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Turkey and Ergenekon

The murkier aspects of the long trial against coup plotters have changed the political scene

After five years of a seemingly endless trial which kept branching out into bizarre ramifications, the Turkish courts have now pronounced the final word on the so-called “Ergenekon case,” which was initially seen as a many-tentacled conspiracy to sow chaos in Turkey, and to overthrow the Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The courts have issued a cascade of sentences (including 17 counts of life imprisonment) to prominent military officers (including the former chief of the armed forces), as well as politicians, lawyers and journalists, among almost 300 people charged in a macro-trial whose integrity has been severely questioned internationally.

Ergenekon has profoundly changed the political scene in Turkey. The trial’s inception was viewed by the government as a step indispensable to the aim of putting a leash on coup-inclined generals, who have long conditioned the country’s political life. In the public eye, it was perceived as Erdogan’s challenge to the so-called “deep state” — an imprecise amalgam of militarism and ultra-nationalism, accustomed to power — which had now crystallized in the form of the clandestine organization facing trial.

But as the trial developed and knowledge of its details became general, this perception has gradually changed in many people’s minds. They now see it basically as a witch hunt aimed at crushing opposition to the increasingly authoritarian and religious character of Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AKP) party. This shift in opinion has been intensified by the implausibility of many of the charges, and their exponential proliferation. And, in more technical aspects, by elements such as the vagueness of the antiterrorist laws being applied, and by manifest violations of the right to defense and to a fair trial.

The conclusion of Ergenekon, which is now pending an appeal, definitively liquidates more than half a century of military domination in Turkey, and apparently consolidates the power of Erdogan. But it also raises grave questions about freedom of expression and of the press, and about the independence of the judiciary, in a country that aspires to EU membership, under a government which is allergic to criticism and which, after more than 10 years in power, has filled every political nook and cranny with its own unconditional adherents, short-circuiting in practice many of the checks and balances inherent to any democratic system.

This disturbing drift, in a country where divisions between Islamists and secularists have been growing, is at the origin of the irate demonstrations against the head of the government in recent months: protests which, in the country’s larger cities, brought together an unprecedentedly massive cross-section of Turkish society.

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