Angry Turkish Secularists Plant Their Flag at Trial


The protesters converge each day on the village of little tents dotting the landscape here outside a sprawling prison and courthouse. They go about their business of tending a garden of fruits and vegetables, but their primary mission is to denounce the Islamist-inspired government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

One man, Riza Yaman, traveled from Germany to spend some time at the camp. “The republican traditions are being compromised and replaced with religious traditions,” he said.

Mr. Yaman is one of dozens of men and women who have been coming here for a little more than a year, angry secularists protesting outside a trial of hundreds of military officers charged with plotting to overthrow the Islamic-rooted government. The case, which has also ensnared journalists, academics and others, has come to symbolize Turkey’s attempt to come to terms with its history of military coups and state-sponsored assassinations. With its harsh judicial tactics and an ever-widening net of suspects, the trial has also illuminated concerns about the accrual of power by Mr. Erdogan and questions about his commitment to democracy.

This is supposed to be Turkey’s time. The country is a rare haven of economic growth and political stability in a region in turmoil. It has been hailed by many across the Arab world as a model for blending faith and democracy. Elected 10 years ago, Mr. Erdogan is poised to become the longest-serving prime minister in the history of the Turkish republic and is planning a 2014 run for the presidency, which he hopes to refashion from a largely ceremonial post to one with strong executive powers along the lines of the United States system.

But Turkey is facing a reckoning of its own. It is wrestling with an identity defined by both a history of iron-fisted secular rule and the promise of Islamist-infused democracy. It has a population that is deeply divided between Islamists and secularists, and its charismatic leader is facing challenges on multiple fronts. He has been criticized for his Syria policy, taken to task for a widening crackdown on free expression and mired in an escalating fight with Kurdish militants that recently prompted him to suggest reinstituting the death penalty, which was abolished in 2002 as part of Turkey’s bid to enter the European Union.

“Turkey is going through this period of psychological questioning,” said Haluk Sahin, a former columnist and a journalism professor at Istanbul Bilgi University.

The court case, named Ergenekon for a mythic valley that is the moniker of the clandestine terrorist organization to which the defendants are accused of belonging, is at the center of Turkey’s many fissures.

Mr. Erdogan came to office promising to advance democracy and face Turkey’s past by expanding rights for Kurds and women and relaxing restrictions on the news media. He allayed the fears of the old guard that he had a hidden Islamist agenda by embracing the prospect of membership in the European Union, which was central to Turkey’s democratic ambitions but now seems more distant than ever.

“Not only did a new party come to power, but a new mentality took place,” Mr. Erdogan said in a recent speech, looking back a decade to when his party won its first election.

Yet the recent sight of security forces clashing with thousands of secularist protesters who were celebrating Turkey’s Republic Day in violation of a government ban belied the government’s democratic credentials. Turkey’s reputation has also been rattled by reports from the European Union and the Committee to Protect Journalists, an advocacy group based in New York, that have undermined Mr. Erdogan’s efforts to portray Turkey as a rising democracy for the region to emulate.

The European Union said the Ergenekon case, and other criminal cases, raise “real concerns about their wide scope and the shortcomings in judicial proceedings.” The C.P.J. said Turkey is “waging one of the world’s biggest anti-press campaigns in recent history.” More journalists are in jail in Turkey than in any other country, the C.P.J. report said.

The government’s response to the criticism has been largely to ignore it.

“By turning a blind eye to the report made by the E.U. and the Committee to Protect Journalists, one can deceive oneself and pretend to be living in a very democratic country,” wrote Ozgur Mumcu, a columnist for the newspaper Radikal. “But not everyone shares these same hallucinations.”

The court proceedings are at the heart of how Turkey manages to face an authoritarian past and chart a democratic future. Initially many Turks viewed the trial, which began in 2008, as a necessary reckoning with a painful past, but as it has dragged on there is rising sentiment that it is just another chapter in a long history of rule by authoritarian elites, this time with an Islamic bent.

Turkey is endlessly fixated with the past. Its competing interpretations play out each day in the newspapers. From one edition of a local paper this week came these stories: Was the reformist president, Turgut Ozal, who died suddenly in 1993, actually poisoned by his enemies? Did Adnan Menderes, the prime minister in the 1950s who was hanged after a military coup, give orders for a pogrom in 1955 against non-Muslims? And who, exactly, was behind the coups of 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997?

The courthouse in which the Ergenekon defendants are facing trial is in Silivri, a town on the Sea of Marmara an hour’s drive west of Istanbul. The caretakers of the tent encampment are dissidents, nationalists, secularists, the family and friends of the accused, and even some defendants.

The tents, set up as a permanent base of protest, call to mind a refugee camp. And in a sense, the men and women who visit, sometimes for a day but often for longer, are exiles from Turkey’s past. They are a political minority in today’s Turkey and, as loyalists to the secular and nationalist traditions of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded modern Turkey in 1923, they are fearful that Mr. Erdogan has decisively banished them from the center of power.

Yet as they offer their complaints, they express a worldview that seems rooted in Turkey’s undemocratic past. Some deny that a massacre of the Armenians occurred in 1915, in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, in a tragedy that Turkey has still not confronted. Most believe that the Central Intelligence Agency secretly runs Turkey’s affairs. And they regard multiculturalism and the expansion of rights for Turkey’s Kurds as a step toward a partition of the country.

On a recent day, after a lunch of rice and beans and watermelon, the camp’s visitors drank tea and smoked cigarettes before returning to the court for afternoon testimony.

Hidir Hokka, the camp’s overseer, views modern Turkey and Mr. Erdogan’s rise as a plot by the United States and Europe to exact revenge for Ataturk’s rebellion after World War I that thwarted the Allies’ plans to control much of present-day Turkey.

In a recent speech to his party, Mr. Erdogan evoked a different history: the decades of rule by an unelected secular elite — dominated by the military — whose power has been destroyed by cases like Ergenekon.

“It might be possible to rule the country under the control of a handful of elites,” he said. “But in a democratic republic, you must take your strength from the people.”


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