David OâByrne in Istanbul -
There are few surprises in Turkish politics these days and the guilty verdicts handed down to 254 of the 275 suspects in the trial of senior former army officers alleged to have been plotting a coup against the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan certainly wasn't one of them.
The five-year trial which has bitterly divided Turkish society resulted in full life sentences handed down to the former commander of the Turkish military Ilker Basbug, and 18 others including six other senior generals, other senior military officers, journalists, bureaucrats and laywers. Other journalists and writers, bureaucrats and politicians were among those receiving shorter - albeit still long by any standards - sentences.
Charges against those found guilty centred on the alleged existence of a clandestine ultra-nationalist organisation known as "Ergenekon," which held hidden supplies of weapons and money that it was alleged were used to further illegal activities including propagandising against, and plotting the overthrow of the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan
With the indictment alone running to close on 5,000 pages and the evidence sifted by prosecutors reported to extend to several hundred thousand pages, it's little wonder that most observers, and indeed most Turks, found the process contradictory and confusing.
Little wonder, too, that as a result opinion has broadly been divided into two camps:
--those who support the government and believe the charges against the defendants that they "belonged to" an illegal organization and were plotting to overthrow the government and hence, the verdicts and the sentences, are justified;
--and those who strongly oppose the government and believe that the defendants are a random selection of people whose positions and or views have brought them into conflict with a government that has used a flawed legal process to silence them. And, importantly, even in any instances where the charges could be substantiated, the defendants were acting out of patriotism and in defence of their country.
Broadly, but not entirely.
Anyone who has been following Turkish politics for any length of time cannot fail to have been aware of the mysterious force known as "deep state," which was allegedly behind just about every otherwise inexplicable event in the country.
Or of the fact that the military had organised full-on tanks-on-the-street coups in 1961, 1970 and 1980, as well as allegedly being the instigator of 1998's so called "post-modern coup."
For that reason, many who share no ideological or religious ground with the AKP were in favour of the initial stages of the Ergenekon investigation, because it promised to shed light on some of the darkest moments in modern Turkish history: the murders, extra-judicial killings, disappearances, drug smuggling, money laundering and a host of other illegal activities of the 1980s and 1990s, and which have to date largely eluded official explanation, but have left lasting scars.
However as the investigation broadened in scope, dragging in many whose connection with the core allegations was at best tenuous, many began to question whether the focus had shifted from a criminal investigation to a broader pursuit of the more vocal, and perhaps powerful critics of the governing AKP.
There were also worries about the alleged involvement of exiled Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen, whose organisation is viewed by its critics as itself shady and "clandestine," and whose supporters are alleged to have infiltrated the police force and judiciary and who were - until recently at least - rumoured to have considerable influence in Ankara.
This "mission creep" has led to a blurring of lines, with many who initially supported the investigation uneasy with its results. "When I look at the trial politically I support the results, it has helped the democratisation and normalisation of Turkey, but when I look judicially I think there are some problems," says Oral Calislar, columnist on Turkish daily Radikal, who as an influential left-wing commentator has long been at odds with Turkey's ultra-nationalist right and who was himself jailed after both the 1970 and 1980 coups.
"And as a human being, I would never want anyone to spend so many years in a prison cell," he adds.
Unease with the process is even evident among those normally viewed as supporters of the current government. Writing on the Middle East news website Al Monitor, Turkish commentator Mustafa Akyol, himself a former columnist for the Gulen-owned Today Zaman newspaper wrote: "It certainly would be wrong to condemn the whole case, and disregard that it helped put the nail on the coffin of Turkey's dark era of military coups. But it also arguably put some innocent people in jail."
With the verdicts announced, all eyes are on the appeal court and on the possibility of some or all the sentences being overturned or shortened.
Commenting on the case, Turkish President Abdullah Gul expressed his "sadness" at the conviction of General Basbug, pointing out that the two had worked together for several years and noting that the judicial process is not yet complete.
Prime Minister Erdogan, however, has perhaps predictably taken a far sterner line, both praising the verdicts and slamming the leaders of the two main opposition for their criticisms of both the trial and the verdicts, describing their criticism as itself "a crime." These comments only seem to underline recent criticism that Erdogan's "style" has become increasingly, and worryingly, authoritarian - the more so in the wake of the protests which wracked the country through June and July.
According to Akyol, the trial has helped to further polarize Turkish society. More outspoken critics have gone further, warning that while the trial may have ended the threat of military intervention in Turkish politics, it has not improved the quality of Turkish democracy.
True believers in Turkish democracy have no wish to see a return to the days when the armed forces repeatedly "came out of the barracks. "But now they fear that military hegemony over their country has simply been replaced by AKP hegemony," wrote Cenk Sidar, owner of the Washington-based consultancy Sidar Global, in Hurriyet Daily News.
He is not alone in fearing that something is missing from the process. "It [the trial] doesn't bring anything new, there is still the split between the Ä°slamic and the secular people," says Oral Calislar. "What we need is compromise and conciliation, that would offer a way forward."
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