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.


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.