Sledgehammer: the end or the beginning?

A demonstrators’ camp outside Silivri, the courthouse where the Sledgehammer trial ended last month.

I have meant to post about the Sledgehammer trial for a while, but have been away in Rize and Artvin for the past week – more about that later.

The trial ended on September 21 with the conviction, predictably, of most of the 365 defendants. But despite the triumphalism in the pro-government press there is little sense that things are over. My story for the Times is here.

When it began back in December 2010, some observers expressed doubts about the authenticity of the Sledgehammer evidence. 21 months later, nothing whatsoever has emerged to answer those doubts. On the contrary, the number of skeptics – among foreign commentators and media in particular – has only grown.

Even in Today’s Zaman, a newspaper that has often pumped out crude propaganda in support of the trial, there are signs of misgivings over its conduct. Columnist Yavuz Baydar wrote:

“The judges may have made a major mistake by disallowing the presentation of some evidence, a key part of universal court procedures. The accusations of forgery of some documents in the trial must also be investigated and brought to a fair conclusion. This may lead the Supreme Court of Appeals to order a retrial.”

Hürriyet’s Sedat Ergin summed up things when he spoke to Time: “From here on there is a process of appeals that could go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. Far from closing a chapter, the Sledgehammer case has just become an even bigger issue on Turkey’s plate.”

Here is a summary of some, but not all of the inconsistencies in the evidence identified by journalists, defendants, and their lawyers:

-Scores of references to institutions not in existence at the time the coup plan was drawn up, or references to them by names they only acquired later.

-Crucial evidence contained on unsigned, digitally-stored documents made using Microsoft Word software only available years after coup plans were created.

-Suspects accused of working on coup plans on computers owned by the Turkish military at a time when they were not in the country.

-Alleged forgery of a suspect’s handwriting on a CD containing important evidence.

-Admirals who died in 1998 and 1999 named in the evidence as participators in coup plans.

As I have pointed out before, at least one of these anachronisms is embedded in the text of the indictment itself, can be verified independently, and so cannot be dismissed as ‘coup-lovers’ propaganda’.

The other inconsistencies are found in prosecution evidence handed to the defense under normal legal procedures. The prosecution at no point disputed that the ‘dodgy’ files formed part of the evidence, so I assume at this stage that they did.

Over the course of the trial, both the prosecutors, and Sledgehammer’s supporters in the Turkish press, have done an extraordinarily bad job of defending it, mainly because they have largely refused to look these allegations in the face.

At times, they have resembled art scholars debating the authenticity of a newfound work by Leonardo, while ignoring that the Florentine noblewoman in the painting is driving a convertible.

Not that there isn’t some strong evidence suggesting that a coup was being planned. The voice recording of the highly detailed ‘hypothetical’ wargame scenario is particularly damning – though it only involved 50 of the 365 defendants.

By ignoring the alleged forgeries, however, the prosecution may have compromised the validity of the whole legal process. When I visited the trial last year, lawyer after lawyer stood up on behalf of the defense, some with detailed presentations attempting to demonstrate various forms of digital manipulation in the evidence. The prosecution wholly ignored these.

(Incidentally, the claims that the defendants’ lawyers did not raise the anachronisms in the court, but only in the media, are wildly inaccurate.)

Similarly, when confronted with the Sledgehammer anachronisms, the trial’s defenders in the media generally shrieked ‘propaganda’. One of the most brainless of these attacks was by Today’s Zaman’s Etyen Mahçupyan, referring to an article I had written for the Times.

Others just change the subject. Orhan Kemal Cengiz for a long time cited the fact that the defendants had not approached the ECHR as a sign that the forgery allegations were not serious. When they did approach the ECHR, he cited the court’s decision that Cetin Doğan’s detention was legal as further evidence.

In fact, the court did not address the question of the forged evidence, though you wouldn’t know it to see the pro-government coverage. The ECHR considered the question of whether Turkey had reasonable grounds to arrest him, noting that the “facts giving rise to a suspicion need not be of the same level as those necessary to justify conviction or bring a charge”. The ECHR process is still ongoing.

The point is this: as the case continues to work its way through the Turkish and international court system these inconsistencies – studiously ignored in the first trial – will receive more intense scrutiny.

They cannot prove that there was no coup plan – there is other evidence that suggests there was, and many well-informed commentators with no axe to grind share this belief. (Yavuz Baydar’s article cited earlier gives a good rundown.)

The anachronisms, however, suggest that the Sledgehammer evidence contains traces of not one, but two crimes. The first, ostensible crime is the alleged plot to overthrow the government. The second is the manufacturing of fake evidence in order to frame suspects in the case, a crime that would require extensive complicity within the courts and police.

Ending the military’s dominance of Turkey’s political life will likely go down as the AKP’s greatest and most impressive achievement. In this context, many people will view any foul play in the Sledgehammer case merely as a sour footnote.

To brush it under the carpet however, is to acquiesce in a situation in which the police and courts are acting with impunity to purge the government’s political enemies. This is of particular importance in the context of Turkey’s most intractable and potentially damaging political and social problem: the Kurdish issue. Huge number of Kurds are currently behind bars on similarly questionable grounds.

As the legal process continues, Sledgehammer could yet turn out to be a major embarrassment for Turkey. One can only hope it will shame the government into carrying out real judicial and police reform.

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One thought on “Sledgehammer: the end or the beginning?

  1. Lynn says:

    From a logical perspective, this massive conspiracy just comes across as a ludicrous fantasy.

    If you do the research, to me it seems to indicate that this “Ergenekon” conspiracy is being used by the government to remove any opposition to its participation in the U.S.’s greater middle east project (known as BOP in Turkey). My guess is the military is opposed to it, but Erdogan has convinced the powers that be in the AKP to support it.

    Nothing else seems to make sense. See if you can get 5 Turks to agree on any one thing, much less 365 to agree on a massively complicated conspiracy. Not just that, you must select Turks who are from the entire range of the political spectrum: avowed leftists, avowed nationalists, capitalists and socialists. In Turkey? Get all those to agree and to keep their agreement secret?

    It would make the most incredibly hilarious comedy if so many innocent people weren’t so tragically incarcerated.

    This is a struggle between one group that wants to do America’s bidding and another that doesn’t. What’s strange here is that the military which once seemed to do America’s bidding (remember the September 12 coup and Alexander Haig exlaiming that “Our boys did it!”?), now seems to be opposed. The real question in my mind is here. When and how did that happen?

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