September 2, 2013 4:54 pm

Turkey begins trial of general over ‘postmodern’ coup

Turkey has begun the trial of a former military chief and over 100 other suspects over the country’s so-called “postmodern” coup of 1997, the latest in a series of politically charged mass prosecutions against leading figures from the once dominant military.

The case against General Ismail Hakki Karadayi, a former chief of general staff, and his co-defendants, focuses on a campaign the military mounted against the Islamist-led government of the time, a political forerunner of the current administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The indictment alleges that the suspects sought to overthrow the government by force. Gen Karadayi, who has denied the charges, did not attend Monday’s hearing in Ankara on grounds of poor health.

The case comes hard on the heels of other contentious trials, including the long-running Ergenekon prosecution, in which General Ilker Başbuğ, a more recent head of the military, was given a life prison sentence last month, along with guilty verdicts for more than 200 other people accused of plotting against Mr Erdogan’s government.

More than 300 current and retired military officers were found guilty in a separate case last year dealing with another alleged coup plot.

Unlike those two cases, in which defendants argued that key evidence was fabricated, the trial of Gen Karadayi and the others involved in the events of 1997 revolves around an actual ouster of government, rather than an alleged plot that failed.

But it remains contentious, not least because of the sheer number of people in the dock.

“If you are going to put on trial people accused of carrying out such [military] interventions, why not just choose a few figures, why involve people who were probably just obeying orders?” asked Sahin Alpay, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University.

He argued that the country needed an amnesty in such cases to overcome “increasingly dangerous” polarisation.

Mr Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted government clashed with largely secular protesters during mass protests in the summer. Meanwhile, the prime minister himself has said that the military, which traditionally saw itself as a secularist bastion against Islamism, has seen its effectiveness hobbled by the multiple cases.

Nevertheless, Mr Erdogan, who was himself a member of the Islamist party ousted from leading the government in 1997, has spoken of the events of that year as a “black spot in our history” and as a continuation of three coups in preceding decades.

Though no shots were fired, the push against the government of prime minister Necmettin Erbakan involved a military show of force in an Ankara municipality that had organised a demonstration against Israel.

Gen Karadayi and his colleagues then effectively forced the government to sign a memorandum that imposed restrictions on pious Muslims in public life through measures such as enforcing a strict ban on women wearing the headscarf in universities.

Erbakan stood down several months later and was subsequently banned from politics, dying in 2011. Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development party, which filled the gap left by Erbakan’s movement, swept to power in 2002 on a more moderate, pro-business and pro-EU agenda.

The Ankara case is unlikely to proceed quickly; other such mass trials have taken years.

One other case focusing on an actual coup has already begun – the prosecution of the nonagenarian Kenan Evren, a former head of the military and Turkish president, who spearheaded the bloodiest putsch in the country’s history in 1980.

But at present the military’s last explicit move against the government has not yet been investigated or prosecuted – a 2007 warning not to choose Abdullah Gul, Mr Erdogan’s party colleague, as president. In response, Mr Erdogan called and won an early election, a sequence of events that did much to reduce the army’s power.

This July, he also pushed through a new law that rewrote the clause in the military’s rule book used in the past to justify coups.

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