Ergenekon Plot Massive Trial in Turkey Provides Look into 'Deep State'

The investigation involved wave upon wave of arrests of politicians, former military leaders and shady, underworld figures. The trial threatens to devolve into a uniquely Turkish power struggle. At issue is a possible putsch -- and Turkey's future.

Go to a cinema in Turkey these days and "Vali" will likely be among the films showing. It centers on an honest governor from the provinces who becomes the pawn of inscrutable powers; people around him start dropping like flies. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that the strings in the affair are being pulled from abroad -- from the West. The nationalist film's takeaway message is that the fatherland is in grave danger -- and someone must come to the rescue.

Turkish gendarmes and demonstrators outside the courthouse west of Istanbul where the Ergenekon trial is taking place.

Turkish gendarmes and demonstrators outside the courthouse west of Istanbul where the Ergenekon trial is taking place.


For many Turks, this frightening scenario mirrors the realities of their country. There are those who have always felt threatened and persecuted by their enemies. And there are others who consider themselves to be powerless bystanders in a political thriller that has washed over the country -- a thriller which is getting more difficult to understand by the day.

In reality, the drama is called "Ergenekon" and it has led -- this much, at least, is clear -- to one of the biggest and most explosive criminal trials in the country's history.

There are many suspects, many recriminations, and no one knows how it will end.

Roughly 150 politicians, ex-military officials, journalists and powerful demimonde characters stand accused. State prosecutors suspect the group of being behind plans to overthrow the government. As members of a secret network, called Ergenekon, named after a mythical valley celebrated by ancient Turks, the group allegedly planned to assassinate members of the country's political and cultural elite.

The idea, as prosecutors see it, was for Turkey to sink into fear and chaos before being rescued by an army coup that would reinstate peace and order. The armed forces, after all, see themselves as protectors of the nation they inherited from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern-day Turkey. The Turkish military has staged coups three times in the country's recent past: in 1969, 1971 and 1980.

Trial of the Century

The trial, currently underway at a court outside of Istanbul, began in October. At first, it was somewhat muddled, the 2,500 page indictment was full of holes and inconsistencies. Still, the trial of the century presents a unique opportunity to finally shed light upon the backroom dealers responsible for political murders and decades of terror in the name of the state.

It is a state of affairs known in Turkey as the "deep state" and it existed long before the Ergenekon investigation, which began two years ago after the discovery of a weapons cache. There have always been paramilitary organizations that took it upon themselves to protect modern Turkey from alleged enemies both outside and inside the country -- against Greeks and Armenians, then Leftists, and now against Islamists.

In the past, inquiries were always blocked, as in the case of the Susurluk affair. The case involved a deadly accident in which a former police chief, a politician from the True Path party and an internationally wanted mafia leader were found in the same car together on the outskirts of a town called Susurluk. The incident remains unsolved, leading many to fear that the Ergenekon case could meet the same fate.

'The 11th Wave'

An aging labor-union boss and a famous television commentator joined the eclectic group of the accused last Thursday. Early that morning police had searched the offices of the labor union Turk Metal, TV station Avrasya TV, and private apartments and offices in Istanbul, Ankara and other cities. All in all, more than 30 people were arrested. Turkey's media refers to this round-up "the 11th wave" since the first arrests.

The 10th wave, which took place at the beginning of this year, was even more spectacular. That was when investigators dug up a cache of weapons in a pine forest on the outskirts of Ankara that included missile launchers, plastic explosives and ammunition. They'd found the weapons using a map discovered in the house of suspected terrorist Ibrahim Sahin, who once led a police anti-terror force.

Among those arrested was Tuncer Kilinc, the former general secretary of the nation's Security Council, the country's highest military board and long considered immune to questioning.

Shortly afterwards, the Chief of Turkish General Staff Ilker Basbug and Prime Minister Erdogan met privately. Shortly thereafter, Erdogan released Kilinc and two other former military officials. It was the first real setback to the government's zealous handling of the investigation.

Now, there is to be a weekly jour fixe between the military leadership and the government. The purpose could well be to establish limits for those investigating the case. But there could be another reason, as columnist Lale Sariibrahimoglu wrote in the daily Today's Zaman. "Allowing civilian prosecutors to arrest or investigate retired generals and officers alleged to have been involved in Ergenekon," she writes, could help "prevent the TSK as an institution from losing credibility."

'Too Many Inconsistencies'

But in the Kemalist opposition camp, anger is mounting. Politicians from the Republican People's Party (CHP) see the trial as little more than a broad attack on secularism. They are concerned that the investigation is being used as an excuse to go after not just those involved in the planned putsch but also those critical of the government in general.

They see it as just another move in the ongoing power struggle between Turkey's two main political camps: the secular Kemalist-nationalists, strongly represented in the military and the court system, and the followers of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist party, the AKP. After all, it was only last summer that the AKP narrowly survived an attempt by the justice system to ban it.

And there have indeed been indications that investigators have interpreted their mission loosely. One example is the detention of former Higher Education Council president Kemal Gürüz earlier this month. Gürüz was partly responsible for pushing through the headscarf ban at Turkish universities, a move which did little to endear him to Erdogan's party.

Another example is that of Sabih Kanadoglu, whose home was searched two weeks ago. Kanadoglu is a former chief prosecutor who played a leading role in the banning of the Islamist party Refah Partisi (Welfare Party) which was led by former Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. Erbakan was Erdogan's political mentor.

"There are too many inconsistencies," says television commentator Mehmet Ali Birand. "There are too many accused sitting for eight or nine months in prison without knowing why."

Should the investigation continue to be conducted in the same vein, there is a chance that it will lose all credibility and fail to yield any concrete results at all -- providing Turkey with yet one more reason to feel as though there are dark powers afoot.

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