consultant in Boston to examine the files. The expert turned to the key document of the trial, a Microsoft Word 97 document in Arial font titled “Operation Sledgehammer,” with General Doğan’s name under it, supposedly saved on a machine in December 2002 and burned onto a CD in March 2003. A tool called a hex editor was used to examine the file, and a reference to Calibri was found, a font that did not exist before mid-2006. Calibri references were all over the documents, and many were stamped with Cambria font, which was not designed until 2004. One Excel file was even saved in Calibri font. Pinar and Rodrik found that the documents were made using Office 2007, before they were ultimately saved in an earlier version of Office. What the forgers didn’t realize was that Office 2007 creates metadata that is retained even when the file is saved in an earlier format.
Pinar and Rodrik had been publishing their findings on a blog and in publications like Foreign Policy. Rodrik published a long personal essay reconstructing the case and the forgeries called The Plot Against the Generals. “It was clear as daylight that ‘Operation Sledgehammer’ could not have been produced and burned onto a CD in 2003,” he wrote. The two published a book describing their findings. A series of articles in Today’s Zaman attacked Rodrik for disgracing Harvard, being a naïve son-in-law, and using his Jewish faith and connections to tar Turkey.
The judges ignored the evidence Pinar and Rodrik provided. In September 2012, the court found Doğan and more than 300 other defendents guilty of planning to overthrow the government. Doğan was sentenced to prison for twenty years.
Political currents have long decided the outcomes of disputes in Turkey. Between 2011 and 2013, the decade-long alliance between Erdoğan and Gülen began to fray. Turkey watched Erdoğan’s AKP and the Gülen network turn bitter foes in a public divorce. The glue of resentment against the old Kemalist establishment couldn’t bind them together after the successful subjugation of the military through the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer plots. Erdoğan began distancing himself from the Gülenists during the last phase of the trials. Over the next few years, an intense battle raged between the Gülenists and Erdoğan: Prosecutors affiliated with the Gülenists brought corruption charges against Erdoğan’s close circle, and Erdoğan retaliated by purging Gülenists from the judiciary and the police.
The clash created opportunities for the courts to reconsider earlier decisions. On June 18, 2014, an Istanbul court released General Doğan and 229 others accused in the Sledgehammer trial. In April 2016, the highest appeals court of Turkey overturned the convictions of 275 people accused in the Ergenekon case—because the existence of Ergenekon could not even be proved.
I recently asked Dani Rodrik whether Gülen’s alleged clandestine army of powerful followers were really to blame for the purge. “The Gülenists, or more accurately their sympathizers in the judiciary, police force, media, and some other state institutions were indeed the prime movers behind those sham trials,” Rodrik said. “Today, the Gülen Movement remains the only group that still defends the legitimacy of the trials and refuses to acknowledge that the alleged coup plots were fictitious.” But he placed the primary responsibility on Erdoğan and his party. “Erdoğan and his ministers ensured roadblocks to the trials were removed”—police and prosecutors who didn’t follow orders were fired, judges who didn’t ignore unfavorable evidence or quash appeals were replaced, and for years the government publicly supported the prosecutions—“until the split with Gülen happened.”