Aug. 5 (Bloomberg) -- In comedian Levent Kirca’s satire of the Turkish justice system, a policeman in uniform arrests a journalist for plotting to topple Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
At the back of the audience, real policemen, not in uniform, are monitoring the show, according to its organizers. It deals with the Ergenekon trial, which may conclude today in the town of Silivri near Istanbul, where security has been stepped up as protesters gather.
“Policemen have repeatedly filmed the play,” Kirca said in an interview before the July 24 show at an open-air theater in the Aegean resort of Datca. “When they first came with their video cameras, we were stunned and watched our language, but this is the kind of pressure we’re resisting now.”
The Ergenekon case, in which generals, journalists, academics and lawyers are accused of involvement in a coup plot, has polarized Turkey. Erdogan’s party says it’s part of the process of democratizing a country where the army has ousted four elected governments since 1960. Opponents say it shows the Islamist-rooted premier’s intolerance of dissent and the widening net that authorities are using to catch critics.
Among about 275 suspects are former army chief Ilker Basbug and Mustafa Balbay, a journalist-turned-lawmaker. Balbay, who’s portrayed in the arrest scene of Kirca’s play, has been jailed for more than four years pending the verdict.
Turkey has dropped to 154th on a press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, from 99th in 2002 when Erdogan’s party came to power.
Kirca’s popular television skits have mocked political leaders and the country’s former military rulers for 21 years. He said he was forced off the air more than three years ago when the government threatened to pull the broadcaster’s license. The prime minister’s office declined to comment on that, while the police declined to say whether they monitored the play.
As he performs the roles of a policeman, a general and a judge, Kirca repeatedly calls for divine punishment for the government, for making defenders of secularism suffer in prisons. Each time, the audience of about 2,000 responds in unison: “Amen!”
A verdict in the court case would be the culmination of a six-year probe.
Security has been stepped up at Silivri, with two layers of metal barricades protecting the judicial complex. Intelligence reports suggest an attack has been planned on the court by a militant Marxist group, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported today. Officials have said that not even the defendants’ family members will be allowed into the hearing.
Secularist groups who oppose the trial have called on supporters to protest there. Armed paramilitary police have blocked people from traveling to the court by bus or on foot, said Tolga Emek, a local official of the main opposition party. Hundreds were gathered outside the barricades waving flags, television footage showed. Police used tear gas and some protesters were arrested, Vatan newspaper said today.
“They have been making a big fuss about it,” said Osman Can, a member of the executive committee of Erdogan’s party, of the trial’s critics. “They claim the coup plot is not a reality and there is a government scheme against them. It’s all political.”
A separate case, called “Sledgehammer,” resulted in the conviction of about 330 officers last year. Together, the trials have decimated the military leadership and virtually eliminated its political influence.
The army’s waning power has been welcomed by international organizations including the European Union. Questions have been raised, though, by the EU and rights groups about the fairness of the trial and the range of people implicated.
Concerns that Erdogan has widened the net for critics of his government have intensified since street protests spread through the country in June. Six people were killed and thousands injured in a police crackdown.
Erdogan on June 16 accused the Koc family, which controls Turkey’s biggest business group, of opening the doors of one of its Istanbul hotels to protesters, and said they would “have to account for it.” Tax inspectors and police raided Koc companies a month later, causing the shares to slide, in a move that officials including Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek said was a routine investigation.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled last month that the detentions in the Sledgehammer case violated international law.
It cited lengthy pre-trial detentions, lack of presumption of innocence, failure to present exculpatory evidence to the defense or to allow it to call witnesses, and the court’s refusal to appoint experts to assess the validity of evidence, which some defendants say has been forged.
Metin Feyzioglu, head of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations, says the special court hearing the Ergenekon trial is a “legal monstrosity” that should have been abolished when parliament voted to dissolve such courts in July 2012 because they violate democratic principles. “The trial has been a formality since the beginning, the verdict has already been made,” he said in an Aug. 1 phone interview.
Can, the ruling-party official who’s also a former rapporteur at the Constitutional Court, said any claims of irregularities in the trial could be dealt with on appeal.
Two surviving leaders of a 1980 military coup, and generals who forced the resignation of the country’s first Islamist prime minister in 1997, have also been put on trial.
“The judiciary appears dominated by Erdogan’s appointees, the press practices a considerable degree of self-censorship,” Andrew Mango, author of seven books on Turkey, said in an e-mail on June 12. “If his own party does not restrain him, it is difficult to see who and what group will.”
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