Political Feud In Turkey Makes For Unlikely Allies

Turkey's ruling AK Party teamed up with the powerful Gulen movement over a decade ago to strip the country's secular military elite of its political clout. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan strengthened his hold on power with years of controversial legal proceedings that landed generals and their allies in jail. But now that an AKP-Gulen feud is erupting into the headlines, some of those convicted generals are calling for re-trials, claiming that the pro-Gulen prosecutors fabricated evidence. Prime Minister Erdogan, whose government is under attack from those same prosecutors, says that the generals might be right — or, at least entitled to new trials. Will this feud lead to a military rehabilitation?

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In Turkey, a widespread corruption scandal appears to be forcing an odd alliance. On one side is the prime minister, a conservative Muslim. On the other are members of the secular military establishment. As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, Turkey's leader has done the political equivalent of a 180. He's defending generals who were imprisoned on his watch, while denouncing his own prosecutors.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no stranger to the capriciousness of Turkey's judicial system, having once been jailed for publicly reciting a poem allegedly intended to incite religious hatred. When Erdogan and the AK Party swept to power over a decade ago, the fear of military coups was still fresh. But as Erdogan consolidated power, prosecutors began going after the military elite and their supporters. Prison terms were handed out to hundreds of men once deemed untouchable.

Political scientist Ersin Kalaycioglu, at Sabanci University, says at the time the government ignored critics who protested that the defendants - generals, journalists, academics - weren't getting fair trials.

ERSIN KALAYIOGLU: Charges were pressed against them, where the evidence seemed to have been tampered severely or the due process of law was not implemented. And it looked as if these trials were political trials rather than legal trials.

KENYON: One complaint involved the religious backgrounds of some of the prosecutors and police, namely that they were motivated by their allegiance to the self-exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is a former Erdogan ally whose teachings have inspired a network of schools around the world. Once the military leadership was either jailed or politically neutralized, however, analysts say the government grew disenchanted with the Gulen movement.

Author and columnist Mustafa Akyol says what began as a war of words between branches of the religious community escalated when Erdogan moved to close Gulen schools across Turkey. Not long after came the explosive corruption probe, reaching toward the very top of the AK Party - launched, Erdogan said, by gangs within the state, a veiled reference to Gulen supporters in law enforcement.

Suddenly, Akyol says, Erdogan seemed a lot more sympathetic to the complaints of the generals that they had been railroaded in court.

MUSTAFA AKYOL: Erdogan now wants them to be retried. I am sympathetic to that cause, as well. But is Erdogan opening this argument because he really wants justice to be served? Or now does he want his own political party to survive this new judicial wave on the party? That's another discussion.

KENYON: Secular opposition party member Farouk Logoglu thinks the prime minister's epiphany was motivated by self-interest.

FAROUK LOGOGLU: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: The prime minister says there's no objection to re-staging these coup trials, Logoglu told reporters in Ankara. But what were you thinking before, he asks of Erdogan. Did your moral conscience just now wake up?

Logoglu thinks Erdogan is trying to deflect attention away from the corruption probes, which are continuing despite the sacking of prosecutors and police.

Whether any military retrials can actually be carried out is another question. The Turkish High Court has already reviewed the cases, throwing out some convictions but upholding many others. To put that in perspective, imagine the White House calling for new trials in cases where the Supreme Court had already ruled.

Analyst Mustafa Akyol says the fact that many Turks believe the government can force retrials if it wants to points to a problem bigger than any political rivalry.

AKYOL: The core of the problem is that we don't have a non-partisan, fair, trustable judiciary. And someday, I think we will learn that we need a system of checks and balances constraining power. It's not important who has the state. It's important how the state acts.

KENYON: As with so much about this corruption scandal, there are at present more questions than answers. Few are predicting a restoration of the military to its former prominence. Some continue to hope for judicial reform someday. But the most recent proposals, critics say, would leave the judiciary even more exposed to political pressure.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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