Written by Carlotta Gall
Turkish courts are just weeks from concluding some 300 mass trials intended to draw a line under the most traumatic event of Turkey’s recent history: the failed 2016 coup that killed 251 people, mostly civilians, and wounded more than 2,000.
So far, nearly 3,000 security personnel and civilians have been convicted, and the sweeping verdicts have been welcomed by the government and its supporters as justice served.
But the process has also widened political divisions in Turkey and deepened a sense of persecution among government opponents, who say the mass trials are emblematic of an increasingly arbitrary system of justice under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
More than two years after the coup attempt, Erdogan’s government continues to press its pursuit and prosecution of those suspected of being in league with the man it accuses of organizing the plot, Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.
The crackdown has progressively widened to include an entire class of political opponents, as the government has purged tens of thousands from the judiciary and academia, as well as the police and military.
The arrests go on virtually weekly. On Tuesday, authorities issued warrants for more than 1,100 people across 75 provinces over suspected links to the Gulen network, the semiofficial Anadolu news agency reported.
Many were accused of obtaining and passing along the questions of a written test to promote police officers, which the government has long alleged was part of an effort to seed the upper ranks of the security forces with Gulen followers.
Gulen, who lives in the United States, has also been indicted in the most prominent cases aimed at the top ranks of the coup plotters, but US officials say the evidence presented against him is not enough for his extradition.
The abundant evidence presented at the trials has put to rest any broad doubts that there was an organized plot to unseat Erdogan, who himself evaded capture that night. But human rights activists and government critics say the process — which includes trying 100 to 200 people at a time — has been so deeply flawed that it has muddied the case against the coup makers.
Tensions run high in many of the trials. Government supporters erupt with anger, hurling accusations when a defendant proclaims his innocence. Police officers and prison guards line courtrooms the size of sports arenas. The judges are often disdainful, addressing defendants in the familiar form of address, against court tradition. Critics complain they are far from impartial.
In a cavernous courtroom at a high-security prison outside Istanbul in December, victims’ families drummed their hands on the desks in muted approval as a judge declared 48 army officers guilty of treason and murder.
“I am happy with the decision they made,” said Mustafa Uygun, a former subway station manager who was shot in the back on the night of the coup attempt and now uses a wheelchair. “They got an extra 20 years for shooting me.”
Mass trials have a long history in Turkey and have frequently been used in the aftermath of coups, including by some of the people on trial today. Yet the sheer scale of the process this time is unmatched almost anywhere else in the West in recent years.
Critics say the mass trials represent collective punishment that has reached far beyond the leaders of the coup effort, as Erdogan’s crackdown swept up every man on active duty that night in bases and units around the country.
Judge Orhan Gazi Ertekin, co-chairman of the Democratic Judiciary Association, described the mass trials as kangaroo courts focused not on the acts of those on trial but on their political choices.
“It is to turn political conviction into penal conviction, to humiliate, both physically and spiritually, to destroy the ones who lost politically,” he said. “And at the same time it is a kind of show.”
“The result is determined beforehand,” he added. “The judge is assigned and mobile. He wins from convictions, not from acquittals.”
Five civilian leaders and 38 senior armed forces commanders are charged with being members of the leadership council of the coup plot in two important trials nearing conclusion.
But alongside those it has deemed the ringleaders, the Turkish government also rounded up tens of thousands of servicemen, from top commanders and special forces members to cadets and police officers in the military bases and units involved in clashes all over the country on the night of the coup attempt.
Defense lawyers have been pressing for the release of the lower-ranking soldiers, since in many cases they were ordered out to the streets unarmed or told they were protecting the state from a terrorist attack.
“My neck is as thin as a hair in the face of the state,” said Mustafa Akyildiz as he pleaded for his freedom before a judge in November. A witness statement was “all lies,” he said, since he had not been in Ankara, the capital, on the night claimed.
Another defendant, Maj. Nejdet Eroglu, military secretary to Gen. Salih Zeki Colak, the commander of land forces, who was among 18 generals held hostage by the coup makers, complained that the civilian judges did not understand how the military worked.
He spent several hours explaining that he was in uniform on the night of the attempted coup, not in civilian dress as the prosecutor had claimed, saying he had been trying to join his commander in the base when he was detained by the coup makers.
