Page last updated at 09:31 GMT, Thursday, 23 October 2008 10:31 UK

'Deep state' trial polarises Turkey

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Istanbul

Ergenekon supporters rally in Istanbul. Photo: 20 October 2008
Nationalists see the Ergenekon trial as a travesty of justice

The so-called Ergenekon case is huge, both in the size of the prosecutor's indictment and its political significance.

Even excluding its many appendices, the indictment is a massive 2,455 pages-long.

It describes an incredible-sounding plot linking lawyers, academics, a mafia man, a hitman and former members of the military, in an alleged ultra-nationalist conspiracy to topple Turkey's Islamist-rooted government.

In all, 86 suspects are now on trial, facing charges ranging from possession of firearms to running an armed terrorist organisation.

The first clue to this shadowy network was discovered last summer in the small pink house of a former military officer, next door to an Istanbul fish restaurant. Inside was a cache of hand grenades and explosives.

I believe there are so many connections with the army. We want to discover all of them with this trial
Oral Calislar
Turkey's Radikal newspaper

"The Ergenekon terror organisation is known as the 'deep state' in our country and organises many bloody activities aiming to create an atmosphere of serious crisis, chaos, anarchy and terror," writes prosecutor Zekeriya Oz, in an indictment drawn-up after months of police investigation, raids and extensive phone-taps.

Its purpose, he says, is "to weaken the country's administration [and] justify an illegal intervention against the government."

Polarising case

The prosecutor links Ergenekon to the murder of a secularist judge in 2006 and a grenade attack on the Istanbul office of Cumhuriyet newspaper, a publication known for its opposition to the religious-minded government.

I think this government is using the case to establish a dictatorship in Turkey
Leyla Tavsanoglu
Cumhuriyet newspaper

Previously ascribed to an Islamic fundamentalist, the attacks are now described as the first stage of Ergenekon's campaign to stoke divisions and unrest.

The indictment also cites an alleged hit-list, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Nobel prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk as targets.

Such details have excited intense interest in Turkey, but the case is dividing public opinion.

To some, it is a clear travesty of justice.

Earlier this year the prime minister's religious conservative governing party, the AK Party, was tried and acquitted of trying to Islamise Turkey - which was founded as a strictly secular state. Critics now accuse the party of taking revenge on its opponents, including the military.

One of the defendants arrives at the courtroom for the trial. Photo: 20 October 2008
Secularist academics like Kemal Alemdaroglu are among the accused

"This government is using the case to establish a dictatorship in Turkey," says Leyla Tavsanoglu, a columnist for Cumhuriyet. Her newspaper's elderly editor - a staunch secularist - has been arrested in a dawn police-raid on his house.

"Now everyone is subdued. They have clamped down on the democratic opposition and everyone is afraid that one day they will be included in another wave of arrests," Ms Tavsanoglu explains.

Some have stopped using mobile phones just in case.

'Deep state'

To others though, the Ergenekon trial is a watershed in Turkey's democratisation.

There is demand for democracy inside Turkey now... So those [old forces] are going to lose in the end
Can Paker
Tesev think-tank

Two retired generals have been charged in connection with the case, although their indictment has not been released yet.

Their arrest is unprecedented in a country that has seen four military coups and whose generals have long been a powerful political force.

One of the central pieces of evidence in the case, a document entitled "Lobi", describes Ergenekon as operating "under the Turkish armed forces".

In his indictment, the prosecutor records having sent an official inquiry about that to the army's general staff, and to Turkish intelligence - both denied the link.

But liberal commentators say the prosecutor has a duty to use this trial for a thorough investigation of the claim, to root-out any rogue elements within Turkey's security forces.

"In Europe, these 'Gladios' or counter-guerrilla organisations were discovered and removed from the state and the army. In Turkey, we never confronted them and what they were doing," says Oral Calislar, a writer for Radikal liberal newspaper.

Many Turks talk darkly of a "deep state" - groups they suspect of links to the security forces since the 1950s, formed to carry out illegal activities, including assassinations, to "protect" the republic.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in parliament, 15 July 08
PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists he does not have an Islamist agenda

Their alleged crimes include the murder of many prominent writers and intellectuals and the disappearance and killing of many Kurds during the Kurdish conflict in the 1990s.

First confirmation of those suspicions came in 1996, when the passengers in a fatal car crash in Susurluk revealed clear links between state security officers, organised criminals and politicians.

It emerged that a senior police chief, a prominent MP and a wanted assassin were travelling in the car together. The assassin - a nationalist militant - was carrying government-backed diplomatic ID.

The main perceived threat to the state at that time was Kurdish separatism. Earlier, communism was the danger. Today, it is political Islam and the AK Party.

'Demand for democracy'

So much of the buzz surrounding the Ergenekon trial is over whether Turkey's "deep state" will finally be exposed and eradicated.

"I believe there are so many connections with the army. We want to discover all of them with this trial," says Mr Calislar. "We will fight for that because we want to live in a democratic society."

Turkey's democratic transition is what Can Paker believes this case is all about.

The head of the liberal Tesev think-tank describes a power struggle between Turkey's old elite - the civil and military bureaucracy - and a rising urban middle-class. He sees the threat of political Islam as a weapon in the struggle against the AKP and its electorate and suggests Ergenekon emerged from that.

"I believe parts of the military and civil bureaucracy co-operate with them, so that their common benefits will not be disturbed," Mr Paker explains.

"These groups are all against [Turkey joining] the EU because they will lose power, because it will mean more democracy, more individual rights, more transparency. They are prepared to use force and intrigue and any kind of provocative action," he says.

Sceptics maintain serious doubts about the motive and the focus of the prosecutor's Ergenekon enquiry.

Many also doubt it will dig too deep.

But supporters argue the fact the trial is even happening shows how much society has changed.

"There is demand for democracy inside Turkey now, and from outside," Mr Paker explains. "So those [old forces] are going to lose in the end. But at what pace - I don't know."

Print Sponsor

Disarray at Turkish terror trial
20 Oct 08 |  Europe
'Deep state plot' grips Turkey
04 Feb 08 |  Europe
Turkey's ruling party escapes ban
30 Jul 08 |  Europe
Turkey's urban elite wary of AKP
30 Jul 08 |  Europe
'Three hurt' in Istanbul blasts
07 Aug 08 |  Europe
Q&A: Turkey's ruling party on trial
28 Jul 08 |  Europe
Turkey faces bombing aftermath
28 Jul 08 |  Europe
Timeline: Turkey attacks
27 Jul 08 |  Europe
Country profile: Turkey
19 Jul 08 |  Country profiles

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific