Turkish soldiers under pretrial detention arrive at court in Silivri, near Istanbul, on September 20.
The sentences against over 300 military officers in the Sledgehammer case have not been universally hailed by Turkish columnists as just or as a victory of democracy. © AFP
Turkish soldiers under pretrial detention arrive at court in Silivri, near Istanbul, on September 20.
Turkey Analyst
Last updated: October 5, 2012

What Turkish columnists said about the Sledgehammer case

The sentences against over 300 military officers in the Sledgehammer case have not been universally hailed by Turkish columnists as just or as a victory of democracy.

Few view the verdict in such an exclusively positive light and gloss over the anomalies in the case. Even commentators that rejoice over the fact that the era of military tutelage is over express doubts about the justness of the sentences, pointing out that there are serious suspicions concerning the authenticity of the evidence against the sentenced military officers which need to be dispelled. The apparent neglect of the court to take into account evidence that raised reasonable doubt about the guilt of the accused is criticized by columnists who otherwise recognize the historical importance of the Sledgehammer trial.

Ali Bayramoğlu in Yeni şafak writes that the verdicts in the Sledgehammer case represent a severe blow to the tradition of military tutelage in Turkey. Without doubt, Sledgehammer is one of the most important trials in the political history of Turkey. If the most important change in Turkey during the last decade has been the purge of military influence from the state apparatus, then the Sledgehammer case has been of critical importance in bringing about this change. That’s what it all boils down to. But there is nonetheless more to it than that. It has to be granted that the importance of the Sledgehammer case is not restricted to the matters of political change and de-militarization. Sledgehammer is also a trial that has acquired a special importance in light of the accusations that the law has been violated. In other words, much as the trial has represented an endeavor to demilitarize politics by means of the law, it has also provided grounds for the allegations of extra-judiciary methods. The allegations that evidence has been fabricated have hampered the case. This has left this case, which I think is extremely important, and basically legitimate, open for discussion. As it symbolizes the end of one era, this case augurs the advent of a new one. Just as the old era needed a cleanup, so does the new era need to be legal and clean.

Sedat Ergin in Hürriyet writes that he is not convinced by the verdict in the Sledgehammer case. The court did not take any account of the evidence that pointed to the innocence of the suspects. I am not saying that there were no problems with the seminar that took place in Istanbul in March 5-7, 2003. There were serious breaches of military authority, as things that the General Staff had made explicit was not going to be included in the war game – notably the scenario of an internal threat – were nonetheless addressed. But of those who were convicted, only 50 had attended the seminar; the vast majority of those who have been sentenced have been sentenced because their names have appeared on unsigned word documents in which they were allegedly assigned duties within the coup plot. And evidence presented during the trial has with mathematical certainty proved that a significant part of these documents are not authentic.

Does this army have a lot of sins to answer for? asks Aslı Aydıntaşbaş in Milliyet. Yes, it has plenty of them. Would the army have staged a coup in 2003 if the opportunity had presented itself? Maybe it would have. We cannot know for certain; but the diaries of Özden Örnek (the former navy commander) tell us that the force commanders of the time did brainstorm about delivering a “memorandum” to the government, but that they gave up on the plan when Hilmi Özkök (the Chief of the General staff at the time) refused to go along and when they could not even get an appointment in Washington. Does this then mean that we ought to celebrate the outcome of the Sledgehammer case as a “victory of democracy” and applaud the sentences that were handed down as representing a “historical coming to terms with coup-makers?” No. Sledgehammer has nothing to do at all with the democracy. Instead, it is the suicide of law in Turkey. Law is about specifics, and what was tried in this case was whether or not the war-game that took place at the First Army in March 2003 was a coup exercise. Yet, the reality is that if you leave aside the forged documents, the thesis that a coup exercise took place at that seminar is questionable. The legally most disturbing part of this case has been that the judges have overlooked the crucial fact that the critical documents that were presented by the prosecutors as evidence were subsequently revealed to be forgeries. And of the 365, suspects only 50 had taken part in the seminar. Rather than auguring a new era, this is a time of reckoning with old elites.

Mustafa Akyol in Star asks, shall we rejoice that “democracy has been strengthened, and the era of coups is over”? Or should we feel sorry because “the law has been sacrificed for politics”? Before answering with any certainty, we first need to see how the court reasoned; and furthermore, it is necessary to have a good knowledge of the law, which I don’t. But I can nevertheless start with defending the legitimacy of the case. Yes, the case was legitimate because it is obvious that the “seminar” in March 2003 had exceeded its purpose, to cite the polite words of the then Chief of the General Staff Hilmi Özkök. But there is also another side to the coin. For instance, the allegations that part of the “documents” – other than the audio recordings – that were presented as evidence had been fabricated must be taken seriously. At the very least, the contradictions that were pointed at should have rendered the evidence “suspicious” and the suspects should have – in accordance with universal norms of law – benefited from this.  But the court apparently disregarded this. Most importantly, it goes against my conscience that so many of the officers who, apart from the commanders, only carried out orders, have been sentenced. Some commentators point to the example of the Nuremberg trial, reminding that “carrying out orders” did not absolve the Nazis from their responsibility. But the crime that the Nazis had committed was genocide. The “fight against reaction” that forms the basis of the Sledgehammer plan was of course unacceptable in a democracy, but it nonetheless belonged to the normal order of things in the distorted paradigm of the old Turkey. Now, are we supposed to hand down prison sentences to every soldier that was assigned a duty within the framework of that old paradigm? My answer is no. Let’s see what the court of cassation is going to say.

Yalçın Akdoğan (who is also an advisor of Prime Minister Erdoğan) writes in Star that a new era is about to open in Turkey next week. On Sunday (September 30) the AK Party is holding its congress, where its political vision for 2023 is going to be presented. And on Monday, the parliament convenes with a substantial agenda, including the new constitution. In this process, it is of utmost importance that the political institutions, the government as well as the opposition, recognize and shoulder their responsibility. Above all, the opposition parties that have done everything in their power to obstruct the policies of the governing party, which has started the most comprehensive democratization program in the history of the republic, need to display a more constructive attitude and assume a positive role in helping to solve the longstanding problems of the country. In particular, the opposition should assume a concrete responsibility with regard to the constitution, terrorism and the Kurdish issue, focusing not on political benefits but on what is good for the country. In this perspective, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) should act in the responsible and constructive manner that is expected of it, and turn into a real political actor. Instead of making pronouncements that provoke society it ought to adopt a reasonable and soothing discourse.

This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

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