A Turkish Tragedy

September 27, 2010 Topic: Civil SocietyDemocracyHistory Region: Turkey Tags: Industry

A Turkish Tragedy

The case against the alleged coup plotters of Operation Sledgehammer could destroy Turkey's democratic balance.

The authors continue their public campaign to free their close relative, Çetin Doğan, a leading defendant in the Sledgehammer case. Here, they take on the evidence.

In just about three months, 196 active-duty and retired officers are scheduled to go on trial in Turkey, charged with plotting in 2003 to overthrow the then-newly elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. The alleged coup plot—codenamed Operation Sledgehammer—involved horrifying acts, including the bombing of mosques and the downing of a Turkish fighter, aimed at destabilizing the government and paving the way for martial law and eventual takeover.

If the charges prove to be well-founded, the country’s powerful military establishment will stand disgraced for harboring violent, anti-democratic elements among its senior ranks. And it will be the first time that civilians have brought it to account for its frequent political intervention. Turkish democracy will have gone through a rite of passage, emerging stronger. Conservative-Islamist groups—the AKP and their ally the Gülen movement, a network of the followers of the Muslim spiritual leader Fethullah Gülen—will be vindicated and their political dominance assured.

But if the prosecutors’ case crumbles, it is the government, the Gülenists, the prosecutors, the media, and much of the country’s intelligentsia that will find itself discredited. For these groups have fought hard in recent months to convince Turks (and Turkey’s friends abroad) of the veracity of the Sledgehammer coup plot.

The sad irony is that the facts of the case leave no doubt as to where the truth lies: Operation Sledgehammer is a fiction. Its authors are not the defendants in the case but unknown malfeasants who fabricated the documents sometime after 2008. Anyone with a couple of hours to spare—and a good command of the Turkish language—can see it for themselves. That the charges have been allowed to stand for so long—and that a trial will take place at al—is testimony to the intensity of the disinformation campaign waged by the AKP and its supporters.

This is a bold claim, but one that is easy to substantiate. The Sledgehammer plot is chock-full of inconsistencies, the most telling of which are the inadvertent, but glaring anachronisms that make it plain that it could not have been hatched in 2003 as claimed. The documents purporting to be original military plans from 2003 contain references to entities that did not yet exist and future developments that could not have been known at the time. It’s as if a text pretending to date from 1970 referred to Diana Spencer as Princess of Wales—a title which she acquired only in 1981—or mentioned her car crash decades later. Hence, to any but the most jaundiced eye it is obvious that the incriminating documents were authored not by the military officers on trial, but by others many years later.


In January 2010 an anonymous individual claiming to be a retired officer delivered to a virulently anti-military newspaper, Taraf, a suitcase of material, including cassettes and CDs, which he said had been secreted from the 1st Army headquarters in Istanbul. Extracts from the documents were serialized in Taraf, and the whole batch subsequently turned over to the Istanbul public prosecutor.

The authenticity of much of this material, consisting of routine military documents and correspondence, is not in question. The heart of the case resides in three of the CDs that contain the incriminating documents referring to the Sledgehammer coup plot and related operations. (The cassettes are recordings of the proceedings of a military contingency planning seminar. The prosecutors maintain that the seminar was a dress rehearsal for the Sledgehammer coup, even though there are no references during the seminar to Sledgehammer, to a coup, or to any other criminal activities.) The Sledgehammer case therefore stands or falls with the authenticity of these three CDs.

There is no direct evidence that ties these CDs to computers in the 1st Army where they are said to have been produced. Not a single one of the hundreds of officers questioned in the case has acknowledged ever hearing of Operation Sledgehammer or any of the other plans included in the incriminating CDs. The documents on the CDs don’t carry signatures or other authenticating features. The evidence that the three CDs in question are genuine comes solely from their “metadata:” the username and date contained on the CDs and the Word documents therein. According to these metadata, the documents and the CDs were produced in 2003, and the authors of the documents are the officers now under indictment.

The problem with basing the case on metadata is obvious. Every computer forensic expert knows that manipulating the metadata in question is child’s play. One simply has to assign appropriate user names to computer accounts and set the computer’s clock to any desired time—or use one of the many freeware programs that alter time and username information. Remarkably, this didn’t prevent TÜBİTAK—the nation’s once premier scientific institution, now reeling under government control—from authenticating the CDs based on their metadata alone.

Even more telling is the affirmative evidence that shows the CDs to have been fabricated.

Some of the earliest discrepancies that came to light cast strong doubt on whether the Sledgehammer documents could have been produced in 2002-2003, when the coup plot is supposed to have been hatched. For example, the core document describing Operation Sledgehammer names three staunchly Kemalist/nationalist civil society organizations the plotters planned to collaborate with. But one of these, the Turkish Youth Union (“Türkiye Gençlik Birliği” or TGB in Turkish) turned out to have been founded only in 2006.

