Turkey opens mass trials of coup plotters

Sunday 05/03/2017
Waiting for the verdict. Relatives of suspects accused of involvement in last year’s failed July coup sit in front of the Sincan Prison in Ankara, on February 28th. (AFP)

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.