[Orininally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with reader's comments]
Last weekend, I had coffee with a young Turkish lady who is, besides other things, the daughter of a general in the Turkish military. She was very polite and articulate, but not very cheerful and happy. For her beloved father has been in prison since last January, when an Istanbul court decided to arrest nearly 200 officers. They were all accused of having taken part in the “Balyoz” (Sledgehammer) scheme, a 2003 military meeting in which a military coup against the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government was allegedly discussed.
“This just doesn’t make sense,” my coffee friend said. “My father was not even at the conference that they claim to be a coup plan.” Apparently, the only thing which linked her father to the case was that his name was on one of the documents which listed “officers that will serve.” Even if there were really a coup plan – something my friend rejected – it would still be wrong, she explained, to arrest people who were only indirectly involved.
As I was listening all this, I could not help but feeling sympathy for the young lady and her family. (I know what it is like to have a father who is arrested indefinitely in a political case.) I also thought that, whatever the nature of the “Sledgehammer” scheme is, some of the arrested officers might indeed be innocent: Perhaps they were just doing their job. Perhaps they were really just listed on a piece of paper by their more sinister superiors.
In other words, it could well be the case, that the Sledgehammer case, which has recently put more than 10 percent of Turkey’s top military brass into prison, might have excesses. It might even be the case that the case is perhaps overblown, as its critics claim. I claim no expertise in such delicate legal matters and prefer to leave the verdict to the judges in charge.
Yet there is another thing that I know: these controversial cases of the past few years, Sledgehammer – along with another one, Ergenekon – have transformed the political landscape in Turkey. In both cases, especially in Sledgehammer, Turkish society saw something which used to be unthinkable: that men in uniform can be put on trial and can even be put in prison.
This was important for not just the sake of taboo-breaking. It was even more important for the sake of “regime change” – a change from a military to a civilian one. The old regime was long and well established: From the year 1960 onwards, the Turkish military staged four military coups, executed a prime minister, killed or tortured thousands of citizens, and continuously intimidated certain segments of the nation. This thuggishness finally ended in the past few years, and thanks not only to changes in politics but also criminal investigations such as Ergenekon and Sledgehammer.
I wish things had been different. I wish one day the chief of staff appeared in front of cameras and gave a mea culpa speech. “We apologize to the nation for the inconvenience we have caused,” he could have said. “Our institution has done bad things in the past, but we have reformed ourselves and now are genuinely committed to democracy.”
But, alas, the Turkish military has never voiced such examples of self-criticism, and has hardly given a sign of respect for democracy. Most generals were rather keeping a self-righteous and arrogant tone until very recently. Only with the loss of their prestige did they become more humble. Only with the loss of their power did they become less threatening.
The nightmare of the generals, in other words, was perhaps the only way out for an end to the nightmares they used to inflict upon a large part of the nation. They lived by sword, one may say, and now they are now falling by the sword.
Us or them
Now, let me underline that I am saying all these descriptively, not approvingly. The rule of law is crucial, if not sacred, for me. Therefore I am not willing to approve injustice even to those who have been unjust.
That’s why, from the beginning of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases, I have voiced criticisms or restraints. I have opposed long-term arrests, and pointed to some of the inconsistencies in the indictments. (I did more so in Turkish; for it is the Turks who need to discuss these things.)
In return, I have been criticized by some of my liberal or conservative friends for being too naïve. “You are just stupid,” one of them said to me boldly. “If we don’t get these guys now, they will get us back, and you will be in a military prison cell with electric wires tied to your testicles.”
Well, I see that point. But I also see that this county should not oscillate forever between political camps that see each other as sworn enemies. Instead of taking one of the sides unquestioningly, and attacking the other side by all means available, we should be able to talk to each other and reach some basic consensus.
That is one of the key things I expect from the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in its impending third term. Yes, they have defeated the hawkish generals and the arrogant social forces behind them. Well done. But now they must help building a country in which no one sees no more nightmares.