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On Ergenekon, Sledgehammer, evidence, and more

October 25, 2010

Last week was a veritable gold mine of commentary on Turkey. I haven’t even started this week’s Economist, but the blogosphere has been full of some very interesting takes on the country, both by established commentators and by some fresh (or fresh-to-me) voices.

We here at IstanbulAlti have been absorbed in Lee Smith’s piece in Tablet Magazine, a conservative publication and author that both generally focus on events a little south of Turkey’s border. Smith’s concluding statement, “Washington, meanwhile, doesn’t dare criticize the domestic machinations of a Muslim democracy’s ruling Islamist party, for fear of crashing its own plans, and alienating Muslims,” rings a little hollow given the current more lukewarm state of US-Turkish relations and the US Treasury delegation’s warning visit to Ankara last week (a visit which apparently included threats of arrests for Turkish businessmen who continue to flout UN sanctions on Iran).

The piece does though make some thought-provoking statements about Fethullah Gulen and the Gulen movement, delving into Gulen criticism further than many Turkey commentators aside from Soner Cagaptay and the like (Cagaptay and the Gulen movement’s mutual dislike of each other is no secret). However, while the piece’s Gulen statements, like its Ergenekon points, are interesting and put forward very plainly things a number of Turkey writers have been saying in private for some time, it doesn’t offer much in the way of evidence or support (granted it is difficult to find tangible material on these) aside from extensive quotes of Dani Rodrik, an economics professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Rodrik, a member of Istanbul’s Jewish community and a descendant of Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, makes what may be the most concrete claims negating key parts of the Ergenekon mire currently available in English. He wrote a fascinating blog post about a month ago covering the Cage Plan, Gulen, and the arrest of Hanefi Avci in the aftermath of the stellar success of his book, “Haliç’te Yaşayan Simonlar- Dün Devlet Bugün Cemaat.”

While Rodrik’s arguments about Avci’s arrest are familiar to anyone reading the Hurriyet op-ed page over the last month, his next point is something new: Rodrik says, “A forensic examination in the United States has revealed that the DVD in question [on which the Cage Plan was ostensibly discovered in encrypted form in a retired military officer’s office] does not contain [the Cage Plan].” Aside from the first questions — how did the DVD get to America? Isn’t it presumably being held as part of the Cage Plan evidence dossier? Who brought it to the US? Who paid for/arranged the testing? – one wonders why no one else has commented on this bombshell.

Rodrik is in a unique position: He does not generally comment on Turkish politics, rather his blog and column generally focus on economic development and globalization. But he has an incredibly strong personal connection to the Ergenekon situation, and more precisely to the Sledgehammer probe – his father-in-law is retired Gen. Çetin Doğan, who is accused of masterminding the Sledgehammer coup plot in 2003, when he served as commander of the First Army. While Rodrik can’t be an objective observer, he does seem to have access and insight not generally found in other English-language resources on the Ergenekon case, and some of his points certainly help to make sense of not-quite-right snippets of information on Ergenekon evidence dossiers translated from Turkish in Today’s Zaman, particularly on computers, computer files, and electronic documents.

Rodrik co-authored a piece in The National Interest last month delving into the evidence in the Sledgehammer case. It’s an interesting piece and worth a read, but I’ll quote some of the argument here:

“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.

“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.”

The TNI piece goes on to talk about altered metadata on files, references to institutions that had undergone name changes since 2003 by their new names, and lists of journalists “to be blacklisted in the event of a coup” who, despite currently writing about politics, at the time wrote arts and culture stories.

All quite Hollywood-esque, although in the epic soap opera that the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer intrigue has been, perhaps nothing less is to be expected. It is frustrating, however, to see such statements, with tantalizingly specific details of evidence discrepancies in a case that has been alternately conspiracy-theory vague and overwhelmingly specific, without much in the way of sourcing. This is par for course for Turkish news, but in a case such as Ergenekon, where some of the most implausible scenarios are the ones comprising the generally accepted narrative, it ultimately serves to add another layer of speculation to a situation littered with conjecture already.

Lost in Smith and Rodrik’s observations of large-scale arrests is something I’ve heard the Economist addresses in its Turkey special this week, namely that in Turkey, a country where over half the prison population has not been convicted of any crime, just an arrest alone is enough effective silence and/or punish people. The first Ergenekon trial has been ongoing for several years now. Many Ergenekon suspects can expect to remain imprisoned for several additional years until a verdict is announced. The Sledgehammer trial hasn’t started yet, but will also most likely take upwards of two years. Likewise Avci, who was arrested last month on charges of affiliation with a leftist group, the Revolutionary Headquarters, is likely to languish for some time behind bars before his trial begins, and for some time longer while his trial drags on (The delay between detention and trials or sentencing is not restricted to high-profile political cases in Turkey; it is not all that uncommon to hear of suspects still awaiting trial who have spent more time in prison than the maximum sentence they would face if convicted. Turkey’s justice system is in serious need of reform.). There are so many high-volume, high-profile coup and plotting trials that there simply isn’t currently court building capacity for the trials – a new courthouse is being built at Çağlayan Meydani in Istanbul that will be Europe’s largest courthouse when it is finished, all to handle the supersized coup-plotting trials.

Turkey’s large political cases can be byzantine to try and keep fully up-to-date on, and the polarization in Turkish society on the Ergenekon case in particular makes it incredibly difficult to understand what truly is going on (if anyone really knows, that is). Smith’s and Rodrik’s pieces offer unique perspective and anecdotes on events many of us know fairly well from authors we’re unaccustomed to seeing talk Turkey.

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