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Revenge or democracy? Turkey’s divisive trial

Some 100 senior Turkish army officers are on trial for their alleged role in a 1997 coup. Critics call it revenge by the Islamic government against the secular army. Others say it is Turkish democracy at work.

Turkey's former military chief and other high-ranking officers began testifying in court on Monday (02.09.) about their alleged role in ousting the country's Islamist-led coalition government in 1997.

The trial has been hailed by the Islamic-conservative AKP government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a manifestation of Turkey's “transformation to democracy."

“Turkey is going through normalization,” said the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) vice president, Ahmet Aydin. “Turkey has been transformed into a new system, a system of the rule of law and democracy,” he stated.

Normal process?

Former Turkish Chief of Staff Ismail Hakki Karadayi (C) arrives at a courthouse in Ankara on January 3, 2013. A prosecutor began questioning Karadayi for his role in the ousting of an Islamic-led coalition government in 1997. Authorities in Turkey have detained a former military chief for his alleged role in a 1997 coup that forced an Islamic-leaning government from power, Anatolia news agency reported on January 3. The retired general, Ismail Hakki Karadayi, is expected to testify before an Ankara court as part of an investigation that was launched in 2011 and has led to the arrests of dozens of military officers. AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Ex-General Ismail Hakki Karadayi is the chief defendant

But the politically divisive case has sparked widespread criticism among Turkey's secular opposition, which distrusts Erdogan's policies and claims the AKP is aiming to turn the country into an Islamist state.

“This trial is absurd,” Kamer Genc, a senior deputy from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), wrote on his twitter account as he was following the case in the courtroom. “The AKP government regards measures taken against Islamist reactionaries as crimes,” he stressed. “On February 28, 1997, Turkey's National Security Council decided on legitimate measures for threats against the secular character of our state,” Genc argued. “No Turkish court can have a trial based on such allegations,” he claimed.

The high-profile case concerns events which have become known as the "postmodern coup" or the "February 28 process," in Turkey. Unlike the military coups of 1960, 1971 or 1980, the generals did not seize power or suspend the constitutional order, but orchestrated behind the scenes a political pressure campaign to force the resignation of the coalition government, led by the Islamist politician Necmettin Erbakan.

'Setback for democracy'

Women who call themselves ''victims of the post-modern coup'' demonstrate in front of a courthouse in Ankara September 2, 2013. The trial of more than 100 senior Turkish army officers including General Ismail Hakki Karadayi, the former chief of general staff , for their alleged role in toppling Turkey's first Islamist-led government 16 years ago began in Ankara on Monday. The investigation into former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan's 1997 ouster is the latest in a series of judicial cases targeting the once all-powerful Turkish military, whose influence has been curbed sharply in the last decade. The placards read: ''We want all of our rights back. Unjust treatment for 16 years worth a thousand years'' (L) and ''We want justice. Trial will be exemplary to all support coups.'' REUTERS/Umit Bektas (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW CIVIL UNREST MILITARY)

Women protesters claim they were coup victims

Deniz Zeyrek, a political analyst and Ankara bureau chief of the liberal daily, Radikal, says that the Turkish military's last major intervention in 1997 had targeted political Islam, but it was also a setback for Turkish democracy.

“I have personally witnessed the days of this military intervention as a journalist. Not only Islamists, but also liberals and democrats were the political victims of this process,” he told DW.

The “post-modern coup”, as it was labeled by one of the generals, increased the military's role in politics, limited freedoms in political life and imposed several restrictions on the media.

According to Zeyrek, a specialist on civil-military relations, a fair trial of this post-modern coup may contribute to Turkey's democratization and normalization in politics.

“I have some concerns, but still I am hopeful that the trial can be another step towards Turkey's democratization,” he said. “But this can only be achieved if the trial is free from a revenge mentality,” he stressed. “Unfortunately, this revenge mentality was present in similar cases, like Ergenekon and Sledgehammer, and we see it casting a worrisome shadow over the current trial.”

Sensational court cases

A Turkish soldier secures the area on September 2, 2013 as vehicles carrying detained Turkish army officers arrive at a courthouse in Ankara. Turkey's former army chief and more than 100 other suspects went on trial on September 2 over a 1997 bloodless coup that toppled the country's first Islamist head of government. General Ismail Hakki Karadayi stands accused with 102 co-defendents of 'overthrowing the Turkish government by force.' Prosecutors have called for a life sentence for Karadayi, who did not attend the hearing at an Ankara court due to ill health. AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Tight security is visible around the courthouse

Since 2008, Turkey has witnessed sensational probes and court cases against both active and retired army officials, opposition politicians, academics and journalists.

More than 250 retired officers, including former army chief Ilker Basbug, was jailed last month over an alleged Ergenekon coup plot.

In September last year, more than 300 military officers were sentenced to jail for the alleged Sledgehammer coup plot to overthrow the AKP government. All of the defendants deny the allegations and have appealed to the Turkish Supreme Court.

Both the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases were marred by procedural flaws and long pre-trial detention periods. Critics argue that these court cases are politically motivated and aimed at curbing the power of the once-supreme Turkish military.

A recent poll by Gezici Arastirma shows that 53. 8 percent of the Turkish people believe that the principles of a fair trial were not respected during the Ergenekon trial.