How Turkey Manufactured a Coup Plot

The case of Çetin Doğan, a prominent Turkish Army general accused of conspiring against the government, suggests an ominous future for the country's democracy.

On Feb. 22, Cetin Dogan, a retired four-star Turkish Army general, was detained and subsequently imprisoned by Turkish prosecutors, accused of masterminding an elaborate plot in 2002 and 2003 to topple the country's newly elected conservative Islamist government.

He and the scores of other military officers who were also arrested -- both retired and on active duty -- face horrifying charges. Among other deeds, the officers stand accused of planning to shoot down a Turkish fighter jet and blow up two mosques during Friday prayers, so as to incite parliament to declare martial law. And this is just the latest in a wave of arrests targeting hundreds of retired military officers and their alleged civilian accomplices since early 2008, on charges ranging from murder to coup attempts.

For us, however, this particular arrest comes very close to home: We are Çetin Dogan's daughter and son-in-law. We have observed intimately the development of the case against him, and the closer one looks at the details of this case, the more untenable the government's argument becomes. Rather, his arrest, coupled with the rash of recent anti-military arrests, suggest that the future prospects of Turkish democracy are more ominous than most people think.

The military has long set the ground rules of Turkish politics. Its hard line defending secularism has resulted in frequent clashes with political movements it views as "soft" on Islam, such as the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has governed the country since November 2002. Periodically, the military has intervened, bringing down governments and, on occasion, establishing periods of military rule, most recently from 1980 to 1983.

The narrative that has captured the headlines in Turkey and the Western media is that the recent arrests, signifying the end of an era of military tutelage, are good news for Turkish democracy. Provided the AKP and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, do not abuse their power, the story line goes, Turkey will ultimately emerge stronger -- perhaps more pious and conservative, but also more democratic.

Until very recently, we too bought into this story. Even though the charges against some of the individuals in the earlier waves of arrests seemed far-fetched and the indictments poorly prepared, we thought these shortcomings were the product of excessive prosecutorial zeal rather than deliberate attempts to frame innocent individuals. But the way in which the case against Dogan has unfolded suggests that we were wrong.

The charges originate from a trove of documents delivered to and published by the Turkish daily Taraf. The documents include authentic voice recordings from a war simulation workshop held at the headquarters of the 1st Army, then headed by Dogan, in March 2003. These recordings make no reference to a coup or any illegal activities.

But taking a major leap of faith, the newspaper alleges that the March 2003 workshop was a dress rehearsal for the planned coup. This accusation strains credulity, considering that the workshop was recorded on Dogan's orders and attended by scores of top brass, including observers from the high command.      

The documents also include other material that has clearly been manufactured, detailing preparations for a coup. The only thing that directly implicates Dogan in this material is an 11-page document dated Dec. 2, 2002, barely two weeks after the AKP government was formed. The document has Dogan's name printed underneath, but it is not signed. The excerpts published by Taraf contain several pointers to its fraudulent nature. There are obvious anachronisms, such as criticism of government activities that did not take place until many years later, including its push for constitutional amendments and financial pressure on the opposition press. There are verbatim extracts from a speech that was actually delivered in 2005. And there is wording that doesn't conform to military usage.

None of the material published by Taraf and subsequently used by the prosecutors provide evidence that would stand in a U.S. court of law. No self-respecting editorial office in the United States or Western Europe would have even considered publishing the documents. The prosecutors have refused to release any of their evidence to Dogan's lawyers -- nor have they provided it to the military prosecutors, who are conducting their own independent investigation and have found nothing to corroborate the charges. Far from being presumed innocent, Dogan is forced to prove his innocence, and to do so without access to the material that is said to implicate him.

The significance of these developments goes beyond the injustice done to a man who has served his country with great honor and distinction. The facts suggest that the conflict in Turkey is not a simple power struggle between ultrasecular militarists and pro-democracy conservatives, as it is commonly portrayed. A shadowy third group is manipulating both the media and the judiciary with great success, using manufactured evidence to deliberately stir conflict. Dogan, a retired officer well known for his strong stance against Islamists, is an obvious target for such a group.

We do not know who is behind the attempt to frame Dogan and the other retired officers involved in the case. Some point to Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish religious leader based in the United States with a vast network of supporters, whom they suspect of fomenting anti-secular activities. Others, in the Turkish press, implicate a conspiracy by clandestine paramilitary groups aimed at muddying the waters and covering their own tracks. Some, implausibly, even see the finger of the CIA.

The Taraf reporter who was provided with the forged material has written that his source is a retired Army officer who served with Dogan. That is highly implausible, because the material includes documents not only from the 1st Army, which Dogan headed from 2002 to 2003, but also from the Air Force, Navy, and National Gendarmerie. A single individual could not have had access to the top-secret repositories of so many different services. Nor does it make sense that he would have waited seven years before making his cache public. Instead, it is possible that the voice recordings and other original documents, which were subsequently doctored, were leaked following an internal military inquiry that apparently took place after Dogan retired. Dogan has appealed to the military high command and the government to reveal information about this inquiry and its aftermath.

