What Turkey’s Political-Military Trials reveal about the Country’s Democracy

To understand what is happening in Turkey’s murky world of judicial politics these days, it helps to imagine you are watching the closing scenes of a Hollywood courtroom drama.

The movie’s protagonist stands accused of attempted murder. The prosecutor has produced a set of elaborate plans that the defendant allegedly drew up to poison an opponent. The plan was aborted, the prosecutor says, when a friend of the defendant got wind of the plot and alerted the intended target.

The defendant proclaims his innocence and denies vehemently that he had made such plans. He says the materials on which the prosecutor rests his case are forgeries. He submits to the court several reports from technical experts that conclude the documents were prepared on computers whose system clocks and usernames had been altered to frame him.

He also produces evidence that his hand-writing was forged. He shows that prosecutors concealed from the court exculpating evidence recovered during their investigation. He points out that the friend who supposedly uncovered the plot was never questioned by prosecutors or in court, and has in fact denied knowledge of the alleged plot in his public comments.

The prosecutor offers no counter-evidence but sticks to his guns. The judge disregards the forensic reports produced by the defendant. He rejects the defendant’s request that the friend be heard in court. A trial that should have long ended in acquittal – followed by the filing of charges of prosecutorial misconduct – instead moves towards an almost certain conviction. The defendant’s lawyers walk out of the courtroom in disgust, which prompts the judge to file charges against them in turn.

It could be a movie, but it is not. It is the reality of the Sledgehammer trial in which more than 360 officers are accused of having plotted to overthrow the government back in 2003.

Never mind that there is no evidence for the coup plot beyond unsigned Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents full of inconsistencies. Never mind that these documents have never been authenticated or traced to real military computers. Never mind that the names on the digital documents would never stand in a proper court of law as evidence, as they could have been easily manipulated by anyone with a modicum of computer knowledge. Never mind that the documents contain hundred of anachronisms that leave no doubt they were not produced on the alleged dates by their alleged authors. Never mind the numerous forensic reports – including two from American experts – that expose the digital evidence and “hand-writing” as forgeries. Never mind the public comments of the military higher-ups that contradict prosecutors’ claims.

The Sledgehammer case’s absurdities are just the tip of the iceberg. Since 2007, Turkish prosecutors have launched a series of mass trials against alleged members of a terrorist organization, Ergenekon. The defendants – military officers, journalists, politicians, academics, lawyers — are accused of plotting to destabilize the country and preparing a coup. Scores of defendants have been jailed for three years or more, yet the existence of Ergenekon has never been established. The prosecutors’ evidence ranges from the circumstantial to the fabricated, as in Sledgehammer.

Even worse, it is evident that it is the police who have been planting evidence and framing the defendants in at least some of these cases. One defendant was able to prove that police had downloaded contacts from a terrorism suspect onto his mobile phone to establish a link between the two. In a couple of instances, key incriminating documents turned out to have been in the possession of the police prior to the raids in which they were allegedly recovered from defendants’ premises. In one episode reminiscent of Keystone Kops, police searched the wrong house and still located evidence against the intended target.

What keeps the travesty going is the support it gets from the country’s two dominant political forces. On one side is the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which through its control of judicial appointments ensures the Sledgehammer trial moves to its inevitable conclusion. Erdogan has adroitly exploited the case for maximum political advantage, using it to sideline and reshape the army.

On the other side is the Gulen movement, whose sympathizers in the police and judiciary bear primary responsibility for staging the Sledgehammer and Ergenekon trials. Gulenists have a history of peddling forged documents to frame military officers and other perceived opponents (1 and 2). The powerful Gulenist media have been the leading champion of the cases, publishing non-stop one-sided, often downright false accounts about the defendants and the evidence.

Then there are the country’s liberal intellectuals, who have embarrassed themselves by buying into the Erdogan-Gulenist line uncritically and failing to stand up for due process. It was a supposedly liberal paper, Taraf, that first published the bogus Sledgehammer documents without corroboration. (Taraf’s editor, Yasemin Congar, would later justify her decision by saying the plans were too detailed not to be real!) Adding insult to injury, the paper repeatedly, and falsely, reported that the documents carried the officers’ signatures.

Leading liberals such as Ahmet Altan, Etyen Mahcupyan, Hasan Cemal, and Alper Gormus have defended the authenticity of the coup plans, in total disregard of the facts of the case. Others who have become convinced of the forgery have preferred to maintain their silence in public. A common attitude is that the military must have been planning something, given its history of coups, even if the Sledgehammer plot is fabricated. Effectively, defenders of the trial have been saying: “Yes, the murder weapon may have been planted on the defendant, but no matter, he is not a nice guy anyhow.”

Predictably, cases against these prosecutions have been piling up at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR, however, has limited room to issue judgment until all domestic legal avenues have been exhausted. In the meantime, the prosecutions’ fabrications are spilling over to the Turkish government’s filings before the Court. In one case, the Turkish government submitted a forged document attesting that a detainee did not need medical attention. In another, it reported falsely that explosives were found on the premises of a journalist.

The cost of all this to the future of Turkey’s democracy is incalculable. Erdogan and his supporters contend that he has restored the rule of law by vanquishing the military and civilianizing the political system. Every new political order needs a founding narrative, and that is Erdogan’s. Rarely, however, has the narrative been erected on such a patent forgery as Sledgehammer. As the case unravels, sooner or later, Erdogan and his successors will have to grapple with the unhappy consequences.

This column was first published on Dani Rodrik’s Blog


  1. Falainothiras says

    Take a peek over Greece, this stuff has been happening for at least the last decade.

  2. Burak Diniz says

    Turkish Daily Life and its hardly built bright future, which are at the hands of Islamic power, facing overwhelming repression countrywide.