How Fiction Became Reality in Sledgehammer

How Fiction Became Reality in Sledgehammer

On June 19th, 2014, the 230 officers jailed in the infamous Sledgehammer case were finally released, following a unanimous ruling by the constitutional court finding their right to a fair trial had been violated. It is widely recognized today that the coup plot documents on which the case was based were in fact forgeries. Forensic experts have determined that the plans forming the backbone of the prosecution were produced on backdated computers and made to look as if they were prepared in 2003. Erdoğan and his close associates, once fully behind the charges, now openly talk about fabricated evidence and concede that there was a plot against the military.

Beyond the injustice done to the hundreds of individuals who were framed, the question is how such a sham trial could have been taken so far, with fact and fiction becoming virtually indistinguishable during the process. The Gülenist police and prosecutors who ran the show had clearly had the full support of Erdogan’s government; the two had a common interest in defanging the military. But it was the country’s intelligentsia, more than anyone else, who legitimized the Sledgehammer farce. Had prominent intellectuals not lent credence to the charges and supported the prosecution, it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to stage these trials and bring them to their preordained conclusion. These were mostly liberal democrats whose ideals and aspirations I shared. They were the opinion leaders from whom the educated, Westernized Turkish public (as well as Turkey’s friends abroad) would take its cues.

What united these intellectuals was the view that the military and its control of state institutions – what they termed “military tutelage” – posed the greatest obstacle to democracy in Turkey. This perspective would ultimately transform the weakening of the military’s political influence into an end in itself. It would allow them to overlook or downplay the growing list of transgressions of the rule of law and due process, as long as the usual suspects – military officials and ultranationalists – were at the receiving end. Worse still, it would blind them to the deeply corrosive influence of Gülen sympathizers within the police and judiciary. What the intelligentsia applauded as democratization and civilianization would eventually turn out to be the replacement of military tutelage by a Gülenist mafia.

Judging by what they said at the time, the credulity that Ahmet Altan and Yasemin Çongar exhibited when Mehmet Baransu showed them the Sledgehammer documents borders on the criminally naïve. Altan wrote confidently that the names on the documents proved conclusively that the plans were authentic and came out of General Doğan’s command. Çongar wrote that the “digital fingerprints” of the coup plotters were all over the CDs. Later, when pressed by an American journalist, she would defend herself by saying the plans were too detailed not to be real. If these two were duped by Baransu, they in turn duped Turkey’s liberals. (Taraf not only presented the plans as indisputably authentic, it also reported repeatedly the documents were signed by General Doğan and his collaborators when no one else had access to them and could argue otherwise.)

They were scarcely alone. One of the earliest to jump on the Sledgehammer bandwagon was Hasan Cemal, a widely respected columnist known by many as the doyen of Turkish journalists. Cemal was convinced, along with many others, that the military had made plans during 2003-2004 to remove the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. When the Sledgehammer documents were published, he declared that those were the plans in question. When I tried to talk to him, he refused to see me, even though we knew each other.

There were a few prominent journalists such as Sedat Ergin, Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, and Ezgi Başaran who wrote about the inconsistencies in the mainstream media. But for the most part we were ignored by the Turkish intelligentsia, and when not, pilloried for our views. Rarely was the evidence we presented discussed seriously. An absurd, but common charge was that my wife and I were lending support to militarism. We also became the frequent target of ad-hominem attacks; Ali Bayramoğlu, a respected liberal, likened us to Pinochet’s children and called us “putschists’ offspring.”

What made the experience surreal was the disregard for the plain facts of the case that many leading members of the intelligentsia exhibited. In addition to Altan, Çongar, and Cemal, a who’s-who cast of leading intellectuals repeatedly misrepresented the details of the case.

Etyen Mahçupyan was emblematic. Over the years he would produce a series of howlers, one more outrageous than the other.  At various times, he wrote that General Doğan had admitted to prosecutors having prepared the Sledgehammer plan; that Doğan had lied to his superiors about the content of the military seminar; that the European Court of Human Rights had rejected the claim that the digital data had been fabricated; that the Gölcük hard drive was protected by the personal password of one of the defendants; that the updated versions of the Sledgehammer plans had been retrieved from Gölcük. These were all false. In none of these cases, did Mahçupyan acknowledge his mistakes or publish a correction. When the constitutional court threw out the convictions in June 2014, he would finally admit there were problems with the evidence, but argue that Doğan and other “putschists” were guilty politically, even if not legally.

