By Kathleen Sullivan
Turkey is often portrayed as a progressive and secular, the poster-child for Middle Eastern democracy. But the completion of a series of questionable trials this March suggests another trend in Turkish politics.
When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into government, they began to subtly eliminate their opposition. The first group they targeted were military officers, followed by journalists, professors, and people working for NGO’s. Countless arrests were made, and the accused were held for years at a time in special detention facilities without being informed of the charges being brought against them.
In the Sledgehammer trial, which began in 2010, 365 high ranking military officers and two civilians were charged with planning a terrorist plot to overthrow the AKP government. The evidence brought by the prosecution was full of holes, such as one alarming fact that a report referred to a file written in 2002 that used a font not introduced by Microsoft until 2007. The prevalence of this type of mistake has led many to the conclusion that most, if not the entire trial was forged.
The Turkish army is entrusted with the duty to intervene in the government if the republic is threatened. It is a traditionally strong institution, and was considered a staunch protector of secularism, though it is weakening under Erdogan’s government, who has vastly changed this perception.
On September 21, 2012, roughly 300 of the military officers accused in the Sledgehammer plot were sentenced to prison terms, ranging from six years to lifelong terms.
A small segment of Turkish society supports a diminished role of the military in preserving the republic, and therefore is not opposed to these events. However, another segment contends that, even if something regarding the military’s role should be changed, sham trials like this are not the solution; they are unlawful and undermine the nation’s democratic principles.
In March, 64 people, including high ranking retired military generals, professors, NGO workers, and journalists were sentenced to intensified lifetime imprisonment. They were accused of actively trying to overthrow the government, similarly to the military officials convicted in September.
These affairs show that the credit given to Turkey as a model for other countries, particularly those emerging from the context of the Arab Spring, may in fact be a distorted image.