Verdict in Turkish in coup trial due on Monday
ISTANBUL // It is the culmination of one of the most controversial trials in recent Turkish history.
A top court is expected to hand down verdicts tomorrow against hundreds of military officers, politicians and academics accused of a far-reaching conspiracy to bring down the government.
General Ilker Basbug, a former chief of staff of the once all-powerful military, is among the almost 300 accused in the Ergenekon trial, held in a prison complex in Silivri, 40 kilometres west of Istanbul.
The trial, triggered by the discovery of an illegal weapons cache in Istanbul in 2007 and opened in 2008, has lasted about five years and has divided the country.
Some say Ergenekon has given civilian institutions the chance to tackle the so-called "deep state", a term that describes right-wing members of the security forces and the bureaucracy in a country that has had four civilian governments pushed from power by the military since 1960.
But others say a lack of evidence and long detention periods for the accused showed the trial was an effort by the religiously conservative government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to silence critics.
Nationalist and secularist groups have called for protests outside the court tomorrow, and authorities have refused to allow access to members of the public.
Yesterday, police in Istanbul and Ankara searched offices of two groups that had called for protests and detained 20 people.
Aydin Engin, a veteran Turkish journalist who was prosecuted by the military after the coup of 1980, said the Ergenekon trial had been more than just a judicial procedure.
"This trial has been a reckoning between the AKP camp on one hand and the Kemalists on the other," Mr Engin said. Kemalists, who follow the strictly secularist ideology of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's founder, ruled the country for much of the time before the AKP came to power in 2002.
In charge sheets running into thousands of pages and drawing on the statements of unnamed informants, prosecutors have been arguing in 600 hearings of the trial that the 275 accused were members of a "terrorist organisation" with the aim to create chaos and topple Mr Erdogan.
Prosecutors said the Ergenekon group, named after the mythological home of the Turks in Central Asia, orchestrated the assassination of a senior judge in 2006 and planned attacks on representatives of Turkey's non-Muslim communities and of prominent liberals such as the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.
They also said high-ranking officers of the armed forces made preparations for a coup against Mr Erdogan in 2004. Prosecutors called for life sentences for 64 of the accused.
In a separate trial last year, another court in Silivri sentenced 324 suspects, including three former military commanders, to prison terms of up to 20 years for using a war game titled "Sledgehammer" in 2003 to plot a coup against the government. That decision is being appealed.
In the Ergenekon trial, key accused have portrayed the prosecution's case as part of a "psychological exercise" to undermine public trust in the armed forces.
Gen Basbug told the court in June that military personnel had been "dragged to court with the help of baseless claims without concrete evidence".
The Erdogan government has come under pressure from Europe, especially because of detention periods of more than five years in some cases.
"Concerns persisted over the rights of the defence, lengthy pretrial detention and excessively long and catch-all indictments," the European Union said in a major report last year created to review Turkey as a candidate for membership.
There have also been worries about the detention of journalists in the Ergenekon case.
Mustafa Balbay, the former head of the Ankara bureau of Cumhuriyet, a staunchly secularist newspaper opposed to Mr Erdogan, has been in detention for more than four years under accusation of having been involved in coup plots.
Mr Engin said the Ergenekon trial had been important for Turkey despite its shortcomings.
"In the old days, reporters in Ankara used to joke that politicians formed the government but did not rule the country," he said. "There was a state within the state. Turkey needed this trial."
But other observers are not convinced. Murat Somer, a political scientist at Istanbul's Koc University, said autocratic tendencies were present in other parts of society as well. "Turkey seems to settle scores with people rather than authoritarianism itself," he said.
"Recent events have shown that elected governments can act oppressively as well," said Mr Somer, in reference to the government crackdown on widespread protests against Mr Erdogan in June.
"Turkey will not get true democracy unless people from all segments of society confront their own authoritarian and majoritarian beliefs."
* With additional reporting by Reuters
Published: August 4, 2013 04:00 AM