Several Turkish journalists appeared in court today for the start of a trial that has sparked fears of growing authoritarianism in the Muslim-majority democracy.
Two investigative reporters who had been writing about judicial and police corruption are among those implicated in the alleged conspiracy to overthrow the country’s Islamic-rooted government.
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has frequently been praised by the United States and European Union for enacting judicial reforms and wresting power from the country’s once-dominant military. However in the past four years, hundreds of people have been arrested in connection with a series of sprawling terror investigations that critics claim are a tool for stifling dissent.
“Anyone opposing the government is going to prison, and all the others are now censoring themselves,” says Yonca Sik, the wife of Ahmet Sik, one of the journalists charged. “If people are satisfied with this democracy then I wish them luck and happiness, but it is not my definition of democracy.”
The case, in which 13 people face trial, was adjourned until Dec. 26 after the defense requested the replacement of the presiding judge, since he is a plaintiff in another case against one of the defendants.
Accused of spreading propaganda for the "Ergenekon" gang – an alleged hard-line secularist terror group – their case forms part of a far larger investigation in which some 400 people are on trial.
Mayor, lawyers also charged
Around 600 more people, including city mayors, lawyers, political activists, and more journalists, are charged in relation to another probe targeting the civilian wing of the Kurdish separatist rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers Party.
Last month, a prominent publisher and free speech activist, Ragip Zarakolu, and an Istanbul-based political science professor were among those arrested.
According to Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch, the cases expose serious shortcomings in the Turkish judicial system.
“The [anti-terrorism] laws themselves are very widely and vaguely drawn, and it’s very easy to find yourself as a suspect with these very general definitions of terrorism,” she says.
Long pre-trial detention, broad police powers, and a tendency to launch cases on meager evidence mean that “there are real, real problems in Turkey for the rights of defendants,” she adds. “With laws as they currently stand, and with a police-dominated approach, the potential is there to have witch hunts against your political opponents.”
It was the arrest of two journalists in today’s trial that heightened fears among Turkey’s secular opposition and affiliated media that they are being targeted by the government.
Nedim Sener, a reporter for the daily Milliyet newspaper, was last year named a World Press Freedom Hero by the International Press Institute. Like Mr. Sik, he had previously fought to expose the activities of the criminal conspiracy in which both are now implicated.
But in recent months, each had been investigating the activities of a powerful Islamic network allied with the government.
Among evidence seized during their arrests was the unpublished manuscript of a book written by Sik, in which he claimed the country’s police force had been infiltrated by Islamists.
Prosecutors ordered every copy of the manuscript, which they described as a "terror organization document" to be seized. But copies were subsequently leaked, and the book was last week published in apparent defiance of the order.
Supporters of the so-called Ergenekon investigation view it as a vital step to help Turkey come to terms with a murky past.
In the 1990s, government, military, and police officials with links to Turkey’s mafia are believed to have organized scores of extra-judicial killings targeting Kurds and other ethnic and religious groups perceived as a threat.
But even those supportive of the Ergenekon probe, which many originally hoped would target such crimes, are becoming increasingly frustrated.
“When we have so many serious, serious crimes, why are the prosecutors following up these incredibly vague links?” asks Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a human rights lawyer who writes for the Today’s Zaman newspaper.
But he emphasizes that the current legal problems underlying the trials have existed long before the AKP came to power.
"This is not today's problem, it's been about for so many years and the law has always been applied in this terrible way," he says. "But today the shortcomings of the Turkish legal system have become much more apparent, and we have concrete expectations of the government."