Ergenekon, an infamous case where hundreds were tried and jailed on allegations of scheming to plot to overthrow the government, nearly came to a conclusion yesterday after a Supreme Court of Appeals ruling. The country's highest legal authority overturned the convictions of 275 people, ranging from the former head of the Turkish Armed Forces to lower-ranking military officers, journalists and academics in the case that was allegedly a plot to imprison all involved by the shady Gülen Movement through its infiltrators within the judiciary and police. The court said in its ruling that convictions by a local court were invalid, as it lacked concrete evidence pointing to the existence of the "Ergenekon terrorist organization," and cited a number of violations in the case such as illegal wiretapping, dubious statements of secret witnesses and unlawful searches. The court also agreed with the demand of İlker Başbuğ for his trial in the Supreme Council, a special court for senior officials, instead of a lower court. The appeals court said the lower court had also denied a fair trial to the defendants.
The ruling will allow a retrial of the defendants. As their lawyers said, this action will lead to a possible acquittal, as the case was built on insufficient and/or false evidence. The case, which began with the discovery of a large arms cache at the home of a noncommissioned officer in an Istanbul slum in 2007, has revealed that the country's military brass, in cooperation with prominent figures such as journalists and academics, was planning to incite strife in the country and eventually seize power. The coup plotters were members of the Ergenekon gang, named after the mythical land of early Turkic tribes, and were linked to several criminal cases such as the killing of three high-ranking members of the judiciary in the past. This was what the prosecutors said, and the allegations made it to the courts, which eventually sentenced Ergenekon suspects to life terms after a lengthy trial that began in 2008. Former military chief Başbuğ and 18 other defendants were sentenced to life in 2013. The defendants repeatedly pleaded not guilty and claimed they were imprisoned over insufficient and false evidence, denying the charges they faced. A majority of the public, except staunchly pro-military circles, found little reason to disbelieve the case as Turkey has already experienced three military coups and witnessed multiple coup attempts since 1960. According to the court's ruling, Ergenekon was "a terrorist organization."
The suspects, held in pretrial detention for years without tangible evidence, were released in 2014 after new legal amendments limited such detentions. The trial was reportedly the joint work of infiltrators of the controversial Gülen Movement in the judiciary and police, conducted to stifle opposition to the ubiquitous group that evolved into a politically motivated juggernaut from a simple religious congregation. They filed lawsuits against judges and prosecutors, claiming they were imprisoned on forged and fabricated evidence.
Yesterday's appeal hearing was requested by defendants seeking to clear their names, and except Başbuğ, many defendants attended the hearing where Eyüp Yeşil, head of the court's 16th Penal Chamber looking into the case, recited a summary of the 231-page verdict. Yeşil said one of the reasons for overturning the convictions was the merging of other cases with the Ergenekon trial despite the lack of links, highlighting the weak evidence and accusations linking the "gang" to a fatal attack at the top court, the Council of State, in 2006. The attack was viewed as part of a coup plot, aiming to pit conservative and secular elements of society against each other as the assailant was portrayed as a conservative man while the Council of State was viewed as a stronghold of the secular elite. Yeşil said the Supreme Court of Appeals did not approve the definition of Ergenekon as a terrorist organization – as there was no clear evidence regarding the organizational structure nor its crimes or cadres – and said the lower court should not have designated it as such while there was lack of evidence.
The trial was believed to be a move to rescue Turkey from the military tutelage it suffered for decades. After all, the Army was behind interventions whenever the democracy flourished, according to its critics.
Nagehan Alçı, a columnist for Daily Sabah, said the "parallel structure" – a name attributed to Gülenists seeking to gain clout within the state through their infiltrators – ruined Turkey's chance for a better future. "[The ruling] is evidence of how the parallel structure acted for its own interests and imprisoned people with false evidence and false witnesses in a case that would clear the way for the prevalence of rule of law in Turkey. [Ergenekon] and similar cases collapsed because they became tools of a terrorist organization," she said, referring to the Gülenist Terror Organization (FETÖ), which originated from the Gülen Movement. The movement, led by United States-based former cleric Fethullah Gülen, is accused of a string of wrongdoings, from its own coup attempts against the government to money laundering, illegal wiretapping and widespread fraud.
Alçı said the Supreme Court's ruling was a testimony to the need "to eradicate [the FETÖ], so Turkey can be a state with real rule of law." Ergenekon's prosecutors largely remain at large in separate cases regarding the terrorist organization. Zekeriya Öz, the most famous prosecutor in the case, is reportedly in Europe after he fled Turkey in the wake of an arrest warrant in a FETÖ-related case. The Supreme Court's ruling will also help the defendants speed up the legal process to prosecute Öz and other officials linked to Gülenists who were behind the Ergenekon trials.