One Year On, Turkey’s Coup Attempt Is Still A Censored Subject

Exactly a year ago, the entire world fixed its gaze on Turkey while a group of rebellious officers made a botched attempt to take over the government. Then all hell broke loose.

On that night, the most often asked question was: What’s going on?

It took between 2 to 5 hours for even close observers of Turkey to understand what was going on. It was not an ordinary coup attempt we saw in Egypt or Thailand recently. Many things made no sense.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in his first public appearance as the coup was unfolding, laid the blame squarely at the Gulen movement. At 4 a.m., 11 hours before the prime minister announced the end of the putsch, arrest warrant for 2,000 judges and prosecutors were issued. The swift purge smacked of a pre-arranged crackdown.

Pilots who bombed the Parliament or Mr. Erdogan’s palace were detained days after the arrest of nearly 50 journalists (And some of these pilots had been staying in Akinci air base, headquarters of the coup attempt). In subsequent weeks, tens of thousands of people were imprisoned on trumped-up charges, pointing to a well-planned purge before the coup.

In deeply divided Turkey, people are united in a conviction that the Gulen movement was behind the coup attempt. Even Mr. Erdogan’s opponents look the other way when it is the Gulenists who suffer. For them, Gulenists had it coming.

A few years ago, Gulenists ganged up with Mr. Erdogan’s AKP to root out what they called the country’s “deep state,” imprisoning dozens of army officers and anyone who they claimed that conspired against the elected government. The infamous coup trials, marred with massive irregularities, were also staged as an effective inquisition of their shared enemies. From the media to the civil society, dozens of public figures were sent to prison, held in lengthy pretrial detention — often on fabricated charges.

Turkey’s secular establishment, long byword for anti-democratic practices, has always been skeptical of conservative groups such Mr. Erdogan’s AKP. It routinely purged conservative bureaucrats and even forced Islamist governments out of power in the past. The military’s tolerance for Islamic-tinged governments was so minimal that they even speculated overthrowing Mr. Erdogan’s nascent government in 2003. ”Sharia is coming” was a frequent rumor in town.

The army and the judiciary, however, feared the Gulen movement the most, then AKP’s rival as well. The Gulenist network was much more effective and capable of surviving in a hostile bureaucracy. Even the AKP conspired with the army to end its existence in Turkey back in 2004.

But the AKP soon changed its modus operandi and allied with the Gulen movement to transform the bureaucracy. Purged officers during the coup trials between 2007 and 2013 believe that the AKP couldn’t have survived so long without the generous help of the Gulen movement. Ilker Basbug, a former army chief, declared in 2009 that the country’s biggest threat is from Cemaats, an implicit reference to the Gulenists. Two years later, Mr. Basbug was sent to prison.

When Gulenists were themselves blamed for the military coup in 2016, the secular opposition seized this golden opportunity as a rare windfall. Despite being a vocal critic of the Erdogan government, they preferred to remain silent to a crackdown designed to eliminate Gulenists. The scale of the crackdown today, however, is vastly disproportionate to the one 5 years ago.

As time passed and Mr. Erdogan cast his net too wide, some opposition figures have started lurching toward phrases like “controlled coup.” Unanswered questions about that night generated more doubts both at home and abroad. Intolerant to anything that challenges the government’s narrative, that particular phrase infuriated the government. The argument that Mr. Erdogan knew about the coup beforehand and didn’t do everything to undermine it undercuts his line of defense.

In the week leading up to July 15 this year, pro-government media has launched an unprecedented campaign to mark the 1st anniversary of the military coup attempt. Professionally-made, social media tailored short clips, with a dramatic soundtrack, made sure that the people didn’t forget how coup plotters attempted to end Mr. Erdogan’s rule. The resonant theme in these videos was not a concerted call against the coups, but the fact that Gulenists did it.

Massive ceremonies signify that the government is not yet ready to give up on its narrative, scratching the July 15 in the hearts and minds of everyone as a reminder that Mr. Erdogan is here to stay.

Surviving July 15 coup attempt is poised to serve as a defining myth for Mr. Erdogan’s rule in upcoming years and perhaps decades. It is understandable why he would want the July 15 to remain as an unassailable legend.

What Really Happened On July 15?

A huge cloud of mystery is still shrouded over July 15. Testimonies of coup plotters have revealed only little so far. Others who had questioned the government’s version of events was sent to prison. It is almost impossible that anyone challenges the official narrative and gets away with that: They will either lose their job or freedom. A sweeping crackdown on the media and the academia left no independent platform to debate the coup attempt.

At the moment, there is no compelling evidence that proves the entire incident was staged. Many coup plotters joined the coup attempt with full conviction. Only after the coup attempt started to fall apart did they realize that they were fooled. Hakan Evrim, commander of Akinci air base, headquarters of the coup attempt, said during the court hearing that the coup attempt was programmed to fail.

Another general, Gokhan Sonmezates, who was tasked with spiriting Mr. Erdogan, said his mission was deliberately sabotaged. “The number of police officers who came to my house to arrest me was more than the officers I had during the most critical stage of the coup — securing the president,” Gen. Sonmezates told prosecutors.

It is not easy to distinguish Gulenist officers from others. Nearly two dozen indictments identify every single officer involved in the coup attempt as a Gulenist. Some civilian Gulenists confessed to prosecutors about their connections within the army.

If their statements are taken at face value, there is overwhelming evidence that these officers were deliberately mobilized during that night. Almost all of them were told that they’re summoned as part of what they called the “TMH” — anti-terrorism operation. Many high-ranking officers, along with their units, were urgently summoned to Akinci air base by two colonels: Veysi Kavak from Air Forces Command and Ahmet Ozcetin from Akinci air base. Most of them were told on the phone: ”You have to go to Akinci air base. You’re needed.”

