Turkey opens mass trials of coup plotters
London - Turkey has opened mass trials of officers and troops charged with carrying out last year’s failed coup, which the government claims was masterminded by self-exiled Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen.
More than 43,000 members of the armed forces, police, judiciary and public services have been arrested in connection with the coup in a far-reaching crackdown criticised by human rights groups as a government attempt to silence and intimidate all opposition. More than 100,000 people have been suspended or dismissed from their jobs and replaced by government loyalists.
Tanks rolled into main city squares and blocked bridges across the Bosporus on July 15th as special forces tried to seize President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from a luxury beachside hotel where he was holidaying with his family.
Bodyguards moved Erdogan to another hotel and the president appeared on television to appeal for supporters to take to the streets to face down the rebel troops. In all, 248 people were killed and 2,200 wounded before troops and police loyal to the government restored order.
The trial of 330 suspects opened in the poor, outlying Ankara satellite town of Sincan at the end of February in a specially built courtroom capable of holding about 1,500 people.
The selection of Sincan was symbolic as it was there that tanks paraded through the streets in early February 1997 in a warning by the then all-powerful secular military to Turkey’s first Islamist-led government. The generals later issued an ultimatum that led to the toppling of the administration.
Twenty years to the day after the military’s warning, scores of officers and non-commissioned officers filed into the courtroom to face charges that included attempting to “overthrow the constitutional order, attempting to overthrow the government and parliament or hinder them from preventing their duties, murder and being members of a terrorism organisation”, the state-run Anadolu news agency said.
Most of the defendants said they had no idea they were taking part in a coup but that they were simply following orders to take up strategic positions due to what they had been told was a terror threat.
The few who did admit to a role in a coup plot denied they were followers of Gulen and said they were instead staunch secularists loyal to the legacy of modern Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
First-Lieutenant Bilal Akdogan told the court that officers from his unit stationed in the town of Polatli, 80km west of Ankara were summoned to a meeting hours before the coup and told they were to mobilise against threatened terrorist attacks.
“We were asked to be ready because of the possibility of a terrorist attack,” media reports quoted Akdogan telling the court. “Apart from that, there was no mention of a coup attempt or that the armed forces would take over the country.”
In the western city of Mugla, the trial also began of 47 people, most of them special forces, charged with attempting to assassinate Erdogan. On the night of July 15th, some of the accused allegedly landed by helicopter at the president’s hotel and killed two bodyguards as they searched for Erdogan. Some of the defendants said they had been told they were to snatch a terrorist suspect and did not know Erdogan was the target of their mission.
Major Sukru Seymen, head of the special forces team, admitted he was there to carry out a coup but, like others, denied any link to Gulen.
“We went to capture the president alive. May God have mercy on those who lost their lives; we even remember them in our prayers. But if we had wanted, we would have killed 120 people,” he told the court. Those who took part in the mission did so of their own volition, he said.
“For example, two pilots didn’t take part. Those who didn’t want to didn’t take part. If I had not wanted, I wouldn’t have gone. I carried out a coup. Even if the penalty is death, my soul will not be harmed. I carried out a coup. I am not one to cry like a child,” Seymen said.
Capital punishment was abolished in Turkey in 2004 as part of its efforts to join the European Union but Erdogan has said he would approve a law to reinstate the death penalty if parliament passed one.
The morning after the coup, Erdogan blamed Gulen and his followers, even as the identities of those involved were not clear. In the months since precious little evidence connecting the Pennsylvania-based cleric with the coup has been made public, analysts said.
Ostensibly espousing a non-violent, international social agenda, Gulen’s Hizmet movement ran hundreds of schools in Turkey, Central Asia, Africa, Europe and the United States. Graduates are expected to pay a percentage of their salaries to the movement, leading critics to accuse it of being akin to a cult.
Gulen’s movement was allied to Erdogan’s party and helped it rise to power in 2002. Many of the cleric’s acolytes rose to senior positions in the police, judiciary, armed forces and civil service.
From 2007, Gulenist police and prosecutors launched patently trumped-up cases against hundreds of secularist members of the security services. While the charges have since been dropped, dozens of people spent months in jail where some died and others committed suicide as the cases dragged on for years.
Erdogan and Gulen’s Hizmet movement fell out as the government moved to restrict Hizmet schools. Prosecutors struck back in 2013 with corruption cases against 47 people connected with the ruling party, including the sons of three cabinet ministers, accusing them of running a scheme to bypass US sanctions on Iran by smuggling gold to Tehran to pay for discounted oil.
Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab is in custody in the United States facing money laundering charges for his alleged part in the scheme and his associate Babak Zanjani was sentenced to death in Iran for withholding millions of dollars from Iranian authorities.
While recordings emerged online purporting to be telephone conversations of Erdogan telling his son to hide hordes of cash, the president and his party denied the accusations and ordered the arrest of the police and prosecutors involved in the Turkish cases.