I’m in the parking lot of Silivri prison, about fifty miles out of Istanbul. I’ve been watching the so-called Balyoz trial. The defendants, you may recall, have been detained on charges of coup-plotting. The trial is open to the press. It’s open to anyone, I think. But the foreign press doesn’t come anymore, if ever it did. A lot of the Turkish press has stopped, too.
I say “trial,” but anyone looking for the elements of a trial as we know it in America would be confused. The defense lawyers I spoke to outside insisted to me that no, this has nothing to do with a trial in Turkey, either. They’re just making up the law as they go along.
I suspect that’s so, but there is something very Turkish about what I saw. I’ve seen that lack of a logic-circuit in action just a few too many times here in Turkey to believe this is a complete legal aberration. I’ve heard a few too many long, wandering speeches. I recognize that inability to identify what’s essential to an argument, and that willingness to go down endless rhetorical rabbit holes while refusing to focus on the arguments that should matter. Why bother establishing at great length that your role in the illegal coup-plotting seminar was confined to making hotel reservations if the essence of your defense is that this was neither a coup-plotting seminar nor illegal? In fact, why not just stick to the one point that should have been sufficient to keep this case ever from making it to a courtroom–that at least some of the evidence is obviously fraudulent? There’s your reasonable doubt, right there. You can see it in 30 seconds or less. If you want to add a few extra reasons to call it a mistrial, add these: No one here seems even to have heard of “chain of custody.” Digital evidence of the kind they’ve invoked can be forged by a bright ten-year-old. The evidence was leaked to the press but not given to the defense attorneys. There you go. Everyone can go home now.
The coup-plot was supposedly drafted in 2003. The plan, introduced as evidence in the indictment, makes reference to businesses, entities and indeed people that did not yet exist in 2003. It’s a mistrial. It should be this simple:
Your honor, this hospital didn’t exist in 2003. We request this trial be dismissed.
Who cares whether your role was only to make hotel reservations?
You get what I mean? The judges didn’t say, “Let’s stick to the argument.” They didn’t seem to be appealing to the law. The defense attorneys didn’t say, “Let’s stick to the argument.” And the defendants were permitted to go on as long as they wanted in their defense, and their approach to self-defense was, “Good arguments, bad arguments, irrelevant, this is my chance, I’m making them all.”
“Yes, but they’re so frustrated, this is their chance to speak!” I was told by their relatives. Well, okay, but apparently there can be no verdict until they all speak, and they all want to speak at great length. So some here speak seriously of this trial lasting another decade.
Despite the endless claims in the press that there are “thousands of pages” of evidence, the gravamen of the prosecution’s case is not complicated. Establishing that it isn’t sufficient to convict these guys (still less to hold them in jail without a conviction) should in principle take about ten minutes. This is going on and on forever, from what I can tell, because no one is even pretending anymore that this is a real trial with real rules.
The sports hall has been converted to a courtroom so better to hold mass trials. That sounds very grim, and it is, but it would be misleading to say that Silivri is on first inspection a horror. I’m not able to go into the prison itself, but the grounds and the courtroom are clean and pleasant; the guards are cheerful; everyone seems to know one another. The defendants are obviously healthy and in good spirits. As the daughter of one defendant said to me, “They’re soldiers. They trained all their lives for a lot worse than this.” During the breaks in the trial the accused and their families rush up to the center of the courtroom to wave and smile at each other.
I do have a few questions, though. This is, despite its interminable length and lack of legal standards, a politically significant trial. And the men on trial are senior military officers of a key NATO ally. That’s important, don’t you think? NATO ally, time of immense regional turmoil and all that?
So why am I the only non-Turkish member of NATO watching this? Where’s the New York Times? Where’s an observer from the US Embassy? What about the EU? What about NATO?
It’s not hard to get here. You can walk right in, you just need to show your ID. They’re friendly and welcoming. The food in the cafeteria’s really good! I’m about to post this right from the prison grounds, and no one is remotely trying to prevent me from speaking my mind about this. It’s fine, you can all come and watch. And you really should, because they happen to be keeping a lot of important military officers here in jail without a conviction, on highly dubious legal grounds. And they’re doing it because they’re confident no one in the world really cares about “rule of law” in Turkey, and they seem to be absolutely right.