There's never a dull moment in Turkey. Twenty-six months after his arrest − which badly damaged relations between the army and the Turkish government − General Mehmet Ilker Basbug was released from prison on Friday.
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Basbug, Turkey’s 26th chief of staff, was sentenced last August to life imprisonment after being convicted of involvement in the Ergenekon affair, in which a plot to overthrow the regime was discovered. During his imprisonment he sought to appeal his conviction sveeral times. His request was denied on the legal grounds that the court that had sentenced him to life imprisonment had not given its reasons, and without those reasons there was no basis for an appeal.
Finally, the Constitutional Court of Turkey agreed to hear his appeal, and its judges concluded unanimously that Basbug had suffered a severe miscarriage of justice by having his right to appeal denied. It seems that the legal system in Turkey has not yet lost its ability to function.
The much-decorated 71-year-old general occupied high-ranking positions during his decades of service, including that of chief of Defense Research Branch of Plans and Policy Department at Turkish Land Forces Headquarters, chief of the Logistics and Infrastructure Department at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, Deputy Commander in the Gendarmerie Security Command, chief of staff of the Turkish Land Forces and deputy chief of staff. He was appointed chief of staff in 2008.
He is well known in Israel’s high-level security echelon for his excellent relationship with army leaders and the defense establishment, including a personal friendship with former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi. Sometimes he was described as “a representative of Israel” in the Turkish army, and even though he openly adopts anti-religious stances, he did not hesitate to visit the Western Wall when he came to Israel, once in 2004 and again in 2008. The latter visit was reported in the pan-Islamic newspaper Vakit, which ran a photograph of Basbug wearing a skullcap and leaning against the Western Wall.
Not an Erdogan fan
Like his predecessor, Yasar Buyukanit, Basbug detested Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party and described political Islam in Turkey as a security threat. In a speech before a group of cadets in 2006, Basbug said, “Deliberate, methodical attempts are being made to erode the accomplishments of the Kemalist Revolution. The politicization of religion will harm it.”
It is no wonder, then, that when he was appointed chief of staff, the newspaper Zaman − which is owned by Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, then an ally of Erdogan and now his bitter rival living in exile in Philadelphia − claimed: “The appointment is a sharp and clear message from the army to the ruling party.”
In 2008, Basbug got an opportunity to try to close down the Justice and Development Party on legal grounds. Erdogan said in an interview on Turkish television that “even if the veil is not a political symbol, wearing it must not be forbidden.” At this, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, the chief public prosecutor at the time, began encouraging high-ranking army officials to prosecute the party leadership, including Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul.
The paragraph in the indictment stated that the party had become a “major focal point” for anti-secular activity in Turkey. The party emerged from the trial by the skin of its teeth. The budgetary assistance it received was cut by half, but it did not close down.
Interestingly enough, one of the judges in the Constitutional Court that heard the case and even recommended that the party be closed down was Osman Alifeyyaz Paksut, who is now the court’s vice president and the one who handed down the ruling in Basbug’s case. It seems that even a paranoid person like Erdogan sometimes has grounds for the deep distrust he feels toward the legal system.
And here is the turnabout: After the court’s ruling, Erdogan telephoned Basbug to congratulate him. This was because in Erdogan’s unbridled attack on the judicial authority, which he believes is infested with Gulen’s loyalists, he is now searching for any possible proof that it is a treacherous institution that seeks to overthrow the government.
The army is no longer the main threat looming over his government. Its place has been taken by Gulen’s multi-branched and influential organization, which is “making Turkey dance as though it were a puppet on a string,” as one of Gulen’s critics put it.
Erdogan is so furious with the justice system, and mainly with the prosecutors, that he has accused them of having leaked material from the huge corruption case in which his son Bilal, and maybe he himself, were allegedly involved and almost demanded a retrial for all the officers and public officials who were convicted in the Ergenekon affair.
Basbug’s release could indeed give a push to the persecution campaign Erdogan is conducting against the legal system, since it has become clear that of the 275 people convicted in the Ergenekon affair there are additional prisoners who were denied the right to appeal. They are expected to submit their appeals to the Constitutional Court over the next few days.
But Erdogan, like Ben Hur in the scene in which he drives two chariots simultaneously, is not abandoning the struggle on the other fronts that threaten his standing. His statement last Thursday in an interview on the Haber Turk television network that he would consider blocking YouTube and Facebook after the local-authority elections scheduled for the end of March proves that he is not willing to allow any of the media to evade his span of control. If it is not possible to buy Facebook the way he bought the surrender of many of Turkey’s newspapers, he has no alternative but to block it.
But here, as several times in the past, Erdogan got into conflict with Turkey’s president, who was quick to clarify that “liberty cannot be moved backward.” Yes, President Gul, who concludes his term this year, has political aspirations too, and he is already starting to distance himself from Erdogan.