[Note: This piece first appeared in Paul Krugman's blog.]
In what is probably the country’s most important court case in at least five decades, hundreds of Turkish military officers are in jail and on trial for allegedly having plotted to overthrow the then newly-elected Justice and Development Party back in 2003. The case also happens to be one of the most absurd ever prosecuted in an apparent democracy. The evidence against the defendants is such an obvious forgery that even a child would recognize it as such. Imagine, if you can, something that is a cross between the Moscow show trials and the Salem witchcraft hysteria, and you will not be too far off.
The government’s case rests on a set of documents (mostly Word files) that describe in gory detail preparations for the coup (codenamed Sledgehammer), including false-flag operations to set the stage for the takeover and a list of cabinet members to be appointed. These are unsigned digital documents on electronic media (CDs, a detached hard drive, a flash drive) that have never been traced to actual military computers or otherwise authenticated. The military has vehemently denied that such plans ever existed.
Most tellingly, a torrent of evidence has come out since the documents first emerged that points to their fraudulent nature. The documents contain hundreds of anachronisms – names of NGOs, military installations, or firms that did not yet exist – that make clear beyond any reasonable doubt that they were produced years later and backdated to implicate the officers on trial. Some of the defendants have shown that they were outside the country at the time they are alleged to have prepared these documents or attended planning meetings.
An American forensic specialist has determined that the “hand writing” on the CDs was actually produced by mechanically replicating individual letters from the notebooks of one of the defendants. Deviations from military formatting suggest the documents were prepared by individuals not fully familiar with the army’s style requirements. As long-time Turkey analyst Gareth Jenkins put it to the New Yorker: “It’s absolutely clear that these documents have been forged.”
The prosecutors have bundled these bogus documents with authentic voice recordings from a military seminar held in March 2003. Pro-government media have made much of these recordings, in which some officers are heard making prejudicial statements about members of the governing party. But there is nothing in the proceedings to suggest those present were planning a coup. Even the prosecutors’ indictment makes clear that the case stands or falls with the authenticity of the digital documents.
The Turkish military has a history of political intervention and has often clashed with the Islamists. So the allegations have been a godsend for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has exploited the trial to gain control over military promotions and to break the army’s political power.
But the real moving force behind this and a number of other similar trials is the Gülen movement, a key ally of the Erdoğan government made up of the followers of the Pennsylvania-based Turkish Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen. Gülenists have a long track record of framing their perceived opponents and engaging in judicial dirty tricks. Their control of key positions in the national police and judiciary enables them to mount targeted operations disguised as legal investigations. Prosecutors scrutinizing them, whistleblowers revealing their activities, critical journalists, and even businessmen have been among their victims, in addition to military officers. As Ahmet Şık, a journalist who wrote an expose about the movement and then found himself facing preposterous charges of helping terrorists even before the book was published, exclaimed on his way to jail: “he who touches [them] burns.”
The police and prosecutors who have staged the coup plot trial are known Gülen sympathizers. And Gülenist media have worked overtime to shape public opinion, whipping up hysteria against the defendants and producing a steady stream of disinformation about the case. The occasional judge who has ruled in favor of the officers and commentators pointing to problems with the prosecutors’ evidence (including me) have become targets of Gülenist defamation. (Articles in Gülen’s media flagship Zaman and its English-language sister Today’s Zaman have accused me of, among other things, lobbying for coups, sullying Harvard’s reputation, and – most fantastically – being slotted as the minister of the economy following the coup.)
Erdoğan has recently distanced himself from the Gülenists, in part because of his party’s discomfort with their judicial manipulations. But he has yet to withdraw his support from the case against the military officers or to take action against the worst legal abuses taking place. (See here for a good recent overview.) Meanwhile, journalists who pry into such matters are silenced. Turkey currently holds more journalists in prison than China and Iran combined. Only recently have foreign journalists begun to penetrate the fog that surrounds the case and report on the blatant forgeries (see accounts in the New Yorker, Newsweek, and London Times).
The travesty that the trial represents reached new heights last week when the judge ruled to move to the final stage of the trial, bypassing defendants’ requests for examination of the prosecution’s evidence. In effect, the judge decided to completely overlook the countless anachronisms, inconsistencies, and physical impossibilities on which the case rests. A guilty verdict has become virtually certain.
The tragedy extends far beyond the injustice perpetrated on the victims of the trial. When a trial that has been marketed as a nascent democracy’s victory against military rule is fully exposed as the fraud that it is, it will be Turkey’s judiciary and democracy that will receive the greatest blow. It will take decades before the political system can fully recover from the massive undermining of the rule of law that the government and its Gülenist allies have inflicted on it.