ISTANBUL — Turkish courts have ordered that high-ranking generals convicted of conspiring to overthrow the government be released from prison, casting a shadow over the ruling AK Party’s achievement of having removed the Turkish army from politics. The move has prompted speculation that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan now may be looking to the army for help in his battle against a powerful religious cleric, Fetullah Gulen.
Since Friday, more than a dozen people, including a former chief of armed forces, retired high-ranking officers, a journalist and a leader of a fringe political party, have been released from jail. All were received long prison sentences after being convicted last year of belonging to the alleged Ergenekon conspiracy, which prosecutors claim sought to overthrow the government.
Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of the Istanbul Policy Forum said that some of those released committed serious offenses. "Amongst them there are sheer putschists: even according to the prime minister, there are many amongst them who were preparing a coup d'etat. There are also people who were involved landmark assassinations, like the [the killings of a] high court judge or the journalist of Armenian origin Hrant Dink. Overall, it tells us the present mindset of the government."
The government has welcomed the releases. It follows legal reforms introduced by the government which stipulates that a person can only be incarcerated for five years while awaiting the completion of the judicial process. While those released had been convicted, all are appealing their convictions.
Kadri Gursel, a columnist for Turkey’s Milliyet newspaper, said the move is an attempt by the government to make peace with the army because it believes it now faces a more serious threat.
"It’s a ramification of the ongoing conflict between the AKP government and its ex-de facto coalition partner, the Gulen movement. Because in a deadly fight, the government badly needs to neutralize its potential enemies, including the military," said Gursel.
Fetullah Gulen lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, but analysts say he has many followers within both Turkey's police and its judiciary. The AK Party accuses Gulen supporters of trying to overthrow the government through a series of corruption probes alleging high-level government corruption. The prime minister has also accused Gulen supporters of fabricating cases against the army.
Basbug speaks out
Critics of the Ergenekon case and similar cases claim they were flawed trials. Speaking to reporters upon his release Friday, the former head of Turkey's military, Ilker Basbug, steadfastly insisted he was innocent and the victim of a conspiracy.
"Those who acted with hatred and revenge kept us here for 26 months," he said. "They stole 26 months of my life."
Basbug said he would campaign for the release of hundreds of his fellow officers still in jail.
Observers point out that despite any legal failings in the cases against the army, however, the trials were key to ending the military’s political meddling. Since 1960, Turkey's military has forced four governments out of power -- the last in 1997.
With the release of some of those convicted of conspiring against the government, the demilitarization process could be coming to an end, according to political scientist Aktar. He warns, though, that the government could be playing a dangerous game.
"Some put ... the military now as the new ally of the government. But the government has never contemplated a fully fledged demilitarization like in developed mature democracies. No one can pretend the military has completely dropped [the idea of] intervening in political affairs," said Aktar.
Columnist Gursel said that with so many senior military members jailed over the past five years, the army is unlikely to return to day-to-day meddling in politics.
"Now the military has no such instrument, [no] such a capacity, remaining after these [court] cases. But if the system collapses, if the state institutions become more dysfunctional, if the economy worsens, if Turkey becomes unmanageable, no one can predict what will happen. I [would] never say the army has no capacity to intervene. But we are far from it, I think," said Gursel.
But the government remains mired in corruption allegations and engaged in an increasingly bitter battle with Gulen supporters within the Turkish state and wider society. Observers say that with the atmosphere deeply polarized, sporadic violent protests ongoing and three elections scheduled to take place over the next 15 months, the country still faces severe tests.