“If anyone should be ashamed, it is my commander, because he did not stand by me,” he ended bitterly.
Government supporters and families accuse many of the defendants of lying, and often shout insults during hearings. Lawyers for the victims point out that the ringleaders have denied from the start that there was a plan for a coup.
“It is an organized defense,” said Oguzkan Guzel, a lawyer for some of the veterans wounded in the coup attempt. “At the beginning of the Akinci base trial’’ — one of the most important aimed at the coup leaders — ‘’they stood up and said we are not cooperating and that set the stage.”
For their part, defendants and their lawyers accuse the government of violating their rights, including mistreatment and torture in the first days after the coup, and the use of false evidence and forced confessions.
The judges themselves are under pressure. Some 3,000 judges have been purged in the crackdown since the coup attempt. Some judges have been replaced midtrial — itself a violation — often by inexperienced judges just out of law school.
“A judge in a city sees that other judges are in jail; the judges’ and prosecutors’ high board representative, who assigns judges, is in jail; so there is a climate of fear,” said Husamettin Cindoruk, a veteran lawyer and former government minister. “So there is a crisis of the judiciary.”
One exception may be Judge Oguz Dik, who presides over the most important of the cases dealing with the coup plot, including the prosecution of the officers who tried to take over the General Staff headquarters and held the chief of staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, and others at gunpoint. Twelve people there were killed.
“This trial is the gold standard,” said Guzel, the veterans’ lawyer.
Even so, during a recent hearing, more than 200 defendants sat in a central pen surrounded by armed guards in a courtroom the size of an Olympic gymnasium.
Banks of lawyers and members of the public watched the proceedings on giant video screens from raised stands. The judge listened to hours of testimony from a defendant on the stand, ignoring the hubbub as defendants were escorted in and out by guards, chatted to each other, or huddled with their lawyers over a partition.
Outside the court, a middle-aged woman sat knitting, waiting to visit her husband in prison. She said she dared not attend the proceedings for fear of the pro-government supporters. She declined to give her name in case of repercussions against her or her family.
She said that she had sold their home and had wanted to use the money to get a good lawyer, but that her husband had told her it was not worth it. Those who had expensive lawyers were doing no better than others, she said.
The sentences being handed down against the senior officers are indeed crushing. Prosecutors are demanding multiple sentences of “aggravated life” — life without parole — the heaviest penalty in Turkey since it abandoned the death sentence under European pressure.
In the case concluded in December at the Silivri high-security court, 114 defendants faced charges, including attempting to overthrow the constitution and murder.
The unit, based in the Kuleli military school, clashed with police and protesters when they deployed into Cengelkoy and neighboring districts. Eight people were killed and 195 wounded in the area on the night of the coup attempt.
Ihsan Sartik, a former judge, served as the lawyer for Uygun, the former subway station manager who was wounded. Sartik said there was ample evidence — including closed circuit video footage, phone and audio records, and eyewitness accounts — showing the main culprits attempting to seize power by force.
The commander of the Kuleli military school was caught on audiotape by a bystander vowing to bury the protesters and calling for more ammunition, he said.
“This was not a coup but an attempt to cause a civil war,” Sartik said. “Those high-ranking officers were responsible for that.”
In his final statement, the prosecutor dropped charges against 64 conscripts and cadets, but demanded multiple life sentences against almost everyone else, piling them on for each related civilian death or injury.
One lawyer, Sibel Polat, said her client, a noncommissioned officer, was charged with 13 counts of life without parole on no evidence.
“There is no evidence that he carried arms, no witnesses, no camera footage,” she said. “There is only the allegation of the prosecutor.”
The judge took two hours to read out the multiple sentences. A cry went up across the room as 12 policemen were ordered released for time served. Men and women embraced, wiping their eyes. Others sat silent, heads bowed.
On the steps outside the court, a group of women in brightly colored headscarves posed for a photo. They were Erdogan supporters, the group leader said, giving a thumbs-up sign.
“The verdict has given us some sort of relief,” said Can Cumurcu, the headman of the Cengelkoy neighborhood, who was wounded on the night of the coup attempt. “I still feel pain, but the guilty people were convicted.”