Chasing Ergenekon

Journalist Nedim Şener, a holder of several national and international professional accolades, and journalist Ahmet Şık, also a union activist and human rights defender, who built his career on promoting citizenry and the restitution of justice in Turkey, were among ten suspects arrested and detained on March 6, 2011 on allegations of engaging in acts of terrorism. Şener’s and Şık’s arrests galvanized a public outcry against what were perceived as gross violations of basic freedoms of expression. Mass protests convened in central Istanbul; journalists, public intellectuals and activists across all sections of society exchanged petitions and held public statements prophesizing the arrival of a dystopic police state in Turkey. In the absence of a list of allegations against their clients, lawyers representing Şık and Şener condemn the unfair and unjust treatment of the detainees by the law enforcement authorities. Meanwhile, several key political figures, namely Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, expressed their concern over the recent round of arrests. Public opinion seems united in thinking that the Muslim democratic Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is to blame for what is clearly a tipping point in the authorities’ handling of the elusive Ergenekon trial.

Ergenekon is a clandestine organization believed to have recruited former and acting members of Turkey’s security sector organizations, bureaucracy and intelligentsia in order to stage a coup against the ruling AKP. The name Ergenekon comes from an ancient myth about a valley in Central Asia where beleaguered Turkic tribes found respite to regain strength and reunify. Now, Ergenekon refers to the trial launched in June 2007 and pursued until recently by public prosecutor Zekeriya Öz to try the members and aides of the allegedly criminal network. Considering Turkey’s long history of attempted and actual military interventions and crimes committed by the state, it is not surprising that there is a hierarchically organized and deeply embedded criminal organization, which runs parallel to and above Turkey’s existing legal and security structures. However, there is a growing mass of intellectuals and policy analysts who dismiss the possibility of Ergenekon carrying out the deeds attributed to it by the public prosecution as laid out in the indictment and trial proceedings.

Although he is followed with suspicion by those who detect his readiness to engage in AKP-bashing, Turkey-based journalist and researcher Gareth Jenkins offers the most substantial analysis available in English on the Ergenekon trial. Jenkins affirms that the 3500 page indictment that accuses over a hundred individuals for their involvement with Ergenekon is full of irrationalities and contradictions. Jenkins claims that prosecutors are blinded by the strength of their convictions to the failings of the text:

The indictments themselves appear to be the products of ‘projective’ rather than deductive reasoning, working backwards from the premise that the organization exists to weave unrelated individuals, statements and acts into a single massive conspiracy. The more elusive the concrete evidence for Ergenekon’s existence is, the more desperate the attempts to discover it become.[1]

Others, such as Ali Bayramoğlu are convinced that Ergenekon has seeped into the very core of Turkey’s state, civil society and media and that the prosecution fails to illuminate the darkest and deepest corners of Turkey’s state apparatus. Bayramoğlu is one of the Hrant Dink trial observers and a close friend of the deceased; and he repeatedly linked the assassination of the Turkish-Armenian journalist in 2007 with Ergenekon, citing the parallels between the list of names attributed to the Dink assassination and the Ergenekon accused. Nedim Şener, now accused for membership in Ergenekon, has consistently defended the argument made above by Bayramoğlu and in cooperation with the Dink family revealed those covert criminal relationships between gendarmerie intelligence, police force, military, the executive, the judiciary, and media behind political assassinations. Moreover, Alper Görmüş, a seasoned journalist, Ahmet Şık’s friend and former editor of the weekly magazine Nokta, which in April 2007 first leaked the diary entries of a retired general outlining the military’s plans to topple the AKP government, has confirmed time and again his faith in what he calls the “cleansing process” of the Ergenekon trial.