Taraf (and subsequently the prosecutors) responded that the group in question was the similar-sounding Turkish Youth Union Association (“Türkiye Gençlik Birliği Derneği” or TGBDER in Turkish) which did exist in 2002-2003. But this seems quite implausible in view of the fact that TGBDER, unlike TGB, does not have a Kemalist agenda, or indeed a political coloring of any kind, and devotes itself to promoting friendship and interchange with youth groups in Europe. The more likely explanation is that the true authors of Operation Sledgehammer committed a simple mistake.

Then there was the curious case of the economic program included with the Sledgehammer documents. This program turned out to include verbatim passages from a speech delivered in 2005 by Haydar Baş, a shady figure who leads a marginal political party and is also the leader of a small religious sect. Baş confirmed that the speech had not been circulated before 2005 and denied any knowledge of the coup plot. No one has offered a satisfactory explanation for how a speech from November 2005 could have found its way into a document dated December 2002.

Other discrepancies include the case of some journalists blacklisted in the Sledgehammer documents. These were journalists who focused on culture, arts, and restaurant reviews at the time and had transitioned to political topics in later years, and who were unlikely candidates for censure by the military. The coup plotters made other implausibly far-sighted references to future developments, including the AKP government’s use of tax inspections to intimidate the media—something that did not take place until 2009.


By July of this year, an indictment was finally issued. Before this, what was known about the contents of the CDs remained limited to the excerpts that Taraf’s reporters had chosen to publish.

The indictment itself is a treasure trove of contradictions and inconsistencies. It evinces a prosecutorial branch determined to assert the guilt of the defendants, often paying little heed to reason, logic, or the rules of evidence.

The Sledgehammer files contain appendices that provide long lists of various kinds—names of officers charged with carrying out specific tasks, notes on government bureaucrats and security personnel, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies, associations, newspapers, and magazines to be banned, and so on. It is these lists that have proved further fertile ground for evidence of fabrication.

Much like the “facts” revealed in Taraf, they contain numerous entries that reflect knowledge of events that took place in later years and which could not have been known back in 2002-2003. In most of these instances, the error is the same: an entity is referred to by a name that it adopted several years later. A political association that took on a new name in 2006 to reflect the political mood, a hospital that was acquired by a business group in 2008 and appended the group’s name to its own, a pharmaceutical company that was bought by an Italian firm in 2008 and changed its name to reflect the new ownership, a naval officer whose full name was altered when military registries were updated in 2007, a military unit that was renamed in 2004 as it was reconstituted—in all these cases and many others the Sledgehammer files use the later appellations. It is as if the perpetrators’ “fact-checkers” made an attempt to confirm the existence of these entities at the time Operation Sledgehammer is supposed to have been hatched, but overlooked that some of them may have undergone a name change since 2003.

If at least some of these documents are of post-2003 vintage, as seems certain in light of these anachronisms, an unavoidable conclusion follows. The metadata of the CDs must have been purposefully tampered. Someone has tried to frame the defendants, and prosecutors have either fallen for the setup or have been accomplices to it.

There are many other inconsistencies in the Sledgehammer documents, which are individually perhaps not as conclusive, but collectively amount to a powerful case against the authenticity of the coup plot. For example, the coup plans contain obvious violations of the chain of command, such as the head of a military school ordering air force battalions into action. They include documents allegedly prepared in the Istanbul headquarters of the 1st Army while their supposed authors were abroad, hundreds of miles away. Even though considerable care was obviously taken to make the material look like authentic military documents, their formatting and wording contain numerous departures from standard military usage.

Last but not least, there is the unsolved mystery of why the Sledgehammer plans were never put into action, despite detailed preparations. The indictment claims higher-ups, in particular the commander of the landed forces, stepped in to prevent the coup. But unaccountably, prosecutors never questioned him on the matter; nor has he admitted any knowledge of Sledgehammer.

Who is behind these fraudulent documents? The Turkish army’s history of political intervention lends surface plausibility to the charge of a coup plot, but the AKP and its allies have an obvious interest in discrediting the military Moreover, we know that some of these groups have circulated fabricated coup plots before. Former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Eric Edelman, has recently revealed that he was handed allegedly original army documents sometime during 2003-2004 by an individual linked to a group allied with the AKP government. These hand-written documents described preparations for a military coup. They turned out to be crude fakes upon closer examination by American experts, who concluded that the forgery was aimed at mobilizing U.S. support for the AKP government against the Turkish Army.

