Turkish General Says Superiors Betrayed During Coup Night

Turkish soldiers accused of attempting to assassinate President Tayyip Erdogan on the night of the failed last year's July 15 coup, are escorted by gendarmes as they arrive for the first hearing of the trial in Mugla, Turkey, February 20, 2017. REUTERS/Kenan Gurbuz

25 Turkish officers landed in Marmaris on July 15, 2016, Turkey’s Palm Beach, where leaders take a break from their jobs. Their mission was to capture President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

One of the unit’s leaders was Zekeriya Kuzu, a green-eyed sergeant major who came into prominence after being retrieved out of a cavern under the national spotlight. He looked dehydrated and flailing due to days of escape and malnutrition.

The officers were asked by their superiors to wait for 4 hours. As soon as Mr. Erdogan left his hotel, they were given the green light to raid the hotel. Instead of heading directly toward the hotel, the soldiers seemed puzzled, according to footage aired by CNNTurk shortly after the coup attempt. They had no idea where the hotel was and asked residents about its exact location. After they found the hotel, they engaged with the police protecting Mr. Erdogan (they denied in their defense that they directly aimed at the police). At least 2 police officers were killed in the skirmish.

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Mj. Srg. Zekeria Kuzu

Many questions were raised regarding the entire scene such as why Mr. Erdogan’s military aides (who were arrested on coup charges) did not arrest him or how the soldiers did not know the address of the hotel before they arrived to carry out such a high-profile job. It is also unclear why the officers came to arrest Mr. Erdogan so late, given that the arrest of politicians is usually the first thing in to-do lists during coup plots (Ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was arrested two days before the coup plot).

Another general who was accused of leading an assassination team to kill Mr. Erdogan during a failed coup attempt rejected charges, saying that the mission was to capture Mr. Erdogan and bring him safely back to Ankara.

The accused general’s defense disputed the narrative of Turkish authorities at a court in western Turkey on Monday as the high-profile trial has started. 

According to the government account, Mr. Erdogan shortly left before putschist troops raided his hotel, avoiding a possible high-profile capture or assassination in a fast-moving saga that night and flew to Istanbul in a triumphant way as the uprising was decisively defeated. 

The majority of 47 military officers have been imprisoned over charges of attempting to kill Turkey’s president, while 3 of them are fugitive and being tried in absentia. The leader of the team, Bgd. Gen. Gokhan Sahin Sonmezates, rejected accusations of the assassination attempt.

He said the order came from the General Staff and the mission was to capture the president and bring him safely back to Ankara, to the rebel-held Akinci air base, the center of operations for coup plotters. He acknowledged involvement in the operation but rejected charges of intending to kill the president.

The trial commanded nationwide interest given that it is the only trial into July 15 coup attempt of which President Erdogan involves as a plaintiff. “They arrived at the scene with the intention of killing the president,” Huseyin Aydin, President Erdogan’s lawyer, said.

As the court hall in Mugla was too small to accommodate such a large group of defendants for the hearing, authorities designed the chamber of commerce hall as the venue of hearings. The defendants were bussed to the court amid tight security measures, with police snipers positioned at rooftops and buildings.

During his defense, the general said he and his friends were set up, and were misled during the operation as the team was ordered to wait for hours while Mr. Erdogan already flew to Istanbul. After his plane took off, the soldiers raided the hotel, engaged in a brief shootout with security personnel at Grand Yazici Club Turhan.

“It was for the country, for the nation, to stop the decay domestically, to put an end to the bribery, and to protect my country from PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party],” Reuters quoted the general as saying at the court. 

Judges pushed Mr. Sonmezates and Mr. Kuzu to speak about their connection to the Gulen movement.

Both of them rejected any connection to the movement, which is accused of being the mastermind of the coup plot. Mr. Kuzu said he previously admitted links to the Gulenists because he was under pressure and that he was forced to sign a confession letter. 

State-run news agency Anadolu included only few sentences of Mr. Kuzu’s defense and widely quoted from his previous confessions.

“Yes, I accepted the mission and I’m now paying for it. Who misled us, who wasted us? Who kept us waiting four hours? I’m looking for this answer,” the Gen. Sonmezates fulminated in indignation, expressing the sense of betrayal by his superiors. “If I [myself] planned this mission, we would have either been successful or I would have canceled the mission,” he added in a revelation that the mission was paralyzed by contradictions and pitfalls because of the ill-planning.

The general said his team was sent to the hotel after President already left and Gen. Semih Terzi who assigned Mr. Sonmezates for leading the operation was killed at Special Forces Headquarters in Ankara. “If we had known this, we would not have gone there,” he said in anguish. 

“I did not sell anyone I worked with,” he fumed in a reference to his commanders whom he thinks set up and misled the team.

In a previous testimony, Gen. Sonmezates said he didn’t understand why coup plotters killed policemen and “ridiculously bombed” unrelated targets such as the Parliament.

Another commander, Major Sukru Seymen, spoke unapologetically, admitting that he carried out a coup. But he also rejected charges of plotting to kill the president, saying that the mission was bringing him back to Ankara.

“I afraid of nothing. I carried out a coup. I will not feel any pain if I would be executed for this… What I did only was to execute, carry out the order given by Commander Gokhan and Commander Semih. The mission we were given was to take the president to Ankara safe and sound,” he said at the hearing.

“If we went there [hotel] with the intention of the killing, nobody could have survived,” Mr. Seymen told the court.

Prosecutors seek life sentences for 37 officers for directly involving in the operation while demanding lighter sentences for others who provided logistics and help for the main team.

Mr. Erdogan rolled out his crackdown not only on the military, but also the judiciary branch, too. As the trial in Mugla kicked off, country’s top judicial body announced the dismissal of more than 200 judges and prosecutors in connection with the coup.

Turkey’s judiciary found itself in an extreme state of disarray after the highest judicial council sacked 227 judges and prosecutors in a new purge wave, bringing total the number of dismissed judges and prosecutors to 3,886.

The decision took place in line with government decrees during the state of emergency, which allows Mr. Erdogan to rule the country by decrees. 

Head of Second Chamber in High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) Mehmet Yilmaz said council detected connection of 227 judges and prosecutors with the terror groups. 

Mr. Yilmaz told state-run Anadolu news agency that the judges and prosecutors had already been suspended by a previous government decree, and the council decided to dismiss them after reviewing their cases.

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