Ergenekon: The court case that changed Turkey

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A protester argues at a paramilitary police barricade as security block thousands of people outside the Silivri jail complex, 5 AugImage source, AP
Image caption,
Protesters and police faced off outside the court as the verdicts were read out

Turkey's seemingly never-ending trial of suspected members of an alleged criminal network known as "Ergenekon" has finished. The verdicts are certain to echo for a long time.

Following five years of legal proceedings, the court delivered 17 life sentences to formerly prominent figures of the military establishment, along with politicians, academics and journalists.

The case has ended almost half a century of military domination and created conditions for an increased monopolisation of power by the civilian government.

At the same time it has raised concerns about freedom of speech and the media, the independence of the judiciary, and the government's utilisation of its parliamentary majority to pass laws without engaging in public debate.


The case can be compared with the 1960s trial of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and his fellow Democratic Party members after Turkey's first military coup.

The court handed down 15 death sentences, including for Menderes himself, and set the scene for military domination over the country's multi-party system.

Over the next four decades, the military intervened in Turkish politics three more times.

The final coup came in 1997, when the army ousted the Islamist government led by Necmettin Erbakan's Refah (Welfare) Party, of which many prominent members of the current ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party were members.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
PM Erdogan (R) has been accused of seeking to oust apparent enemies including, Gen Ilker Basbug (L)

Similarly, the Ergenekon case, along with several similar cases focusing on alleged anti-government plots, has profoundly changed the scene for Turkish politics by significantly reducing the possibility of military interference in politics.

For some, this trial was an important step in bringing the army under civilian control.

However, others think that the case has been turned into a witch-hunt by the government to suppress its opponents.

Campaigners say serious fair-trial concerns and the prolonged pre-trial detention of some defendants have overshadowed efforts to combat the impunity of the military.

Widening the net of investigation to include individuals against whom there appears to be scant evidence of involvement in any plot led to growing concerns.

And the Ergenekon case is by no means unique with regard to these concerns.

It is seen as part of a pattern of arguably unfair trials, in which thousands of prosecutions are brought under vague anti-terrorism laws.

Perception shift

Within five years, the Ergenekon case has transformed people's perceptions of the government from one regarded as largely progressive, to one regarded as authoritarian.

It was this shift in perception that brought many onto the streets earlier this year to join angry protests against the government.

The protests brought together an unprecedented coalition from across the political and social spectrum, united in their opposition to the government.

The Ergenekon trial and the legal reforms around it have brought to an end the Kemalist model of checks and balances between different pillars of authority within Turkey.

Today, arguably none of the traditional pillars - the presidency, judiciary, parliament and military - are strong enough to limit the power of a strong government.

And the government appears to have very good relations with the top brass of the military, currently headed by General Necdet Ozel.

He was appointed to the post following the resignation of the former chief of staff in protest at the government's purges of military officers.

The case may have resulted in consolidation of power of the government, but it is likely to continue to polarise Turkey, leaving many sections of society unsatisfied.