Whoever the culprits may be, it is distressing that they have been allowed to be so effective. Clearly, their interest lies not in advancing the cause of democracy, but something quite different. They aim to polarize Turkish society, discredit the military, and complicate the courts' ability to effectively prosecute those who are truly guilty of criminal activities.

The judiciary's reaction to the allegations against Dogan and other officers has also been alarming. Instead of questioning the authenticity of the documents delivered to Taraf, prosecutors have accepted the theories spouted by the newspaper wholesale. Sticking to what appears to have been a preordained script, they have shown no interest whatsoever in any of the explanations offered by Dogan and his lawyers during the interrogation. They have gone on a ludicrous fishing expedition that includes an attempt to link Dogan with the November 2003 bombing of two synagogues and the HSBC bank in Istanbul, even though he had already retired by then. Against all precedent and in violation of Turkish law, they have successfully appealed against a judge's decision to release him. Dogan remains in a hospital, where he is suffering from ailments that were aggravated during his detention.

The media, for its part, has had a feeding frenzy. Lies, innuendo, and selective leaks from the prosecutors have been used to stoke public resentment against Dogan. Taraf has repeatedly asserted that the 11-page document contains Dogan's own signature (it does not). Other newspapers have claimed, falsely, that Dogan was tipped about his impending arrest and about to flee to Mexico. The words in a leaked report by the military prosecutors have been repeatedly twisted to suggest that the report authenticated Taraf's claims (it did not). He has been accused of feigning illness so he can remain in a hospital instead of in prison.

Such misinformation has made it practically impossible for even well-informed citizens to discriminate between fact and fiction. Journalists who have expressed skepticism of the plot's veracity have been intimidated and targeted as putschists themselves. One highly regarded journalist has told us in confidence that he is reluctant to dwell on the inconsistencies in the prosecutors' case, for fear of being labeled a coup supporter.

Most surprisingly, Turkish liberals have loudly endorsed the prosecutors' activities in the interests of increased civilian control over the country, despite the obvious holes in the evidence and the gross violations of due process.

Prime Minister Erdogan and his entourage have fanned the flames by making statements that purport to support the independence of the judiciary yet clearly lend credence to the coup plot charges. One AKP member of parliament has expressed in public what many others in that party must think in private: It is now their turn to submit the military to the persecution they feel they experienced for so long. Respect for the rule of law is upheld only when convenient. A member of Erdogan's government has even accused the judge that released Dogan of belonging to the same criminal gang as the coup plotters.

We are against military coups of any kind. We believe in a democracy where the military does not play a political role. However, we also believe that the cause of democracy and human rights is not well served by vendettas and witch hunts.

Tragically, Turkish democracy and its supporters will take the biggest hit once the full story comes out. The eventual unraveling of the case will discredit the judiciary, make the AKP government appear complicit in the debacle, shake the faith of the liberal intelligentsia, and set back the demilitarization of Turkish politics. In the interest of Turkish democracy, cooler heads must prevail.



Undefender of the Faith

After 15 months in office, why hasn't Obama even nominated a candidate for the position of ambassador at large for international religious freedom?

The United States' 12-year-old policy of advancing religious freedom abroad has received a fair amount of attention in recent months. Two reports -- one by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the other by the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships -- have recommended that President Barack Obama emphasize religious freedom in his foreign policy. Two nonpartisan letters -- one from a group of scholars, policy thinkers, and activists, the other from members of Congress --- have echoed those recommendations. Yet there is no sign the administration is paying attention. Indeed, nearly 15 months in, Obama has not even nominated a candidate for the position of ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act, which mandated that the freedom to practice religion, a founding tenet of the United States, become a foreign-policy priority. Since then, presidents have spoken out against religious persecution in places such as China and Afghanistan. They have extolled the value of religious freedom to individuals and societies. But the promotion of international religious freedom has rarely been more than a talking point. Presidents and diplomats have failed to integrate the issue fully into U.S. foreign policy, ignoring its potential contribution to world peace and vital U.S. interests.

Too often, Washington has focused on specific cases of persecution, rather than the support of political and social institutions that can yield more widespread religious liberty in other countries. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 70 percent of the world's population lives in countries that severely restrict religious liberty, banning certain forms of religious expression and public worship and persecuting individuals and communities on the basis of religion.

There are two main reasons why the United States ought to do more to promote religious freedom abroad -- one moral, one practical. First, the United States was founded on the premise that an attack on religious liberty is an attack on human dignity and an affront to justice. To be true to its history, the United States must stand for religious freedom at home and overseas.

