Armed Forces, Coups and Democracy: Military scandals in Turkey

Against the background of a recent inquiry into a prostitution ring, which later turned into a major investigation of a spy scandal in the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), many people in Turkey have started to wonder how deep the rabbit hole goes in a military infested with moles and to what extent national security has been compromised.

While the legal proceedings are taking place at their own pace, experts are worried that similar cases might have been swept under the rug in the past when nobody dared to question the conduct of military officers. Now that the authority of the army has been reduced and civilian authority has became more assertive along with increased transparency in and better democratic control of the armed forces, prosecutors are able to look into matters that used to be taboo just a decade ago.

Star daily columnist and academic Mehmet Altan attributes the change in the TSK to changes taking place globally. “In a developed and democratic country, it would simply be inconceivable to have an army that is not transparent and open. This is the reality of our changing times in the world,” he told Sunday’s Zaman. He underlined that similar scandals had taken place in the Turkish military in the past, but had never been made public because of pressure from top brass.

Altan believes an important part of the military also demanded this change as well. “These officers realize that the Turkish military can’t sustain policies that go against openness and transparency anymore, and they do not want to see the army taking punches all the time,” he stated, adding that most of the leaks originated from whistleblowers within the army who did not like what they saw.

Last week prosecutors ordered a major raid in the case that was originally known as a crackdown on a prostitution ring, but has now turned into an inquiry into allegations of blackmail and spying. About 100 homes and offices were searched, including buildings belonging to the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) and the General Staff Electronic Systems Command (GES), as part of an investigation into 49 people, 45 of whom are military officers on active duty and stand accused of having established a prostitution ring to record bureaucrats and military and police officers in compromising situations.

The people being investigated also face charges of espionage after investigators discovered that the suspected gang is alleged to have leaked secret documents from the General Staff to foreign intelligence services, with the military confirming certain secret documents had been stolen from the so-called “cosmic room” where documents pertaining to top state and military secrets are archived. Both TÜBİTAK and the General Staff have confirmed that the documents seized from the suspects are authentic. The investigators are now looking into possible links the suspects might have to foreign intelligence agencies. The latest operation represented the third wave of detentions in the case, following developments in April and August this year in which a total of 23 people were arrested regarding these allegations.

Experts underlined that the “forced transparency” of the TSK had started in 2008 with the landmark case on Ergenekon, a trial of a clandestine gang charged with plotting to overthrow the government. It was revealed that the some of the high-ranking officers in the TSK, included high-ranking generals, had attempted to stage a coup since 2002, including sub-plots codenamed Ayışığı (Moonlight), Sarıkız (Blonde Girl), Eldiven (Gloves) and, the latest, Balyoz (Sledgehammer). All suspects are currently standing trial. With the court-sanctioned wiretapping technological capabilities, prosecutors were able to unearth many suspected links involving military officers.

The European Union-backed reforms also helped diminish the power of the Turkish military. In a case where former public prosecutor Ferhat Sarıkaya was disbarred by the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) in 2006 — after he included the name of then-Land Forces Commander Gen. Yaşar Büyükanıt in the indictment of the two noncommissioned officers arrested for a bombing a bookstore in Şemdinli in southeastern Turkey — the EU criticized the involvement of the military and asked for the reform of the HSYK. Recent constitutional amendments restricting the power of the HSYK were endorsed by the EU, which later hailed the approval of changes in the public referendum as a major advance for Turkey on the EU path.

Attacks on garrison drew ire of public

The independent Taraf daily reporter Mehmet Baransu also shares a similar view as columnist Altan, saying that many officers want change in the Turkish military. Baransu, who has reported on many important news stories, uncovering hideous plans and gross negligence within Turkish army, told Sunday’s Zaman that democratization efforts in Turkey are really helping in bringing such scandals to light. “In the past, neither a reporter nor a publisher dared to print stories involving scandals in the military. But now this has changed, starting with the now-defunct Nokta magazine, which published coup diaries belonging to Adm. Özden Örnek in 2007,” he explained.

Baransu was recently acquitted of the charge of making “confidential and prohibited documents” public after a lawsuit was filed against him over his report on military intelligence about a terrorist attack at the Aktütün outpost in Hakkari province in October 2008. The attack left 17 soldiers dead. Days after the incident, Taraf published images and reports that it said belonged to gendarmerie intelligence, implying that the military had known about the attack well before Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists opened fire on the outpost.

The diversified Turkish media industry has been another factor pushing for more transparency in the military as well, according to Baransu, whose small liberal Taraf made headlines after publishing sensitive intelligence documents showing coup preparations and proof of negligence. “There is definitely a mentality change taking place among officers in the army and I even get thanks from high-ranking officers because I dared to publish these reports,” he said.

The Aktütün attack was not the only one that drew the ire of the public. Many people started to question the military in the face of a series of attacks that left many soldiers dead and injured dozens. The Turkish military has allegedly failed to prevent terrorist attacks in Dağlıca, Reşadiye and İskenderun despite prior intelligence. In the latest attack, the military allegedly failed to act against terrorists on the night of an attack on July 19 at the Hantepe outpost in Çukurca despite intelligence provided by Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Following each of these attacks, the General Staff announced that administrative investigations were launched but nobody knows what happened after that as the results were never made public.

Public outrage grew to the point that for the first time in Turkey’s republican history the families of soldiers killed in attacks carried out by the PKK are preparing to file a criminal negligence lawsuit against the General Staff for insufficient protection of soldiers on duty. Forty-five soldiers have been killed in PKK attacks carried out in the Dağlıca, Aktütün, Gediktepe and Hantepe military outposts in southeastern Turkey since 2007.

Republic Day reception controversy

Since August, the military has by and large been successful in staying away from the spotlight under its new commander, Gen. Işık Koşaner, who stressed respect for the rule of law and democracy in his inauguration speech upon assuming the post of chief of General Staff. However, that has not saved the military from being mired in controversy, the latest being whether or not top brass would attend a reception at the Çankaya presidential palace on Friday in order to avoid contact with the headscarved first lady.

The high-ranking military officials did not attend to reception, but scheduled another reception to start just half an hour earlier than the planned reception at the presidential palace, revealing the military’s unwillingness to keep up with Turkey’s ongoing normalization process, to say the least.

Ercan Yavuz

Today’s Zaman


31 October, 2010



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