Turkey: families lobby for alleged coup plotters

June 8, 2011 - 5:30 AM
Turkey Military's Defenders

In this Thursday, May 12, 2011 photo, a group made of mostly wives and daughters of senior military, titled

ISTANBUL (AP) — Burcu Kutluk, the daughter of a retired admiral in the Turkish navy, never got involved in the street protests that she witnessed when she was a student, believing they would have little impact. She thought: What's the point of marching? Who will listen?

Now Kutluk is straining to be heard as she campaigns for the release of her father, jailed on charges of plotting a coup. Ali Deniz Kutluk is among 200 former and current military officers on trial for an alleged conspiracy in 2003 against a government that then sapped the military of political influence it had enjoyed for decades.

Three-quarters of the suspects are in prison, and a small corps of their relatives, mostly wives and daughters, lobby against what they call false charges with placards, petitions and social media. It is a steep fall for the defendants, once widely considered the guardians of the state, but now tarnished as symbols of repression.

This reversal of the old order evolved under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose ruling party appears headed for a third term in elections on June 12, another looming blow for the secular establishment that once dominated Turkey. The government, which has Islamic roots, says a key goal is to replace a military-era constitution with a more democratic one.

Campaigning is a new experience for Burcu Kutluk, a 33-year-old yoga teacher who visits her father in prison every week. Like other children of jailed defendants, she grew up in a world of relative privilege, a liberal, Westernized one in social terms. Now she finds herself vulnerable, caught in a power struggle in which an increasingly confident government, buoyed by conservative, broad-based support, has the edge.

Many relatives of the defendants have time-consuming jobs and lack the organizing "tools" of seasoned activists, Kutluk said. More broadly, the military can no longer rely on support from the media and judiciary, and public expressions of support for the jailed men are muted.

"I don't know if we are being heard, or if it is going anywhere," Kutluk said.

Her 36-year-old sister, Nil, is a marketing manager at a bank. She often stays up late, working on a website, as well as Twitter and Facebook accounts of their group, which has 20 active members.

The sisters acknowledged the military's role in coups over the decades, but fervently believe their father is innocent. They feel they are struggling against a generation of grievances and negative perceptions about the military, a view that would seem naive to those Turks, now ascendant, who resented the old elites.

"They try to show that they have the power to imprison soldiers, that they are so powerful that they did something that could not be done until now in Turkey," Nil Kutluk said.

The sisters and Merve Karabulut, a 34-year-old English teacher and daughter of another retired admiral in jail, spoke to The Associated Press in a cafe.

Karabulut has done social work, helping Afghans and other immigrants with few resources in Istanbul. She typed the defense statement for her father, Ozer, and said she sought support in a letter to Amnesty International, the human rights group, but did not get a response.

According to the indictment, the admirals — who were on active duty at the time of the alleged coup plot — drew up lists of possible supporters in any military intervention. The defendants deny the accusations.

The Turkish military has staged three coups and forced an Islamist prime minister to quit. Coup leaders drew on the support of Turks who saw them as saviors from chaos and corruption, but they were often ruthless.

In a 1960 takeover, the prime minister and key ministers were executed. In a 1980 coup, there were numerous cases of torture, disappearance and extrajudicial killing.

Outside politics, the military enjoys respect and vast economic resources, and is a rite of passage for almost all men, who serve as conscripts. It contributes troops in a non-combat role to the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan, and the funerals of soldiers who die in fighting with Kurdish rebels receive heavy media coverage.

The government hails coup plot trials as a break with impunity. But sweeping roundups of suspects and long confinements without a verdict raised concern about judicial flaws.

In the 2003 case, plotters at an army seminar allegedly discussed mosque bombings and other violent acts that would let the military intervene under the guise of restoring order. The indictment cites an 11-page coup plan.

"The document states clearly, one by one and in great detail, who would be arrested, forced to retire, which students would be dismissed from universities, which civil servants would be fired, and which news and press institutions would be shut down," the indictment says.

The military has said the seminar was merely a classroom exercise on dealing with internal chaos. Relatives of defendants say a compact disc linked by prosecutors to the conspiracy contains information from as late as 2009, long after the plot was allegedly hatched.

Dani Rodrik, the son-in-law of Cetin Dogan, a former army commander and the alleged plot ringleader, alleges an "amateurish" fabrication of evidence but acknowledges the defendants are fighting hostile public opinion.

"There's a surface plausibility to the charges. It has fed into a sort of narrative that the pro-government media and the government itself have been pushing in the last few years," said Rodrik, a professor of international political economy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

A police officer in the investigation of a separate coup plot acknowledged one case in which police reportedly added incriminating numbers to the mobile telephone of an accused army lieutenant, but said the culprits were reprimanded.

"We are certainly not after accusing anyone of something they have not done," the officer said on condition of anonymity in line with department rules. "All arrests are made under orders from prosecutors and based on documents or other evidence."

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Associated Press writer Ceren Kumova contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.