Another noteworthy case was Alper Görmüş, a liberal columnist at Taraf who produced a series of articles defending the authenticity of Sledgehammer. To his credit, he was the only Sledgehammer proponent who took our arguments seriously and discussed them extensively – even if to downplay them ultimately. Over the course of the four years he wrote about the case, his argument evolved significantly. Eventually, Görmüş would essentially give up any pretense of a credible court case against the defendants. In an interview published in early 2014, he would say he opposed the arguments Pınar and I were making because of the effect we were having on “public opinion”: “I am fighting against the perception that ‘nothing happened in this country since 2002, that the military did not take a stance against the elected government, that everything is made up.’”

Ultimately, to many commentators it apparently did not matter whether the Sledgehammer documents were authentic. They argued the proceedings of the March 2003 military seminar chaired by General Doğan were evidence enough. This became a common tactic as the problems with the Sledgehammer documents grew too severe to ignore. Yet this tactic undermined the entire logic of the prosecution, which rested on the veracity of the digital evidence. Who had created the bogus documents? Why had prosecutors chosen to rely on them to build their case if the seminar was a coup attempt on its own? These remained unanswered questions.

The problem with Altan, çongar, Mahçupyan, Görmüş and the others wasn’t simply that they turned their back on the overwhelming evidence of forgery. Nor was it the support they lent to judicial practices that undermined due process. Their greatest mistake was to believe that democracy could be erected on such rotten foundations.

In the rather short interval of four years between 2007 and 2011, Turkey’s political balance underwent a momentous transformation, marked by the dissolution of the secular-military old regime. The Turkish army was reduced from powerful arbiter setting the rules of the political game to a docile branch of the AKP government. Used to dealing with threats of a very different nature, the high command had no clue how to handle such a public-relations disaster and never managed to mount an effective response to the charges it knew were false. The security breaches revealed by the extensive leaks from within the military bred suspicion and turned the army ranks against each other.  Successive indictments under Sledgehammer and Ergenekon paralyzed officers for fear they might be next in line. In the end, the combined onslaught from the judiciary and the media brought down the military like a house of cards.

Many interpreted this at the time as a process of democratization — perhaps a bit too messy, with some rule-of-law violations, but democratization nonetheless. Yet anyone looking closely at Sledgehammer and the other political trials that made this rapid transformation possible would have been under no such illusion. What was happening was something else entirely, a power grab by the Gülenists and the AKP using Kafkaesque methods.  Just as the military’s own transgressions in the past had undermined democracy, the dirty war against the military and the secularists would ultimately serve to empower a mafia within the state and condemn Turkey to an even darker authoritarianism.

It is trite to say Sledgehammer and related mass trials were a missed opportunity for Turkey to confront and come to grips with the country’s deep state and history of military coups. But the real damage goes much deeper. Regardless of the outcome of the presidential elections in August, Turkey will have to live with the consequences of the dirty tricks deployed to accomplish regime change: the deepening of old wounds and the political-cultural cleavage between secularists and religious-conservatives; the power struggle at the center stage of Turkish politics between two groups with fundamentally undemocratic modus operandi, Erdoğan’s AKP and the Gülenists; and the almost-certain descent into an authoritarianism that moves Turkey further away from democracy.

Erdoğan and the Gülenists may be the primary culprits behind all this, but no-one comes out looking good from this sorry tale. Not the military-secular elites, who ruled the country with a strong hand for so long and virtually guaranteed the backlash from the religious-conservative groups whom they scorned. Not Turkey’s friends in Europe and the U.S., who continued to lend support to a government engaged in a vast range of abuses. And certainly not the intelligentsia, who badly misread what was happening and legitimized sham trials that would put Kafka to shame.

N.B. This is a greatly shortened version of a long piece describing the author’s experiences during the Balyoz/Sledgehammer process, which is written by the author exclusively for Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey). The original piece can be found here: Generals.pdf.

Professor Dani Rodrik, Institute for Advanced Study and Advisory Board Member of Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey)

Please cite this publication as follows:

Rodrik D. (July, 2014), “How Fiction Became Reality in Sledgehammer”, Vol. III, Issue 7, pp.13-18, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (


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