The Turkish judicial system, now under the control of the radicalizing Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, concluded on August 5 the six-year trial of military officers, secular politicians, and journalists, known as the "Ergenekon case." The AKP was considered formerly by many Turks and foreigners as a "light" or "moderate" Islamist party.

"Ergenekon," a legendary Turkish place of origin in Central Asia, was the title given to an alleged secret anti-AKP terror plot with which 275 defendants were charged. Of them, 60 were locked up prior to the trial, and 21 were acquitted.

Begun in 2007, the Ergenekon proceeding has ended with the former head of the Turkish military, General Ilker Basbug, ordered to serve life in prison. Basbug, who had served as Chief of General Staff under Erdogan, was arrested in 2012, accused of heading the Ergenekon plot against the AKP leader. Similar punishments were decreed for 18 more of the accused.

Turks protest against the "Ergenekon" verdicts amidst clouds of tear-gas fired by police in Istanbul, Aug 5, 2013. (Image Credit: Rezzan Atakol)

Several of Basbug's former subordinates or colleagues additionally received life terms. Hursit Tolon, former First Army commander, was sentenced to life in prison on the same charge as Basbug. Former General Staff Second Chief, General Hasan Igsiz, was also consigned to a life sentence. Retired General Nusret Tasdeler and Retired Colonel Fuat Selvi were similarly sentenced to life in prison. Former Gendarmerie Forces (National Police) Commander Sener Eruygur received an "aggravated life sentence" – a punishment reserved for terrorism cases, in solitary confinement, with limited exercise time and contact with other prisoners or by telephone with family, and no opportunity for parole. Retired general Veli Kucuk saw a double-aggravated life sentence imposed on him, plus 99 years and a month.

Kucuk and retired colonel Arif Dogan were accused of creating and directing a terrorist effort to subvert the current authorities. Dogan was purportedly the mentor of a Gendarmerie Intelligence Anti-Terrorism Unit, as a covert, seditious organization, the existence of which has been questioned by such Turkish media as the daily Hurriyet [Freedom]. In the Ergenekon affair, he was sentenced to 47 years in jail.

Other former Erdogan supporters jailed for life in the Ergenekon trial include Kemal Kerincsiz, a fanatical nationalist attorney. Kerencsiz had persecuted the Armenian Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, who edited Agos [The Furrow], a weekly Armenian-language newspaper with sections in Turkish and English. Dink, whom Kerincsiz claimed "insulted Turkishness" – currently redefined as "denigration of the Turkish nation," and a serious offense – was murdered early in 2007 while awaiting indictment. The law that criminalizes "insulting Turkishness" was introduced under Erdogan and pursued with zeal by Kerincsiz.

Among the political and media victims of Ergenekon "justice," Mustafa Balbay, a writer for the daily Cumhuriyet [The Republic] and a parliamentary deputy of the long-established secularist Republican People's Party [CHP], was also senetenced to life in jail, as was his co-defendant, Tuncay Ozkan, another secularist journalist.

An array of 33 indictments was consolidated under the Ergenekon rubric in 2011. The list of defendants is as varied as it is long; the single aspect uniting them, however, is association with secular politics. Defense lawyers are preparing an appeal of the Ergenekon sentences to the Turkish Supreme Court. Turkish commentators point out that many of the accused were convicted without evidence – on opinions rather than on overt actions.

Protestors, in anticipation of the sentencing, gathered on August 5 at Silivri Prison, where the trial was conducted, but were barred from entering the courtroom. Silivri is located near Istanbul west of the Bosporus, in the region geographically described as "European Turkey." Police dispersed the demonstrators using tear gas, shut down roads, and blocked air space at the location, according to Hurriyet.

Erdogan's tyrannical tendencies are facing a serious challenge from the Turkish public, who mounted demonstrations beginning two months ago in Istanbul's Taksim Square. Whether civic discontent will change the outcome of the Ergenekon matter cannot be predicted. Turkish and foreign observers originally indulged Erdogan by describing the Ergenekon case as a necessary restriction on military influence as represented by a "deep state." With time, nevertheless, much of Turkish opinion began to view Ergenekon as a political purge and an assault on Turkey's post-Ottoman secularist political structure, established in the 1920s. Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, with which AKP is aligned, assert the existence of a similar "deep state" within the Egyptian military.

It may be argued that secular Turkey, which underwent army takeovers in 1960, 1971, 1980, 1993, and 1997, was always susceptible to military dictatorship. Yet Erdogan appears to aim at replacing it with an Islamist police state. The Turkish republic is insecure and divided, with Erdogan attempting simultaneous economic and political modernization and ideological Islamization. Ordinary people are pitted against intellectuals; religious believers against secularists; defenders of the legacy of the post-Ottoman republic against Erdogan's adherents.

While the intellectuals warn against restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, many Turkish citizens continue to support Erdogan for his harsh treatment of those he deems "enemies of the state." The Islamist prime minister labels his critics "terrorists," "criminals," and "gangsters."

In 2012, Turkey saw the outcome of a trial that foretold the Ergenekon verdicts: the so-called "Sledgehammer" case. In that, more than 300 officers were found guilty for an ostensible coup plan allegedly originating in 2003, the year after AKP first won a national election. In that trial, as in the Ergenekon ordeal, evidence, the rights of defendants, and prosecutorial conduct are said to have been monitored insufficiently.

Although schemes to overthrow political leaders are usually limited to small, confidential groups, Erdogan's government has presented "Sledgehammer" and "Ergenekon" as massive networks. Erdogan and AKP have manipulated and changed the law to pursue half the armed forces leadership, as well as media personalities, elected opposition politicians, lawyers, authors, and entrepreneurs. The AKP's rage to condemn those with whom it is displeased has extended to suppression of critics of another "moderate Islamist" trend, the "spiritual" movement led by the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Followers of Gulen operate science-oriented schools throughout the world – including in the United States – which also instruct non-Turkish pupils in the importance of the Turkish language and culture in global society. A journalist who exposed Gulenist penetration of the Turkish military and judiciary, Ahmet Sik, was included in the Ergenekon jumble of reprisals. Sik was released from Silivri Prison last year but continues to await a resumption of his trial, scheduled for early September. The Gulenists stand by the Ergenekon allegations and support the AKP's prosecution of the show trial.

In a bizarre incident that illustrates the irrational tendencies at the top of Turkish politics today, early last year the prominent New York author Paul Auster refused to visit Turkey for a book tour in protest against its status as the world's leading state locking up journalists, writers and media commentators. Erdogan responded by dismissing Auster's criticism, but AKP deputy chairman Bulent Gedikli went further, asserting that even Auster was a participant in Ergenekon.

As reported by the London Financial Times, Gedikli, in a frenzy of fantasies, described Auster as part of an anti-Turkish network, "the Neocon-Ergenekon cadre," supposedly headed by Israeli politician Shimon Peres, along with German chancellor Angela Merkel, the then-President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as its back-up players.

There is no longer room for doubt: through a pseudo-legal witch-hunt at home and deceitful propaganda abroad, Erdogan and the AKP are committed to totalitarian suppression of their political critics and opponents, both in Turkey and elsewhere. They feed an apparently insatiable Turkish appetite for conspiracy theories and, as may be observed online, assiduously spread disinformation about "threats to Turkey." Turkish commentators worry that the West ignores Erdogan's violations of civil rights out of the need for him as an ally in confronting the bloodthirsty Assad regime in Syria. But looking the other way while Turkey is transformed into an authoritarian Islamist state will in no way help the suffering Syrian people.

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