Democracy in Turkey

Dani Rodrik has just returned from Turkey, shunned while defending his father-in-law, the main defendant in the military coup plot case. The Harvard professor explains his take.

Dani Rodrik has just returned from Turkey, shunned while defending his father-in-law, the main defendant in the military coup plot case. The Harvard professor explains his take.

IN DECEMBER I traveled to Turkey with my wife and young son, as we do every year during winter break. This time, though, we had more than visiting family and friends in mind. We were on a mission to demonstrate that what many have called the trial of the century in Turkey is in fact a sham built on fabricated evidence.

Nearly two hundred Turkish military officers stand accused of having plotted a gruesome coup back in 2003—codenamed Sledgehammer—against the then–newly elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

Details of the alleged plot have gripped the nation ever since an anonymous source delivered a suitcase full of what appeared to be secret military documents to a newspaper reporter in January 2010. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and other AKP leaders have openly lent support and credibility to the charges. With few exceptions, mainstream commentators have also accepted the claims at face value. The prosecutors have produced a 1,000-page long indictment, along with supporting documentation running into tens of thousands of pages. When we arrived in Turkey (my wife is the daughter of Çetin Doğan, the lead defendant in the case), the trial had just started in Silivri, on the grounds of a prison in the outskirts of Istanbul.

Our mission seemed quixotic and presumptuous at best. And yet, stripped of all the frenzy and disinformation that surrounds the case, the facts were abundantly clear. The coup plot documents on which the charges are based were obvious forgeries.

Americans have not paid much attention to the Sledgehammer case or to Turkey’s other ongoing political-military trials. Western observers typically assume that these trials, although far from perfect, are an opportunity for the country to come to grips with its murky past. Yet the Sledgehammer case reveals quite a different reality. It lays bare the machinations behind the judicial process, aimed evidently at achieving political advantage instead of justice. It calls into question Turkey’s relevance as a democratic beacon for the Middle East and reveals the shaky domestic political foundations on which the country’s foreign policy rests.

We recounted in a previous article the myriad inconsistencies and violations of due process in this case. The evidence we uncovered left no doubt that the CDs containing the incriminating evidence had been tampered with. Most strikingly, we identified dozens of instances in which entities—hospitals, NGOs, companies, military units—were referred to by names that they acquired years later. The forgers seem to have checked to make sure these entities existed back in 2003, but apparently forgot to see whether they might have operated under different names at the time the coup plot was alleged to have been hatched. These conspicuous anachronisms made clear that the documents supposedly authored in 2003 by the officers on trial were in fact produced no earlier than August 2009.

However, when we presented our argument in Turkey in a book, several TV appearances, and meetings with journalists, we were bewildered by the reception we received. We encountered a mix of denial, deception, and fear, which says much about Turkey’s recent history—and even more about the alarming direction in which the country seems to be headed.

THE REACTION we got from the country’s liberal intelligentsia was symptomatic. The Turkish intelligentsia has made common cause in recent years with the AKP government, thanks in large part to the AKP’s success in presenting itself as a force for democratization and civilianization of Turkish politics. These intellectuals see Sledgehammer and other similar trials as a chance to make ultra-secularists and militarists accountable for the crimes of the past. Given Turkey’s history of military coups, this is understandable; we saw things pretty much the same way until recently.

What was much more difficult to fathom was these intellectuals’ unwillingness to question their beliefs in light of mounting evidence that the defendants had been framed. Many of Turkey’s leading “liberals” simply turned their backs on the evidence that we had amassed. They refused to meet with us, failed to show up at panels where we presented our findings, and left our e-mails unanswered. The reporter who first broke the Sledgehammer story in the newspaper Taraf, a ubiquitous presence in the Turkish media, declined invitations to debate us on TV. Ironically, while we were in Turkey prosecutors were forced to reveal—after presistent demands from lawyers—reams of material pointing to the inconsistencies we had identified (and more), which they had chosen to disregard (and hide from the defense).

Others tried to deflect our findings by personalizing our quest. Predictably, there were articles aplenty in the Islamist press that played off my Jewish identity. Pinar, my wife, was typically portrayed in condescending, often sexist terms that suggested her judgment was clouded by filial loyalty. Such articles were even published in the supposedly liberal Taraf.

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