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Turkey Fears 'Deep State' Return

  • Dorian Jones

Hundreds of protesters march to mark the seventh anniversary of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink's murder in Ankara, Turkey, Jan.19, 2014.

Hundreds of protesters march to mark the seventh anniversary of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink's murder in Ankara, Turkey, Jan.19, 2014.

The release of retired senior military figures and crime bosses in Turkey is prompting concern that the country's so-called "deep state" could return.

A legal reform introduced by the Turkish government has seen dozens of retired military officers and members of the country’s criminal underworld released from jail. Many have been convicted of crimes linked to what prosecutors have termed “Derin Devlet” or deep state - unofficial networks of power that prosecutors claim are responsible for political assassinations of people considered enemies of the state.

Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul Policy Forum said the releases were worrisome.

"The Turkish public opinion is extremely worried about these releases because these people might think about taking revenge in the months to come," said Aktar.

Among those released are people convicted of assassinating prominent Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. Prosecutors allege that the killers of three missionaries also have been released. Others are accused of forming death squads within the security forces.

But human rights groups said most of the victims of crimes committed by Turkey’s so-called “deep state” were activists fighting for Kurdish minority rights, especially during the 1990s at the height of fighting between the Turkish state and the Kurdish rebel group PKK.

Several offices of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party have been attacked by Turkish nationalists this month during local election campaigns. The party’s leader, Ertugrul Kurkcu, said the deep state organization was involved.

"This group is the major mastermind behind these attacks. They, of course, did not lead those attacks, while they were in prison. But this is the remnants of this group which has been very active in the past atrocities against the Kurds and democrats," he said.

Kurkcu and many other political observers said the government has released individuals linked to Turkey’s deep state in a bid to enlist its support in its battle against followers of an Islamic cleric, Fetullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States. The government accused his followers of infiltrating sections of judiciary and police.

Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar of Carnegie Europe, doubted the government would take such a risky move. He blamed the releases on shortcomings within the judiciary.

"From the standpoint from the government this was also an unwanted development because most of Turkish society is critical with this development," he said. "Certainly some of the people have been associated with Turkey’s deep state, can regroup. But I don’t think that’s possible anymore because there has been fundamental change in the civil military relationship and that will not change."

Political scientist Aktar acknowledged that Turkey has changed from the time when the military directly intervened in politics. But he said with the government having purged thousands of polices officers and members of the judiciary in its battle against Gulen's followers, Turkey remains vulnerable to political intrigue.

"The police and justice have been shaken and destabilized. Therefore we don’t know who will ensure the public order, with that many criminals there in the streets of the country. It's very worrisome," said Aktar.

Human rights groups accused Turkey’s "deep state" of thousands of political deaths and disappearances during the 1990s.