In many instances, arriving units had simply no task. Acting Commander of Humanitarian Aid Squadron Col. Ali Eraslan, for example, arrived at Akinci air base late at night after being told by his superiors that there could be a military campaign in Syria and that his unit is needed as a reinforcement. For hours, Col. Eraslan, who worked at NATO for three years, asked around what his unit’s task was, without any luck. He and his unit are facing 303 life sentences.

Many pilots who bombed several places in Ankara were deliberately asked to stay on duty on that night. Some of them were appointed to Akinci only days before the putsch. Some of them had to leave for a duty abroad but denied permission. One pilot, who was appointed 2 months ago to a NATO post in the Netherlands, sold his furniture in Ankara, rented an apartment in the Netherlands, enrolled his kids there in a school and had to leave on July 11. He was insisted on staying for a job on July 15. He is now facing over 300 life sentences.

8 pilots, who had no job on that night, were called from Diyarbakir. They parked their jets in Akinci air base and didn’t fly over Ankara. They were not tasked with anything. They have been in prison for nearly a year now and facing hundreds of life sentences. The coup night is awash with similar incidents, revealing that a group of high-ranking officers deliberately lured thousands of supposedly Gulenist officers to crime scenes. When the coup attempt failed, as planned, the officers became traitors.

Gulenist Civilians

Five Gulenist figures, including Adil Oksuz, were captured in a village close to Akinci air base on July 16. Prosecutors have yet to present evidence that they somehow directed or aided the coup attempt. Even if they somehow involved in the coup such as delivering a green light from Fethullah Gulen, as prosecutors claim, there is no plausible explanation as to why they were in Akinci air base during the coup night.

Nurettin Veren, who was one of Gulen’s close allies 20 years ago but is now an avowed critic, said he tipped the intelligence about Oksuz’s role in the military several years ago. This means the authorities knew who Oksuz was during his arrest. Surprisingly, Oksuz was released from the custody in a few hours and even came to report to the police 2 days later. He traveled to Istanbul from Ankara by flight and then disappeared. On a day when his cell phone was unreachable, the government declared that Oksuz is one of the masterminds of the coup attempt.

The government didn’t act against the judge who released Oksuz for a long time. Given that the government immediately imprisoned two judges for releasing a journalist in 2015 and jailed even housewives after the coup attempt, Oksuz’s release raised many questions.

Many conspiracy theories swirled around this particular incident. One of the speculations claimed that Akinci air base’s operations commander Col. Ahmet Ozcetin called Oksuz (and Oksuz called 3 others) and Hakan Cicek, president of Anafartalar High School, to the base. After the coup attempt failed, all of them fled the base and captured in Kazan. Except for Cicek (he named Col. Ozcetin), others refused to name Oksuz as the one who invited them to the base. Oksuz was released, then kidnapped and is now held in a secret location so that he doesn’t speak up, the speculation goes.

Commanders’ Blessing

While a group of generals was plotting to overthrow the government on July 15, lengthy silence by the army chief and top commanders sent a false signal. Army Chief Hulusi Akar emerged only 12 hours after the coup attempt started. While in Akinci air base, he had a chance to call or release a statement. Almost every officer who saw him said he didn’t seem as someone who was kidnapped or arrested.

Gen. Mehmet Partigoc, who was at the General Staff Command, said during a court hearing that they thought the army chief was behind the putsch when he went to Akinci air base. Coup orders also came from the office of Yasar Guler, 2nd top commander in the army, reinforcing beliefs that the establishment had the blessing.

Abidin Unal, Air Force Commander, also came to Akinci air base (with his guards and by a VIP plane) and said kolay gelsin (Godspeed, good luck) to a group of officers who were commanding jets that bombed the Parliament and police departments. Gen. Unal’s presence in Akinci also sent a false message to pilots and their officers.

Role of Special Forces

To avoid any disruption to their operations, almost every episode during that night was secured by units from the Special Forces Command. From army chief’s transportation to Akinci air base to taking hostage half a dozen air force generals in Istanbul, special forces played a crucial role in the success of the coup attempt.

When Lt. Col. Nihat Altuntop, for example, defied orders at Akinci air base, he was arrested by special forces unit. Almost everyone who was involved in the coup attempt, including pilots, said they couldn’t resist out of fear that special forces would shoot them. Many who tried to leave their units said they were prevented by special forces.

The special forces command is headed by Gen. Zekai Aksakalli, a shady figure who was revealed to be playing for both sides. He allegedly called Semih Terzi from Diyarbakir to Ankara and ordered to kill him. Gen. Terzi is the one who ordered another general to secure Mr. Erdogan. The 6-hour meeting between spy chief Hakan Fidan and Hulusi Akar at the Special Forces Command just a day before the coup attempt only added to the mystery of the entire episode.

Instead of earning the sympathy of people and especially the opposition, the coup plotters have done almost everything the opposite to make sure that the people hate them: Killing civilians, police officers, bombing Parliament, instilling fear by creating sonic booms.

From the start to the end, it seems as if the steps taken on that night were designed to make sure that the plot was unsuccessful. The majority of Gulenist officers were tricked into participating in the plot, mostly under the guise of anti-terrorism operations. Special forces units made sure that no one abandoned their posts during that night. And the army establishment sent a false signal that they’re behind the coup plot.

Journalists who would get to the bottom of these allegations are in prison. Nearly 200 of them.