By Mustafa Akyol
In the past couple of days, Turkey’s penal courts have released more than 20 famous suspects who have been in prison for years. One of them, retired Gen. İlker Başbuğ, was the Turkish Chief of Staff between 2008 and 2010. He was arrested in 2012 for being “a member of a terrorist organization,” a charge that looked ridiculous to many people, including me. (The “terrorist organization” was an alleged junta.) A year later, alas, he was sentenced for prison for life.
Another released name that is known to the public is Tuncay Özkan, a journalist with strong nationalist views, who was arrested in 2008 for being a member of the same shadowy junta (called “Ergenekon”). In his emotional speech to the press, right in front of his former jail, Özkan said “a dark era in Turkey” was now ending.
I think Özkan had a point, because Turkey, indeed, had a somewhat dark era in the past six years with regards to the hunts on “military coup” conspiracies. As I have repeatedly wrote in these pages and elsewhere, these threats were not totally imaginary and some suspects were really very suspicious figures. But the zealous search for the would-be juntas soon turned into witch-hunts and full-fledged McCarthyism. The conspiratorial worldview of the judiciary class that prosecuted the charges, and the media outlets that gave them full support, was the main problem.
But why are some of those witch-hunt victims being released now? And how?
The technical answer to the latter question is that the government just passed a law which, among other details, decreed that no one can be held in custody for more than five years while his or her trial is going on. Since Özkan was held in custody for six years, during a never-ending legal process, he won his freedom. This, however, does not mean that he and other released inmates have been cleared of the charges.
But the government was reckless enough, as usual, to see that the five-year-custody limit would lead to the release of some notorious murderers. The most shocking example is the suspects of the Malaya Massacre or the brutal murder of three Christian missionaries in 2007 in a Bible publishing house. It is shame for Turkey that the ultranationalists who proudly committed this heinous crime are now walking around freely.
Moreover, the government and most of its ardent supporters don’t seem to really get the real cause of the excesses and injustices of the Ergenekon-hunt era, which is the conspiratorial mindset. They have rather focused on the Gülen Movement, whose alleged members in the judiciary are held responsible for those excesses. This accusation is not implausible, because the Gülen Movement, with its media at least, indeed spearheaded those witch-hunts – and I think they need to be self-critical about that. But now the government is apparently getting ready to initiate a new witch-hunt, this time on the Gülen movement itself, which will very likely cause new excesses and new injustices.
The terrible fact is that when one “dark era” ends in Turkey, another one begins, while only the victims change, or even change places. The underlying problem is our commonly paranoid, power-hungry and self-righteous political mindset, which cannot find ease without designating some as “traitors” and “enemies within.” Thus we will not find a national peace of mind unless we accept all groups as equally legitimate and agree on a liberal social contract.