Ali Emre Eral, an army captain, stunned those watching the rather mundane proceedings in the main trial on last year's coup bid, when he became the first defendant to admit his ties to the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ). The cult is the main culprit in last summer's coup attempt that killed 250 people on July 15, 2016. Eral's testimony comes amid a slew of defendants in cases related to the putsch who admitted their ties to the terrorist group with others even claiming they were unaware of the coup.
The captain, who was dismissed from the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) after the foiled putsch and arrested, is among 221 defendants in the case and one of several officers to confess to their ties to the shadowy group, which is accused of masterminding the coup by disguising cult members who had infiltrated positions in the army, police, judiciary and bureaucracy. Eral's explosive testimony is the first time that a pro-coup officer openly declared his links to FETÖ. During the hearing, Eral, whose wife also a member of the terrorist group, spoke to the court, saying: "You will do what your superiors order tomorrow," recounting what his "brother" told him one day before the coup. "Brother" is a term used for civilian FETÖ members who are commanding the group's infiltrators in the army and other institutions. Eral says it was a strange phrase to use, asserting that he was supposed to comply with orders of his superiors anyway as a military officer. When questioned, Eral's "brother" told him he would receive "a confidential order," claiming that he realized it was about the coup only on the actual day, July 15. The former captain denied that he actively took part in the coup but gave a detailed account of how his life and career changed under the terrorist group.
Eral was stationed in the Operations Department of the Office of the Chief of General Staff as the putschists took over the premises and kidnapped Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar and other generals opposing the coup attempt.
He said he was first recruited by FETÖ in 2001 while he was attending military school. According to Eral, he regularly attended "meetings" of the terrorist group and, like other officers tied to the group, he was "assigned to a brother," who was a former civil servant. "Prior to the coup, he [the ‘brother'] introduced me to another ‘brother' and that ‘brother' met me on July 14. After he talked about obeying orders, I sensed that something strange was happening," he said, claiming he was not foretold about the coup attempt. "They probably did not trust me but they were looking for a way to convince me to partake in the coup. They implied this one month prior, when a ‘brother' told me about his dream regarding a putsch, to which I responded that a coup was impossible," he said. Eral said he was not involved in the putsch and denied joining other putschists who opened fire on unarmed civilians confronting the pro-coup troops, claiming that he waited in his room at army headquarters until the next morning, the day the coup was entirely quelled.
The officer denounced FETÖ in his statement to the court and claimed that he realized it was a genuine terrorist group after he witnessed the coup.
His lawyer Mustafa Derin told the court that Eral and his wife, who passed a critical civil servant exam thanks to FETÖ members supplying her questions and answers, were "victims" of FETÖ and were scared "of coming forward" about their ties before, fearing they would be implicated in terror charges. Derin also called upon other defendants in the courtroom to confess their ties to FETÖ. "This is an opportunity for you, for Turkey. Don't pretend to be innocent," Derin said.
Questioned by lawyers representing the families of coup victims, Eral said the terrorist group - which maintained contact with jailed members and sent financial aid to their families - did not contact him or his family after he was arrested. Responding to a question about whether he knows fellow FETÖ members in the army, he said he didn't, citing that the group was very secretive when it comes to its infiltrators in the army.
Since the main trial of 38 members of the military junta's Peace At Home Council began a few weeks ago, not one defendant has admitted to links with the terrorist group, despite evidence to that extent. Nearly all defendants claimed they were not aware of the coup while some claimed they thought it was a "counterterror drill." Security camera footage and testimony of witnesses are among the evidence countering their claims as pro-coup officers are seen abducting anti-coup figures and firing upon civilians opposing the coup.
The trial has been closely watched by the families of the coup victims, representatives of political parties and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), with observers complaining that the defendants seek to prolong the trial by issuing false statements, leading observers to call on Ankara to reintroduce the death penalty, which was abolished years ago, for coup plotters.
FETÖ, headed by U.S.-based former preacher Fetullah Gülen, has posed as a charity movement with religious undertones for decades. According to prosecutors, the cult was quietly recruiting more members with the ultimate aim of seizing power in Turkey. Indeed, it was discovered that the terrorist group installed its men - and women - to key institutions, from the army to law enforcement and judiciary, by helping them to pass the exams, vacating posts occupied by their critics through blackmail and conducting sham trials. Finally, in 2013, the cult openly started campaigning to overthrow the government. In December 2013, FETÖ-linked judges, prosecutors and police officers sought to implicate people close to the government on fabricated charges of corruption. Several FETÖ members, both civilians and group's infiltrators in the army, came forward following the coup attempt and confessed to their ties with the Gülenists, invoking a "remorse law" that grants a reduction in prison terms.