By Jürgen Gottschlich in Istanbul
Fikret Ilkiz makes an elegant impression, with his graying hair, slender facial features and his expensive suit jacket. The lawyer speaks succinctly, but with a precision that has an incisive quality.
Ilkiz represents Turkey's most prominent detainee, the veteran journalist and writer Ahmet Sik. Sik was arrested on March 3, as was his colleague Nedim Sener. Both work at newspapers belonging to the Dogan group. Sik works for the left-liberal Radikal, while Sener writes for Milliyet, traditionally the newspaper of Turkey's intellectuals. Both journalists became famous through their books.
Their revelations have made the two writers icons of investigative journalism in Turkey and won them many awards at home and abroad. Hence the country was shocked when the two journalists were arrested in their homes at dawn on March 3. The police turned their residences upside down and seized computers, CDs and the journalists' entire archives.
But the shock soon turned into indignation, when the charges against the journalists were made public. They are accused of being members of an ultra-nationalist underground organization called Ergenekon. The alleged network, which supposedly includes members of the military and hardcore Kemalists, is said to have attempted to overthrow the Islamic-conservative government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan from 2003 onwards using terror and disinformation.
"Everyone knows that this accusation against the two journalists is absurd," said Ilkiz, speaking on the weekend at a meeting between friends of Sik and Sener and foreign journalists. "Their work speaks for itself." Indeed, Ahmet Sik was one of the editors of the weekly magazine Nokta who in 2007 were the first to publish an investigative report about the military's plans to stage a coup. In the story, Nokta published excerpts from the secret diaries of a high-ranking admiral, which included details about the coup plans. The diary is now part of the indictment in the Ergenekon case. Now one of the journalists who made it public, of all people, is accused of being part of the network.
As absurd as the accusations against Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener are, they mark a turning point in the so-called democratization process that has been conducted by the ruling Justice and Freedom (AK) Party government under Erdogan, which has been in power since 2002. The first years of the new government, during which time the administration successfully brought Turkey closer to the EU, were characterized by a permanent confrontation with the military, which had previously been all-powerful.
During this period, journalists such as Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener were also on the side of the AKP. They reported on human rights abuses committed by the military and the country's intelligence agencies. But after the power of the military had been curbed by a joint effort by democratic forces, and the AKP had secured its power in the country's institutions, investigative journalism suddenly became a nuisance for the ruling party. Indeed, journalists are even viewed as a threat, particularly at the moment, when the country is just two months away from crucial parliamentary elections.
While certain sections of the Turkish press have become little more than a mouthpiece for the government, other journalists such as Sik and Sener have stayed true to their cause. Although the special prosecutor who has been conducting the investigation in the Ergenekon case since 2007 emphasized after the March 3 raids that the two writers had not been arrested because of their journalistic work, interrogation records which were made public on the weekend show the exact opposite.
At the time of his arrest, Ahmet Sik had almost completed work on a new book that was supposed to be published in May. The book, titled "Imamin Ordusu" ("The Imam's Army"), contains explosive material. It describes in detail how followers of the Islamic theologian Fethullah Gülen have allegedly infiltrated the Turkish police since the mid-1980s. Gülen's followers currently comprise by far the most influential Islamic brotherhood in Turkey. The Gülen movement is mainly known outside Turkey because of its schools, which are also present in Germany. Fethullah Gülen has lived in exile in the US since a trial in the 1990s. In interviews, he likes to cultivate the image of an old, wise, tolerant Islamic scholar.
According to Fikret Ilkiz, Ahmet Sik had found out that "80 percent" of the Turkish police force already belongs to the Gülen movement. It is of secondary importance whether the value is really that high. The key thing is that anyone who criticizes the movement is currently at risk in Turkey.
The last author who wrote a book that was critical of the Gülen movement was Hanefi Avci, a former senior police officer who had himself been a Gülen sympathizer. Last autumn, Avci published a spectacular tell-all book about his time with the organization. The book has sold nearly a million copies to date. But Avci is unable to enjoy his success: He has been sitting in jail since November, charged with being a supporter of a radical left-wing terrorist organization.
Nedim Sener also seems to have become a problem for the Gülen movement. Sener's latest book deals with alleged lies told by Turkey's security agencies about the background of the assassination of prominent Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007. Sener accuses members of the military, as well as many senior police officers who are Gülen sympathizers, of being involved in the crime.
The weeks that have passed since the arrest have underscored the degree to which the book, "The Imam's Army," has unsettled the Gülen movement and the AKP government. The public prosecutor and investigative judges claim that the book was commissioned by the Ergenekon network, in order to foment unrest in the run-up to the election. They made possession of the unpublished manuscript a punishable crime, and hundreds of police have since been searching for copies.
The law offices of Fikret Ilkiz were ransacked, Ahmet Sik's publishing house was searched as well as the offices of the editorial staff of the newspaper Radikal, where Sik is a journalist. But the authorities were unable to stop "The Imam's Army" from being posted, in its entirety, on the Web last Thursday. By the end of its first day online alone, the book had been downloaded more than 100,000 times. The next day, a public reading of the book took place on Istanbul's central Taksim Square, attended by hundreds of the journalist's supporters.
Reaction to the book has been so overwhelming that public prosecutors had to declare that they would not -- at least initially -- pursue people who had downloaded the book via the Internet. More importantly, after almost four years in office, the leading special prosecutor in the case, Zekeriya Öz, has been reappointed to another post.
What does that mean for the investigations? In the opinion of Sik's lawyer, Fikret Ilkiz, the staffing change is proof of the collapse of the Turkish justice system.
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