How accurate is the claim that the detainment of journalists as part of the Ergenekon investigation is a direct attack on the freedom of press? Dilek Kurban from the daily Radikal, whose headquarters in Istanbul were raided recently to collect, among other pieces of evidence, Ahmet Şık’s unpublished draft manuscript, states that Şık and Şener were not detained because of their work as professional journalists. As is the case in an overwhelming number of arrests, detentions, convictions and penalties placed on citizens in Turkey, Şık and Şener’s freedom of expression are violated and they are exposed to unlawful and unjust treatment before justice. Kurban calls on the national and international community to recognize the systematic and structural problems with judicial processes in general and to defend first and foremost Şık and Şener’s rights to access a fair trial and equality before the law.[2]

Similar calls are voiced passionately by members of the group of activists called “Friends of Ahmet and Nedim”. During a press conference they organized on April 2, 2011, lawyers of Şık and Şener documented the farcical proceedings of the Ergenekon trial. Particularly noteworthy were their accounts of the restrictions placed on legal counsels to access, observe and oppose evidence and the contradictions presented by accusations on the Ergenekon case versus allegations raised by the one-year-old case trying Şık and his colleague, Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, on having unlawfully exposed evidence in support of the Ergenekon investigation in their book, Kırk Katır Kırk Satır (Between a Rock and a Hard Place).[3] Not only do “Friends of Ahmet and Nedim” categorically reject the point made by Kurban that what is fundamentally at stake are not journalistic rights but also they condemn their colleagues in Turkey’s media for failing to unite against this very grave assault on journalism. Fikret İlkiz, one of Şık’s lawyers and a highly-acclaimed expert on media freedom in Turkey, declared that having observed the file provided by the prosecution on the interrogation of his client the announcement of Şık’s detention is directly related to his investigative journalism; the same assertion was made by Şener’s lawyer.

European and international observers concur with concerned citizens and activists in Turkey regarding the sinister turn that Ergenekon took and are increasing pressure on the AKP government to reinstate credibility in what was recognized as a ground-breaking endeavour to democratize Turkey. For instance, the European Commission’s 2009 “Turkey Progress Report” finds the Ergenekon case commendable, then reprimands the lack of judicial guarantees for suspects and detainees:

This is the first case in Turkey to probe into a coup attempt and the most extensive investigation ever on an alleged criminal network aiming at destabilizing the democratic institutions. Furthermore, for the first time a former Chief of Staff testified voluntarily as a witness.[4]

The AKP sternly defends the Ergenekon investigation and allows for the public prosecution to act with extensive powers and immunity. However, the fiasco of Şık and Şener’s arrests crushed the AKP’s wall of defence to reveal the admittedly key role that the network of Fethullah Gülen[5] supporters played in executing the investigation and penal processes. Allegedly, Gülen loyalists fill the ranks of law enforcements officials and of the office of the public prosecutor, Zekeriya Öz, who was promoted to Deputy District Attorney and subsequently taken off the Ergenekon case. These allegations mirror the arguments Şık offers in his unpublished book, İmamın Ordusu (The Imam’s Army), for which he is thought to have been targeted and detained – draft copies were banned from publication by court order. As part of a cyber-protest against the curtailment of freedoms of expression, copies of İmamın Ordusu are being shared online via mass e-mailing and file sharing software.

The potential for Turkey to come to terms with its long standing legacy of the state apparatus, militarism and coup-making via the Ergenekon case is very bleak. Derya Sazak spoke for scores of disappointed observers when he pronounced the Ergenekon trial officially dead.[6] Drowned with it are hopes of tens of thousands of citizens of Turkey to enlighten the dark deeds of this country’s recent past. Ergenekon did after all provide Turkey’s Kurds, Armenians, Alevis, socialists, Islamists to vent their anger and frustration against what they perceived to be the ruthless façade of the Turkish state. Indeed it was a valley in the hearts of those whose basic and democratic rights as citizens have been violated in the most unimaginable ways possible. And that is precisely why it is a shame that the Ergenekon case is no longer able to provide these miscellaneous communities in Turkey a safe haven to unite around a collective call for justice and democratization. However, Şık and Şener may have sparked a new and perhaps more inspiring episode in the Turkish quest for freedom and democracy – one that may have a great deal to learn from the revolutions in the Arab world.


Ebru İlhan is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.

[1] Gareth H. Jenkins, “Between Fact and Fantasy: Turkey’s Ergenekon Investigation”,  Silk Road Paper, August 2009:

[2] Dilek Kurban, “Basın Özgürlüğü”, Radikal, 30 March 2011:

[3] Istanbul: Ithaki Publishing, 2010.

[4] Commission of the European Communities, “Turkey 2009 Progress Report”, 14 October 2009:

[5] Retired preacher of Islam and spiritual leader of an Islamic movement emanating from Turkey, Gülen lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, USA.


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