Second, countries with religious freedom are likely to be more politically stable. Pew Forum sociologist Brian Grim has found that religious liberty means less religious persecution and thus less conflict. Religious freedom is a constituent part of what he calls a "bundled commodity" of human freedoms (along with things like a free press and equal rights for women). With this "bundled commodity," countries tend to be secure, democratic, socioeconomically stable, and less violent.

Given these powerful twin imperatives -- justice and national security -- one would expect that U.S. foreign-policy makers would long ago have integrated religious freedom into other initiatives: democracy promotion, public diplomacy, commercial and economic strategies, global women's issues, development programs, and counterterrorism. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

Part of the problem has been an aversion on the part of diplomats and administration officials to consider religion as a policy issue. In The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote, "Diplomats in my era were taught not to invite trouble, and no subject seemed more inherently treacherous than religion." Albright now believes this attitude was deeply mistaken, and her book calls for greater foreign-policy attention to religious ideas and actors. But the religion-avoidance syndrome that she identified in U.S. diplomacy remains a problem, especially in the area of religious freedom.

Within the State Department, the religious-freedom ambassador and his office have been bureaucratically isolated since their establishment. The congressional act that created the office styles the ambassador at large as a "principal adviser to the President and the Secretary of State." Yet the ambassador has been placed under the assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor. That means that a position that Congress intended to have direct access to the secretary of state and the president has had little clout even within the State Department. Moreover, a key recommendation of the Chicago report is to fill the position with someone who has the foreign-policy skills to reduce persecution and advance religious freedom worldwide. But the leading candidate for the job -- though highly accomplished and well-connected -- is a pastor, not a diplomat.

Although the president has yet to even nominate his ambassador at large for international religious freedom, other ambassadors at large -- for global women's issues, counterterrorism, and war crimes -- have long been at work, directly under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A large group of other senior envoys are also in place, with portfolios such as disabilities, AIDS, climate change, Guantanamo, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and outreach to Muslim communities. The State Department is also developing an international gay rights initiative. It is difficult not to conclude that all these initiatives are more important to the administration than religious freedom.

In this regard, it is worrying that, for the past year, Obama and Clinton have often used the term "freedom of worship" instead of "freedom of religion." The former is largely a private activity with few if any public-policy implications. The latter certainly denotes the right to worship, but it includes as well the right to engage in political and public life on the basis of religious beliefs. It is the latter that the United States has failed to address in its religious-freedom policy, even though the public element of religious freedom is by far the most important aspect of any engagement with majority-Muslim communities, which do not see their role as a private one.

Mostly, the State Department condemns individual cases of persecution, like that of Christian convert Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan. The United States played a central role in freeing Rahman from execution; in the Afghan criminal justice system, apostasy is a capital crime. But it also failed to understand, or to try to convince Afghans, that such laws are inconsistent with stable democracy and work against Afghanistan's long-term interests.

There have been exceptions to this largely reactive approach. For example, Ambassador at Large John Hanford worked successfully to achieve legal changes in Vietnam that laid the groundwork for greater religious freedom. More recently, the State Department's office of international religious freedom organized an interagency group that meets regularly on issues of religion and global affairs. Unfortunately, such glimmers of progress remain exceptions that prove the rule: Twelve years after the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, the issue still has little salience in U.S. foreign policy.

What might a better course of action look like? Dennis Hoover and I have provided detailed recommendations in a booklet titled "The Future of U.S. International Religious Freedom Policy: Recommendations for the Obama Administration." It includes some obvious steps: placing the ambassador and his office directly under the secretary of state and integrating international religious freedom into such broader policies as democracy promotion, public diplomacy, and counterterrorism. Among other things, it is clear that a country that protects the religious freedom of all its citizens is far less likely to nourish and export (including to American shores) religion-based terrorism.

Obama should also build off his speech in Cairo: "Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together." Recently a report from the Project on Middle East Democracy, based on extensive interviews with young Middle Eastern civil society leaders, found support for a refurbished religious freedom policy in the Middle East. "In our conferences," the report notes, "participants sharply objected to U.S. practice relating to religious freedom, but instead of calling for an end to the IRF office and its reports they argued that its mandate should be expanded to focus on a) freedom of political participation by religious persons and b) the freedom of independent religious debate and institutional life, in addition to c) the freedom of individual practice."

What does this tell us? That at least some young leaders in the Middle East not only want democracy -- we've know that for some time -- but also want help in establishing the freedoms and limits that help make democracy stable and lasting.

There is ample reason for the president to retool and refurbish the country's international religious freedom policy. Among them is the fact that his predecessors failed to see the potential in such an effort. Far more important, however, is the growing awareness that successful religious freedom diplomacy can serve the interests of peace, stability, and American security.