In a recently released book by a distinguished police chief, Hanefi Avcı, much light has been shed on these machinations. Avcı claims that followers of Fethullah Gülen—the influential US-based spiritual leader—have formed a state within the state, effectively wresting control of the national police and large parts of the judiciary. (The Gülen movement is independent from the AKP, but the two have long been closely allied.) Gülenist police officers and prosecutors are targeting their perceived opponents, Avcı writes, using illegal wiretaps, selective leaks to the media, judicial manipulation, planted evidence, and fabricated documents. He describes the organization of the Gülenists within the national police in some detail, even naming the imam who allegedly runs the network. Avcı does not discuss the Sledgehammer case in detail, but leaves no doubt that he believes the defendants have been framed.

Such accusations against the Gülen movement are not new in Turkey. But what makes the book a bombshell is that its author is known to be close to the Gülen movement and the AKP. He also has an impeccable track record of courage and incorruptibility. No friend of the army, he famously pursued rogue elements within the military in a landmark investigation some years ago. Furthermore, Avcı makes clear he abhors the worldviews of some of the military officers in the Sledgehammer case.

So Avcı cannot be accused of harboring militarist, ultra-secularist, or ultra-nationalist sympathies. In view of his inside knowledge and long career in intelligence, neither can he be called a conspiracy theorist making wild accusation. His story has a credibility that earlier accounts have lacked. Yet when Avcı reported his concerns to his governmental superiors, appealing personally to a minister, nothing happened. The AKP government refused to investigate and did nothing with Avcı’s information.

Once the darling of government-friendly media, Avci has instead found himself the subject of an intense character assassination campaign waged by those same publications. In a pattern that is all too familiar, police have now linked him to a violent extremist group. Gülenist media are having a field day with the damaging, if implausible, accusations leaked from the investigation.

Only a serious and impartial investigation can verify whether Avcı’s claims are well-founded. But they ring true and help make sense of many curious aspects of the Sledgehammer case. They account in particular for the highly prejudicial behavior of the prosecutors and the investigators, who have systematically disregarded evidence of fabrication while feeding the media with leaks against the defendants. They also explain why Turkey’s best selling daily Zaman, the media flagship of the Gülen movement, has been so intent on deceiving its readers on the facts of the case.

What do the AKP and its allies gain from this perversion of justice? The answers seem to be payback, pre-emption, and political mileage. Undoubtedly, there is a certain element of revenge involved, as the AKP and the Gülenists have both suffered in the past from heavy-handed treatment and persecution at the hands of the secular/military establishment. As one AKP member has put it, “now it’s our turn to blacklist them.” This experience has led many within these groups to believe that they are waging an existential fight: either they will bring the military and their allies to heel, or they will be forced to perish.

In addition, Sledgehammer and other similar cases allow Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdoğan to gain political leverage over the opposition and the military. Erdoğan has whipped up a frenzy around this case to gain the backing of domestic liberals in addition to solidifying his traditional political base. As the recent campaign around the constitutional referendum showed, the prosecutions enable him to position himself as the protector of Turkish democracy against the coup plotters allegedly still running rampant among the military and secularists. And by using his control over the judiciary and unleashing arrest warrants and indictments against military officers at appropriate times, he can bend the military to his will.

Such is the audacity and magnitude of the Sledgehammer fraud that the mind boggles at the implications of its unraveling.

The tragedy is that the discredited will be precisely those who are supposed to uphold Turkey’s democracy: the AKP government and its Gülenist allies, who have severely undermined the rule of law while preaching the primacy of democracy and civil liberties at every turn; the prosecutors who have spared no effort to incarcerate individuals they must know are innocent; the judges who have been intimidated and browbeaten to disregard the presumption of innocence; the police who have used their investigative powers to frame individuals rather than bring the facts to light; TÜBITAK, which has compromised scientific principles in order to lend support to the prosecutors’ quest; the media which has allowed itself to become a vent for disinformation and has refused to stare the facts in their face; and last but not least, members of Turkey’s liberal intelligentsia who have resolutely kept their blind folders on lest their cherished narrative of military malevolence be impaired.

It will be extremely difficult for Turkish democracy to reconstruct itself after a debacle of such proportions. The country badly needs to reestablish its civil-military, balance which in the past has too often veered in the direction of military dominance. Unfortunately, the current vendetta is more likely to produce a backlash than to put an end to “military tutelage.” Putting Turkey back on the right path will require untainted political leaders and great courage and leadership on their part. It will also take an army that is willing to make a sharp break with the military coups and political meddling of the past.


UPDATE: Hanefi Avcı was arrested and jailed on September 28. He is accused of having cooperated with a violent revolutionary organization, a charge as plausible as Winston Churchill having been an undercover operative for Stalin. It is a sad commentary on the state of Turkish justice that he has become a victim of the dirty tricks he described in his book.