Turkey on Trial

In a Hollywood courtroom drama, you know that the hero, set up by the bad guys, will eventually be cleared – but not before the noose tightens around his neck. Just when it looks like the accumulating evidence has condemned him, a sudden turn of events will prove his innocence and expose those who framed him.

If Turkey’s ongoing political-military trials ever find their way to the screen, there will be no shortage of such denouements. In a series of bizarre prosecutions, Turkish courts have jailed hundreds of defendants – military officers, journalists, academics, and lawyers – for allegedly plotting to topple the country’s democratically elected government.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promotes the trials as evidence of Turkey’s new turn towards democracy and the rule of law. They are also actively supported by news media belonging to the so-called Gülen group – a powerful ally of Erdoğan’s government made up of followers of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen. In reality, the trials amount to a grave breach of the rule of law, with the judiciary transformed into a political weapon aimed at opponents of the government and the Gülen movement.

The cases are comical – or would be if they were not really happening in a country of 74 million people whose strategic importance is difficult to overstate. In fact, the prosecutions are riddled with such fantastic claims, imaginary conspiracies, outlandish fabrications, obvious set-ups, and credulity-straining plot twists that a Hollywood screenwriter who included them in a script might well be laughed out of the business.

Consider the “Sledgehammer” case. More than 200 military officers are charged with plotting a coup in 2003 to dislodge the then newly elected government. The prosecutors have what looks like solid evidence: detailed plans, ostensibly authored by the defendants, describing a series of ghastly operations to destabilize the country. The officers proclaim their innocence and assert that the coup documents are fabricated, but who is to believe them, given what the prosecutors, government, and major media say?

The trial has already had more than its share of movie-ending moments. Several defendants have shown that they were outside the country and had no access to the computers on which they supposedly authored the plans. Others appear to have misspelled their own names or gotten their titles wrong. Two forensic reports have established that the handwriting on the incriminating CD was forged.

Perhaps most dramatically of all, the coup documents contain much information that could not possibly have been known at the time, including references to companies, NGOs, hospitals, and many other entities that were established years after the plan is supposed to have been hatched.

Imagine the courtroom scene. The defense lawyer points to the key piece of evidence and addresses the prosecutor: “You, sir, claim that this CD containing all the incriminating documents was prepared by my client in 2003. Can you explain how my client could have known the names of officers on a frigate that joined the Navy only in 2005? Or the license plate on a vehicle that was issued in 2006?” The judge turns towards the prosecutor expectantly. Sweating profusely, the prosecutor has nothing to say. The judge brings down his gavel with a loud thump. The case is dismissed.

Or consider the case of a group of young officers charged with organizing a prostitution ring and stealing state secrets. The charges again rest on electronic files, supposedly found in the defendants’ homes. But the police made an elementary error that revealed the set-up: after supposedly receiving an anonymous tip about Ahmet A. (a pseudonym), they mistakenly searched Ahmet B.’s home – and yet somehow found the incriminating files among B.’s possessions. Ahmet B. is obviously not Ahmet A., and the only explanation is that the evidence was planted – in the wrong house. Ahmet B. was eventually released (after nine months), but the case still goes on.

Similar examples abound in other cases. A prosecutor questions a suspect about a plan to intimidate Christians before the police have actually “discovered” it. A journalist is jailed because his notes for an unfinished manuscript on the Gülen movement are construed as instructions from a terrorist organization. A senior police officer who has written an exposé detailing Gülenist prosecutors’ misdeeds is jailed after police find illegal recordings of intercepted calls in his office – which he had vacated days earlier.

Vindication comes quickly in Hollywood movies, but not in Turkey, whose courts have so far seemed oblivious to the glaring problems with evidence presented by police and prosecutors. Ludicrous cases proceed, and more people are being dragged into them. The mainstream independent media do not even report the inconsistencies for fear of provoking the government or the Gülen network.

These cases will eventually collapse under the weight of their collective absurdity. But the damage done will extend far beyond the suffering of hundreds of innocent individuals who have been locked up under false pretenses. The hope that Turkey is finally shedding its authoritarian vestiges and becoming a stable democracy will lie in tatters.

Dani Rodrik, professor at Harvard University and the son-in-law of the lead defendant in the Sledgehammer case.

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