Former Turkish Chief of Staff Ilker Başbuğ’s trial is underway, and he made headlines on Tuesday by walking out of the courtroom after denouncing the entire proceedings as a sham and as a black stain on Turkey’s reputation. It probably did not help matters that the court is actively trying to appeal to the darker side of public sentiment by asking its very first question about a picture of Başbuğ in Israel at the Western Wall, as if this is somehow ipso facto proof of his guilt. Başbuğ is determined not to go down quietly, and his lack of reticence may highlight the fact that the government went too far in charging him and mark the beginning of a shift in the power imbalance that has developed between the civilian government and the army. This piece in Hurriyet is a good rundown of the various absurdities contained in the Başbuğ indictment, from conflicting claims as to the general’s place within Ergenekon to lack of evidence to support the charge of violence to whether the allegations even support the ultimate indictment.
Up until this point, however, such inconveniences have not prevented Turkey’s generals from being convicted and imprisoned. Aside from Başbuğ, prosecutors yesterday asked from 15-20 years for 365 officers who are Sledgehammer suspects, and half of all of Turkey’s admirals and 10% of its active duty generals are already in prison on charges of conspiring to overthrow the AKP government. The government has eviscerated the power and authority of the military and jailed generals almost at will, and there is no question that Erdoğan and other top officials clearly have the upper hand over the military. This is not generally a bad thing, as complete vertical accountability – in which there is no unelected official or group at the top that has the final say in state affairs – is a requirement of true democracy, but the pendulum has shifted so far in the government’s direction that few take the slew of allegations against members from every branch of the Turkish armed forces as legitimate. Indeed, it is almost certain that the Sledgehammer documents were forged but up until this point the government has not faced any real consequences or pubic outcry for its actions against military officers that are clearly trumped up.
With Başbuğ, however, the government went after its biggest target to date and it may have committed a bad misstep. If Başbuğ continues to push back hard against the legitimacy of the charges against him and even the authority of the special court set up to try him (rather than the Supreme State Council), it might be a turning point in the government’s efforts to root out military plots, imagined or otherwise.