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Turkish Military Under Fire for Wide-Ranging Smear Campaign

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Revelations that a top army general authorized a smear campaign against politicians, journalists and human rights activists have intensified debate in Turkey over the role of the military and have further undermined this nation’s already shaky democracy.

Nazli Ilicak, a lawmaker for the main opposition Islamic Virtue Party, said Sunday that she plans to take legal action against Cevik Bir, the former deputy chief of the army general staff who allegedly masterminded the campaign, and will push for a parliamentary investigation as well.

“I will not give up this fight until justice is served,” Ilicak said in a telephone interview from her home in Istanbul.

Secret Memo Described Attacks on Reputations

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Details of the secret army memo, dated April 1998, became public after Ilicak published excerpts Oct. 21 in her column in the religious-leaning daily Yeni Safak. The measures it proposed included getting newspaper editors to publish stories defaming selected journalists, politicians and a prominent rights group by saying all had received money from and collaborated with Kurdish separatist terrorists.

“The aim is to undermine their reputations,” the memo said.

Shortly afterward, allegations began to surface in the Turkish press that, during his interrogation, a captured Kurdish rebel had accused those named in the document of links to his group.

Within days of those allegations, Mehmet Ali Birand, a liberal columnist for the daily Sabah, was fired by his editors. And within weeks, Turkey’s top human rights defender, Akin Birdal, narrowly survived an armed attack by ultranationalist gunmen.

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Controversy over the memo received a boost Thursday after the army issued a statement admitting that the document was genuine. The statement described the measures as part of its legitimate struggle against terrorism. It left open whether the measures had ever been implemented, but it made clear that the army would consider similar actions whenever it deemed fit.

The statement said: “The Turkish Armed Forces will continue to wage in a resolved manner its determined, serious, sensible and legal struggle against persons and institutions that attempt, without considering their own situation and their own past, to insult the Turkish Armed Forces members who think of nothing other than to serve their country at the expense of their own lives, and it will continue to warn those who do not exhibit this sensitivity.”

Bir was subsequently quoted in press accounts as saying that he was very pleased with the statement and that he had been acting in the interest of the state.

Under Turkish law, military officers can be tried only in military courts and only if their commanding officers agree that they should be prosecuted. So chances that Bir will ever appear in court are extremely slim.

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The army’s statement came only days before the European Union is expected to announce a set of conditions that Turkey must fulfill before it can achieve its long-cherished goal of full membership in the EU. High on the list are likely to be demands that Turkey improve its bleak human rights record and that the army keep out of politics.

“This [incident] is 10 times worse than the Watergate scandal in America,” wrote Gulay Gokturk, a prominent Sabah columnist. A fellow columnist, Cengiz Candar, who was targeted in the now-famous memo, had even harsher words, but his editors refused to run his article last week, saying it was libelous and insulted the military. That move provoked a further uproar in the Turkish press. And in an act of solidarity, several rival newspapers published the article in which Candar likened Bir to former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Military Remains Popular With Public

Turkey’s generals, who view themselves as guarantors of the secular legacy of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, have seized power three times since 1960. The army’s latest intervention came in 1997, when it forced the country’s first pro-Islamic prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, to step down amid charges that he had sought to introduce Islamic rule during a turbulent year in office.

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Yet the military continues to rank among Turkey’s most venerated and trusted institutions, and its popularity shows few signs of waning.

Echoing widespread public sentiment, Emin Colasan, a columnist for the pro-establishment daily Hurriyet, said: “When it is a matter of national security, certain institutions of the state undertake such actions. Journalists who defend terrorist actions are more dangerous than the terrorists themselves.”

Some commentators have even suggested that in taking responsibility for the memo, the army has proved it is willing to become more open and accountable, in line with EU demands.

“This whole affair is a watershed for Turkish democracy,” Candar said in a telephone interview. “I am hopeful that things will get better in the long term, but in the short term they could get worse.”

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