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Turkey may legislate release of jailed army officers and journalists

The recent corruption scandal and power struggle between Turkey’s Islamists produced an unexpected return yesterday as it was revealed that the government may introduce legislation to review convictions under the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer conspiracy theories. This follows a statement made by a top party official that the prisoners were framed. A greater payoff may be the partial reformation of Turkey’s archaic criminal justice system wherein suspects can be wrongfully arrested without evidence and detained indefinitely.

Ilker Basbug, former Turkish army chief sentenced to life in prison. A new alliance for Islamists?

Following a meeting yesterday between Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Metin Feyzioglu, president of the Turkish Bar Association, it was leaked to the press that the government has accepted the latter’s proposals to legislate to review convictions and order a retrial of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer convicts. It has been widely believed for years in and outside Turkey that the hundreds of army officers (including 20-percent of incumbent generals), journalists and opposition politicians were charged and convicted by “specially empowered courts” under fictitious conspiracy theories with fabricated evidence. The courts rejected most evidence submitted by defense counsel, such as a statement by Microsoft, that a key piece of prosecution evidence appeared to have been drafted by a version of MS Word released years after the date of the alleged offence. Turkey’s appeal court refused to review each case individually, confirming instead all convictions “in bulk.” Many of the jail sentences received were for 18 years to life, and “aggravated life”, which means permanent incarceration in a small isolation cell. One of those receiving an aggravated life sentence was retired general Ilker Basbug, former army chief of staff, charged with running a terrorist organisation for allowing an army web site that occasionally criticised government policy.

Feyzioglu’s proposals reportedly included the abolition of specially empowered courts and the repeal of the anti-terror legislation passed by the ruling AKP, the Justice & Development Party and goes so far as to hold judges personally responsible for monetary damages for wrongful detention. Lawyers believe that the legislation is redundant since the Turkish Criminal Code already has all the provisions necessary to counter terrorism. If accepted, this would signal a milestone in the reformation of the justice system based on laws and procedures adopted from Mussolini Italy.

This was the culmination of a week-long intense activity started with a statement made by AKP’s deputy leader that the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer prisoners were framed, presumably by followers of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen that allegedly control the judiciary and the police. For the first time since he was appointed army chief the pro-government general Necdet Ozel broke his silence to call for a retrial of the prisoners. His office made a formal application to the Ankara Prosecutors Office to reopen the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer files. Prosecutors, however, forwarded the applications the other day, on grounds of “no authority”, to the appeal court and the Istanbul Prosecutors Office where charges against the accused had originated.

As prosecutors are busy widening the scope of the corruption investigation, which involved the arrest of cabinet ministers’ sons, Turks are holding their breath to see if the scandal will hit the Prime Minister himself or his family. Photographs of an alleged secret meeting between his son and an Al Qaida terrorist were leaked to the press this week. It has been revealed that some people made fortunes selling gold to Iran for cash to help circumvent international sanctions against that country. Mr. Erdogan, however, is sparing no punches in his counterattack against the Gulen followers, known as “The Community”, accusing them of participating in an international conspiracy against his government. In this respect he has common ground with secularists who have often accused the United States of a conspiracy to wreck Ataturk’s nationalist legacy. If he legislates the proposals he will not only have redeemed himself with his biggest foes but may gain the upper hand in the power struggle to transform the judiciary and pass his constitutional amendments, not to mention going down in history as the man who reformed the justice system. Or, at least, that seems to be Mr. Erdogan’s calculation. This will be Mr. Erdogan's way of saying that neither he nor his party had anything to do with Ergenekon or Sledgehammer trials or any conspiracy to undermine the Turkish army. There are already signs that the Gulenist resolve is cracking with rumours of peace offers from Gulen himself, and the official opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) is receptive to discuss constitutional reform with the government. The next few weeks will show if the Prime Minister, an old soccer player, will score a winning goal from the corner or succumb to a surprise counter-counter-attack against his post. The stock market and the Turkish Lira, two pillars of his political success, have taken a dive since the corruption probe was made public. A big question that preoccupies pundits nowadays is whom the United States has forsaken, Mr. Erdogan or Pennsylvania resident Imam Fethullah Gulen.

Mr. Egemen Bagis, a Turkish-American and the Minister of EU Affairs who was sacked last week for his implication in the corruption scandal said “This is a fun country, if you’re not a citizen.” As the old Turkish proverb goes, “If you fall into the ocean you’ll cling to a snake.”

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