Last Monday, in Turkey’s notorious Ergenekon trial, 254 of the 275 defendants were convicted of membership in a clandestine terrorist organization seeking to destabilize Turkey’s government. While Turkey has a history of military coups, a dirty war against Kurds, and other illegal activities, this trial had little to do with prosecuting such real crimes and did not come close to the standards for a fair trial.
As reported, severe sentences were given to some members of the military, but those convicted also include many civilians. As part of a human rights mission from the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies, I visited Turkey to examine the cases of eight scientists, engineers and doctors, each indicted in one or two of four separate trials including this one.
To gather information about the trials, our three-person mission met with government officials, diplomats, journalists, lawyers, and academics and read widely. We met with four of these eight where they were held in high security prisons, and one who had been released on bail. While depressing, the prisons we visited were not the horrific places past movies might suggest.
The Ergenekon trial included six of the cases we studied. All six were convicted, with sentences ranging from 10 to 23 years. Two of the six had been in prison for four years awaiting completion of this trial. Another has been in prison for over a year and is awaiting another trial as well. Five of these six are doctors and have been rectors of universities. The sixth, a chemical engineer, formerly headed the council that oversees Turkish universities and has been a Fellow at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center. None have advocated violence; all are outspoken secularists, while the government is Islamist. (The six are Mehmet Haberal, Fatih Hilmioğlu, Riza Ferit Bernay, Mustafa Abbas Yurtkuran, Kemal Alemdaroğlu, and Kemal Gürüz.)
Multiple reports make it clear that the trials do not come close to international standards for a fair trial. The European Union and the United Nations have criticized Turkey’s human rights record related to these trials. The State Department’s 2012 Human Rights Report for Turkey reported that the “judicial system was politicized and overburdened and authorities continued to engage in arbitrary arrests, hold detainees for lengthy and indefinite periods in pretrial detention and conduct extended trials. The secrecy of investigation orders also allowed authorities to limit defense access to evidence and fueled concerns about the effectiveness of judicial protections for suspects.”
Gareth Jenkins, a widely respected Istanbul-based journalist, described the trials as “a series of highly controversial judicial cases targeting opponents of the Islamic conservative movement, which have been found to suffer from deep flaws, inconsistencies, and instances of outright fabrication of evidence.” (Turkey Analyst, vol. 6 no. 3 13 February 2013.) He also referred to them as “characterized by outlandish claims and numerous abuses of due process. The indictments against the accused ran to thousands of pages. Yet not only were they riddled with absurdities and contradictions, they contained no convincing proof that either the Ergenekon organization or the coup plot existed. On the contrary, some of the evidence adduced to support the prosecutors’ claims had clearly been fabricated.” (MERIA Journal Volume 15, Number 02 (June 2011).) With the case for some falsification of evidence being strong, the lack of fairness includes refusing to allow forensic experts to testify on that issue.
There appears to be no credible basis on which to conclude that any of these eight colleagues is guilty of committing the crimes of which they have been accused. Intimidation of its critics and exaction of revenge against secularists seem to be the government’s prime reasons for many of the arrests. The situations faced by these colleagues are illustrative of very many cases in Turkey that are tried under antiterrorism legislation.
Turkey is at a crossroads with a country-wide diverse population of demonstrators protesting over many issues. The government has responded with widespread arrests. This is happening at a time when Parliament is proposing to overhaul the constitution and elections are approaching. Many have been looking to Turkey as a model for a democracy in a state with a tradition of Islam. But modern Turkey can hardly lay claim to democratic legitimacy if it persists in perverting its justice system in pursuit of a transparently political vendetta.