Turkish generals look to life beyond prison bars

Turkish generals look to life beyond prison bars

Now around 20 percent of serving generals are in prison accused of plots against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, imaginatively codenamed Sledgehammer, Ergenekon, Blonde Girl, Moonlight

They once bestrode Turkey the masters of all they surveyed. Governments were swept aside, a prime minister dispatched to the gallows. Even in quiet times, from their staff headquarters opposite parliament, they commanded obedience.

Now around 20 percent of serving generals are in prison accused of plots against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, imaginatively codenamed Sledgehammer, Ergenekon, Blonde Girl, Moonlight. So sudden has been this reversal the generals appear robbed of their voice. Erdogan has for now succeeded in his aim of taming the “Pashas”, officers, who disdain his religious roots. But as coup trials stutter over technical appeals, his position ranging over a demoralised military has its perils.

Turkey’s military guards the front line in the West’s campaign against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and may yet be called upon to fight. Last Friday saw a Turkish warplane shot down by Syrian air defences. Public sympathy may grow as fears of a war spread. An officer in jail is one less in the barracks. “We spend our time writing letters and books,” said one senior officer held at a military prison in the Hadimkoy neighbourhood of Istanbul. “To explain how the future of our country has been darkened, putting the screams of our souls down on paper,” he added in comments relayed to Reuters through his lawyer.

The resort to literature finds an ironic echo in the past. Bulent Ecevit, a prime minister arrested and interned by the generals in a 1980 army coup, wrote poetry during his captivity, his verse mostly an avowal of love to his wife, Rahsan. Erdogan himself fell foul of the military in the years before his election and served a jail term for publicly reciting a verse declaring “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets” – words considered by a court to be incitement to religious militancy. Now the Pashas take their turn in court. Even the 94-year-old leader of the 1980 putsch, general Kenan Evren, is on trial over hangings, torture and disappearances. “I never really thought that one day I would see this,” wrote Mehmet Ali Birand, author of books on Turkey’s military.

The main military prison at Hasdal in Istanbul is now so overcrowded that many serving officers were transferred to the smaller Hadimkoy, while retired officers are held at Silivri jail outside the city, where the biggest trials are being held. Sitting beside a computer with a screensaver set to an image of secular state founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a former top commander described the army as the victim of a campaign to rob it of popular respect. “These steps were designed to render the armed forces ineffective and make them an untrustworthy institution in the eyes of the people,” the old soldier said at his Istanbul office.

An annual European Union survey showed Turks trust in the military slid from 90 percent in 2004 to 70 percent in 2010. Once Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept to power in 2002 it became locked in a struggle with a military that saw itself as custodian to the secular vision of Ataturk, the soldier-statesman who founded the republic in 1923 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The scales tipped decisively in the AKP’s favour in 2007, when the party faced down generals who tried to stop parliament electing Abdullah Gul as president on the grounds that he was a former Islamist and his wife wore an Islamic headscarf.

A low point for the military came in January, when prosecutors hauled in retired General Ilker Basbug, chief of staff between 2008 to 2010, and accused him of being one of Ergenekon’s leaders. Basbug, regarded as one of the most cerebral chiefs the army has had, described the charges as “tragi-comic” before being sent to join old comrades at Silivri prison. Parliament is also scrutinising the activities of the army pension fund OYAK. Last July, the top brass appeared to throw in the towel, when the chief of staff quit along with three other retiring generals to protest the detention of comrades and interference in the annual promotion round.

The resignations allowed Erdogan to install a chief of staff of his choice, General Necdet Ozel, and relations between the government and the military have since improved. “Ozel is displaying behaviour that suggests he is more in line with the government and is more keen to meet the government’s wishes,” said retired Major General Armagan Kuloglu, now an analyst at a think-tank in Ankara. Perhaps mindful of the problem Ozel faces stamping authority over a military shell-shocked by mass arrests, Erdogan recently criticised special prosecutors for ordering too many detentions. Critics had hitherto seen the prosecutors as “attack dogs” for Erdogan’s government as it strove to bring the army to heel and convince the electorate that the AKP was its best bet to break Turkey’s cycle of coups.

His AK Party is now working on plans to dissolve the courts – a measure that could result in a collapse of the cases and undermine Erdogan’s credibility. “The more likely scenario if it falls apart is that gradually the imprisoned officers would be released on bail and the cases would continue,” Istanbul-based security analyst Gareth Jenkins said. reuters

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