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Turkish Military Leaders Under Fire For Scandals

A Turkish soldier watches as children march past in the Republic Day celebration. Youth are taught from an early age to respect the military.
Ivan Watson/NPR
A Turkish soldier watches as children march past in the Republic Day celebration. Youth are taught from an early age to respect the military.
Flag-waving children cheer as a parade of soldiers and tanks moves past on Turkish Republic Day. Eighty-five years after a group of army officers founded the Turkish Republic, the military still plays a major role in politics.
Ivan Watson/NPR
Flag-waving children cheer as a parade of soldiers and tanks moves past on Turkish Republic Day. Eighty-five years after a group of army officers founded the Turkish Republic, the military still plays a major role in politics.

Turks were stunned this month to open their newspapers and find photos of the commander of the air force finishing up a game of golf after learning his forces were involved in a bloody battle against Kurdish rebels on the Iraqi border that left 17 Turkish soldiers dead.

The public called for the commander's resignation.

This is just one of several recent scandals that put the once untouchable Turkish military on the defensive in the eyes of both the public and the media.

Conspiracy Charges Fly

At least three retired generals have been arrested in connection with an alleged ultranationalist terrorist organization called "Ergenekon," which is now facing prosecution in what one newspaper is calling "the trial of the century." So far, 86 people face charges, including secularist politicians, newspaper columnists, academics and former army and police commanders. The court case began this month at a remote prison more than an hour's drive from Istanbul.

The defendants far outnumber the handful of Turkish journalists who are being allowed to monitor the courtroom proceedings.

A 2,400-page indictment alleges the group plotted to overthrow the elected government by planning to assassinate, among other high-profile figures, Turkey's Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk and President Abdullah Gul, a former prime minister.

Ergenekon suspects have also been implicated in the murder of a famous journalist and businessman in the 1990s.

Some of the defendants and their supporters have responded to the conspiracy charges with their own conspiracy allegations. Mehmet Bedri Gultekin, the deputy chairman of the leftist Workers' Party, has suggested the trial is an American plot; the party's chairman faces charges for membership in Ergenekon.

"Based on decisions taken across the Atlantic, patriots are being arrested, patriots are being put in jail," Gultekin announced to a wall of Turkish TV cameras and microphones outside the entrance to the prison. "This is the kind of trial you get when someone wants to eliminate your country's military."

'Every Turk Is A Soldier'

In the strictly secular republic of Turkey, the army has long been considered a sacred institution.

"Turkey was founded by a group of army officers," says Hugh Pope, co-author of Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey and analyst with the International Crisis Group. "They have a national ideology in which every Turk is a soldier, the army is the most important institution in the state, and it has traditionally had unquestioned access to state resources."

The military overthrew four governments in the last half-century. Last year, the top army brass boycotted the inauguration of their new commander in chief, President Gul, whose election the generals publicly opposed.

Pope says Ergenekon marks a turning point for the Turkish military.

"It is the first time that high members of the Turkish armed forces have been brought to account for what they have done in the past and also linked to illegal activities — and to the very dirty war that was fought against the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] in the 1990s," Pope says.

Tarnishing Turkey's Top Brass

For more than 20 years, Turkish security forces have been fighting an insurgency led by Kurdish PKK separatists in southeastern Turkey. This month, for the first time, the generals found themselves being publicly criticized in the Turkish press for their handling of the conflict.

A week after the 17 Turkish soldiers were killed, the daily newspaper Taraf published what it said were leaked military documents and video from an American spy drone that suggested the Turkish military knew beforehand that the rebel attack was imminent.

For months, Washington has been sharing real-time intelligence with its NATO ally about PKK movements in northern Iraq.

Taraf journalists showed NPR black-and-white footage of what they said were Kurdish rebels digging in mountainous terrain said to be near the Iraqi border on the morning of Oct. 3 — just hours before the attack on the Turkish outpost at Aktutun. [See video.]

"It was a very clear indication that there was an attack in the making," said Yasemin Congar, deputy editor-in-chief of Taraf. "So we asked the question: 'If you had these videos and you had these reports, why didn't you do anything?' "

The day after Taraf published its report, Turkey's top military commander, Gen. Ilker Basbug, gave an angry televised appearance, flanked by his top military commanders.

"Legal procedures have begun against those who leaked this secret information," Basbug said. "Those who present the actions of the separatist terrorist organization as successful acts are responsible for the blood that has been shed."

The blunt warning to Taraf was widely condemned by the Turkish media.

The 'Civilianization' Of Turkey

"These are criticisms that should have come years ago," says Umit Cizre, a visiting professor at Princeton University, who edited a 2005 almanac on the Turkish security forces published by the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces. "This is what I call a lack of transparency about what goes on in Turkey in terms of the military's own domain. ...Why is it that we hear more about how the war is being fought in Iraq by the American forces than we hear about the war in the southeast [of Turkey] that is being fought by Turkish forces?"

Pope argues that the developments of the past month are evidence of what he calls the "civilianization" of Turkey, a bumpy process that has been accelerated since the Turks began negotiations to join the EU several years ago.

"This ability to take on the old system is proof that Turkey is still moving toward a pluralistic, democratic area," Pope says. "But it's coming from a pretty dark place."

Despite the recent media furor, Turkey is still a fiercely patriotic country. Respect for the military is a value that is taught in the educational system and reinforced during the 15-month mandatory military service required of all Turkish men.

That reverence was on display Wednesday in Istanbul, during a parade celebrating Turkish Republic Day — which this year marked the 85th anniversary of the founding of the republic.

Hundreds of schoolchildren marched before flag-waving crowds to the beat of military snare drums, chanting "Every Turk is born a soldier."

They were followed by a procession of Turkish soldiers, tanks and armored vehicles accompanied by helicopters and warplanes flying in formation overhead.

"God protect the soldiers," one woman cried as the troops marched past.

Next to her, a group of children wearing red headbands that said "martyrs never die" chanted over and over, "The greatest soldier is our soldier."

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