On Trial: The Shadowy Network at the Heart of Turkey

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Fatih Saribas / Reuters

Protesters carry a banner with the portraits of the leading defendants involved in the trial of ultra-nationalist group Ergenekon, as they demonstrate outside the heavily guarded Silivri prison, October 20, 2008.

Turkish Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk was told, two years ago, that he was on the hit list of a powerful underground group of ultra-nationalists. Pamuk was shown phone transcripts and other documents to underscore the seriousness of the threat, and was placed under around-the-clock security. Pamuk was hardly alone, though. On Monday, a Turkish court began hearing allegations resulting from a mammoth police investigation, which exposed what prosecutors say is a sinister clique of ex-generals, police officers, lawyers and journalists behind a series of high-profile murders and bomb blasts. The campaign of violence, prosecutors allege, was intended to breed chaos and public despair, paving the way for a military coup and derailing Turkey's European Union-mandated democratic reforms.

Judges in a specially outfitted courtroom began hearing the indictment against 86 alleged conspirators in a trial being billed as an historic opportunity for Turkey to rein in renegade security elements that see themselves operating beyond the reach of law — many Turks have long suspected the existence of such a network, popularly referred to as the "deep state".

The conspirators are alleged to have called themselves Ergenekon, after a mythic valley in Central Asia where Turks are said to have originated. Their vision of the world was no less fantastic: mistrustful of the West, they harbored a deeply isolationist view of Turkey's future. In recent years, TIME encountered such views in interviews with Kemal Kerincsiz, a zealous lawyer and one of the better-known figures among the accused. A wiry, sharp-featured man, Kerincsiz made a career out of prosecuting leading writers (including Pamuk) and civil rights activists under controversial legislation that outlaws "insulting Turkishness".

"Europe," he told TIME, "wants to see Turkey weak and divided. They tried to do that at the end of the First World War. Now they're trying again,". He believed in a greater Turkish union with the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, and dreamt of a day when Turkey's pull would match that of the Ottoman Empire. There was a surreal quality to the office he ran. He travelled with an entourage of muscled, aggressive young men in suits, who operated like off-duty soldiers on a strict code: no smoking, starched shirts, shiny shoes, deference and piety.

The charges against Kerincsiz and his co-accused include the murders of a judge, a priest, a journalist, three workers of a Christian publishing house, and the bombing of a newspaper office. Some of those attacks, the indictment alleges, were disguised to appear as the work of Islamist extremists.

The investigation started last year after police raided an apartment in a working-class neighborhood of Istanbul and found a stockpile of hand grenades. The serial numbers on the grenades suggested they had come from the same stocks as those used in the attack on the offices of the secularist newspaper Cumhuriyet. Police later arrested several suspects, including Veli Kucuk, a retired army general, and Dogu Perincek, leader of the far-left Workers Party. Dozens more suspects were later arrested in several waves of dawn raids.

Momentous as it may be, the case is clouded by criticism of political involvement. Critics accuse the Islamist-rooted government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of turning the trial into a witchhunt targeting secularist opponents. "The good news is that the trial does encompass coup seekers who I am convinced were involved in shady, illegal activity," says Cuneyt Ulsever, a columnist for the mainstream Hurriyet. "On the other hand, there are also unlikely people in that group who, although I might disagree with their political views, it seems impossible to believe are guilty of crime. Their common denominator is that they don't get along with the government. That's what makes it confusing — these two groups are side by side."

More importantly, the indictment also fails to cover the murky Kurdish conflict in southeast Turkey. During the late 1980s and '90s, at the height of fighting between the Turkish military and Kurdish separatist PKK organization, hundreds of prominent Kurds were killed in "mystery murders" that remain unsolved. Kurds have long blamed the deaths on shadowy, state-affiliated militants. "We all know that the main hub of activity for Ergenekon was the southeast," alleges Ulsever. "We are all aware of the extrajudicial killings, the torture and the rights abuses that went on, but none of that is in the indictment." Lawyers for the families of Kurds killed during that time have asked that the Ergenekon investigation be broadened, but prosecutors have been reticent. Critics say their unwillingness suggests that some aspects of recent Turkish history are still off-limits. "This case gives Turkey a chance to make clear that it will hold security forces accountable for abuse," says Benjamin Ward, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "But that can only happen if the investigation follows the evidence wherever — and to whomever — it leads."

Given its scope, the trial could take months, even years. Key to its success is the degree to which prosecutors can prove an operational conspiracy — whose existence the defendants strenuously deny. Pamuk is inclined to believe the allegations, and sees the trial as crucial to the prospects for Turkish democracy. "Some of the press are belittling this investigation," the reticent writer said in a rare recent TV appearance. "But these men killed people. They plotted to kill others. I don't like to discuss politics but this is a fact. This organisation is very real."

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