ISTANBUL — The trial involving an alleged conspiracy by the Turkish military to overthrow the government is coming under increasing criticism both inside Turkey and internationally. The landmark trial was heralded as part of the government’s efforts to bring the army under civilian control. But, concern has grown as the case has implicated a wider array of government critics.
Earlier this month, police used water cannon and gas to disperse thousands of protesters who had gathered outside the courthouse in the Silivri Prison just outside Istanbul, where alleged participants in the so-called Ergenekon conspiracy are being tried.
When the Ergenekon trial started, it was widely seen as an historic moment, with senior members of Turkey's staunchly pro-secular army on trial for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Islamic rooted government. But five years on, prosecutors have cast their net far beyond the army, indicting 275 people, including members of parliament, journalists and academics.
Bedri Baykam, a member of the main opposition Republican People’s Party who has campaigned against the trial, says it is now out of control.
"There is no concrete whatsoever evidence, proof shown against them, and still they have been cut off from their families, businesses, their jobs, for five-six years in the most productive part of their lives - their forties and fifties. How much is going on there in 2013 and the world has chosen to play the three monkeys - haven’t heard, haven’t seen and don’t want to talk," said Baykam.
The international community is starting to voice concern. The U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report cited the prolonged pretrial detention of many of the defendants. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch also criticized the case, saying there are serious concerns over the fairness of the trial.
Lale Kemal, a political columnist for the Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman, acknowledges the need to address the lengthy pretrial detentions. But he says the Ergenekon trial is nonetheless playing an important role in democratizing Turkey, by calling to account anti-democratic forces known as the “deep state.”
"We should be settling our scores with the illegal deep state elements of this country if we really want stability [and] democracy," sais Kemal. "It’s the core duty of any parliament or civilian authority or government to end the military’s interference in Turkish politics."
Since 1960, the Turkish army has had a tradition of meddling in politics, having forced from power four elected governments. Kadri Gursel, a political columnist for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, says while the trial’s original objectives were commendable, it has become a missed opportunity for the country.
"There have been some clandestine groups trying to invoke the ideas of a coup d'etat," said Gursel. "But it has been turned into an ideological prosecution, persecution, including all kinds of people with a common denomination of being opposed to the government. Now, the justice system has emerged from this trial as a deeply politicized, biased justice. One cannot build democracy on problematic trials."
The government insists the judiciary is independent, and it continues to defend the ongoing trial. But Hasim Kilic, the chief justice of Turkey’s Constitutional Court, acknowledged last week growing public unease over the politicization of the judiciary.
The judiciary will have no chance of surviving if it only protects the lifestyles of people from a certain ideology while neglecting the freedoms of others." said Kilic. "An unfair justice is oppressive, he says, adding that being fair is essential for everyone, but an absolute must for members of judiciary."
How the judiciary heeds that warning, observers say, could determine whether the Ergenekon trial heralds a new era of democracy or merely marks the transition from one authoritarian system to another.