(London, October 17, 2008) – The prosecution of an alleged ultranationalist conspiracy aimed at the overthrow of Turkey’s democratic government should investigate whether current members of the military, intelligence services and state bureaucracy were involved, Human Rights Watch said today. The trial of 86 people accused of being members of the so-called Ergenekon gang, some of them senior retired military officers, begins on October 20, 2008.
This case gives Turkey a chance to make clear that it will hold security forces accountable for abuse. But that can only happen if the investigation follows the evidence wherever – and to whomever – it leads.
Benjamin Ward, associate Europe and Central Asia director
"This case gives Turkey a chance to make clear that it will hold security forces accountable for abuse," said Benjamin Ward, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "But that can only happen if the investigation follows the evidence wherever – and to whomever – it leads."
The 2,455-page indictment alleges that an ultranationalist gang calling themselves Ergenekon (the name of a mythical homeland of the Turks in Central Asia) conspired to create the climate in Turkey for a military coup in 2009 through a campaign of planned assassinations of politicians, journalists, judges and others, as well as civil disturbance and incitement to violence against minorities.
The 86 defendants include senior retired military personnel, convicted and alleged members of the criminal underworld, leading figures from the media, academics, lawyers, and activists from civil society organizations. Two retired top generals (the former head of the gendarmerie and the commander of the First Army) will stand trial later for their alleged involvement in the gang. The case is being prosecuted before Istanbul Heavy Penal Court No. 13.
Turkey has a poor record of bringing to justice members of the military, state bodies and the government implicated in grave human rights abuses. Most suspected of these crimes have escaped prosecution.
The indictment in the case contains evidence linking the Ergenekon gang to bomb attacks on the premises of the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet in May 2006, and an armed attack in April 2006 on judges at the Council of State, in which judge Mustafa Yücel Özbilgin was killed. The alleged gang members will also be tried on suspicion of plotting assassinations of figures in public life, including the prime minister, and numerous other crimes. Among those facing trial are former senior members of the gendarmerie associated in the past with covert networks established within the state apparatus and military in the name of counterterrorism in the conflict between the military and the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In previous investigations, these networks were alleged to have resorted to unlawful and extrajudicial tactics, including arbitrary killings and enforced disappearances.
While the indictment concludes that, through these actions, the gang demonstrated its intention to foment the conditions for the Turkish military to attempt a coup to overthrow the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, it also explicitly notes that the General Chief of Staff’s office and the National Intelligence Agency (MÝT) have denied that the military and intelligence services were involved in the conspiracy.
However, a diary of the retired Naval Commander, Admiral Özden Örnek, which was leaked and published in April 2007, included descriptions of two separate plans in 2004 to carry out coups. The current indictment makes no reference to the diary, although the Ergenekon gang was allegedly active at the time of the planned coups.
"To get to the bottom of the conspiracy, it is essential that the Istanbul court fully investigate the allegations of military involvement in coup plots, including those in the Örnek diaries, and probe possible connections between alleged coup-plotters and the Ergenekon gang," said Ward.
Critics of the Ergenekon gang investigation have suggested that some of the evidence in the indictment is flimsy and that the arrest of some individuals has been motivated by the government’s desire to muzzle its most outspoken critics and opponents.
However, the prosecution and judicial authorities still mostly fail to deal with crimes allegedly committed by state officials and the security forces. They are notoriously lenient toward members of the security forces, and have in the past repeatedly demonstrated insufficient will or independence to investigate the military and intelligence services or to pursue evidence that could lead to the identification and prosecution of members of these institutions who are alleged to have committed crimes.
In hearing the case against the Ergenekon gang, the judges of Istanbul Heavy Penal Court No. 13 must demonstrate its independence and capacity to uphold the rule of law by thoroughly examining all the evidence against the defendants and providing them with a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said.
The Turkish public learned of the so-called Ergenekon gang on January 22, 2008, when 33 individuals, including retired senior military personnel, lawyers and individuals associated with criminal gangs, were taken into custody. The investigation had started seven months earlier with the discovery on June 12, 2007 of 27 hand grenades and explosives in an Istanbul house belonging to a retired noncommissioned officer in the Turkish military.
The evidence suggests that the grenades were similar to those used in attacks on the Istanbul offices of the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet in May 2006 and the armed attack on judges at the Council of State in April 2006. The investigation that followed uncovered evidence pointing to a much larger conspiracy, including evidence of plans to assassinate the prime minister, the former chief of staff, several members of Parliament from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, the writer Orhan Pamuk, and others.
On July 25, 2008, the Istanbul Heavy Penal Court No.13 formally accepted the prosecutor’s 2,455-page public indictment. The charges against those alleged to be in the leadership of Ergenekon include "attempting by force or violence to remove the government or obstruct it partially or wholly from carrying out its duties" (Turkish Penal Code, article 312), punishable with aggravated life imprisonment; "leading an armed uprising against the government," "inciting the population to armed uprising against the government," "participating in such an uprising" (article 313), punishable with aggravated life imprisonment for those in the leadership and to prison terms ranging from six years to 25 years for others involved; "establishing or being a member of an armed organization" (article 314), punishable with prison sentences ranging from five to 10 years for membership and from 10 to 15 years for leadership of an armed group, and "providing weapons" (article 315).