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Saturday, May 27, 2006

A byzantine plot in Turkey

Turks are giving second thought to the reported reasons why an alleged islamist gunned down a judge earlier this month.

By Nicolas Birch for Eurasianet (26/05/06)

When a gunman killed a judge in Turkey’s highest administrative court in mid May, it looked like a cut-and-dried case of religious terrorism. Now, the certainty that propelled tens of thousands of Turks to protest what they saw as an Islamist assault on the country’s secularist system has evaporated.

Initially after the 17 May incident - in which Council of State judge Mustafa Ozbilgin died, and four other judges were wounded - the accused gunman, Alparslan Arslan, was depicted as a religious radical. After being taken into custody, Arslan reportedly said his actions were motivated by a desire to "punish" the judges for a February ruling upholding a ban on women wearing the Islamic headscarfs in public institutions.

In recent days, however, investigations have been unable to provide convincing evidence in support of the contention that Arslan is an Islamist. Even the widely-reported claim that he shouted "Allah is great" before opening fire has been refuted by one of the four judges wounded in the attack.

Turkish media are now revising their portrait of Arslan, painting him instead as a man steeped in the violent world of ultra-right-wing nationalism since his days as an Istanbul law student. Judging by the 17 men police are questioning in connection with the shooting, Arslan also has friends in patriotic places. Most of the suspects are small-time organized crime figures, and at least one man claims he received money for his work. But media attention has focused largely on Muzaffer Tekin, a former army captain whose CV reads like an encyclopedia of Turkey’s shadowy anti-democratic opposition.

Suspected by police of being the gang’s mastermind, Tekin’s links with some of Turkey’s more notorious organized crime bosses have made headlines for days. For skeptics, his arrest after an apparent suicide bid dispelled all notions of an Islamist plot. Two other individuals besides Arslan and Tekin are now in custody in connection with the shooting incident, and Turks have begun to suspect the involvement of the so-called "deep state".

The phrase is shorthand for ultra-nationalist elements close to the security forces willing to take the law into their own hands to defend what they see as Turkey’s best interests. "We know the murderer’s identity", columnist Ergun Babahan wrote in the mass-market daily Sabah on 23 May. "Whenever there is an increase in demands for democracy, freedom and justice, his signature is on acts designed to frighten people back into the authorities’ arms."

After decades spent watching the state cover up its relations with the criminal underworld, few Turks expect police to get to the bottom of Ozbilgin’s murder. But it hasn’t escaped the attention of most Turks that the attack did considerable political damage to the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). Accused by secularists and pro-establishment media of encouraging Islamic extremism with their religious-minded brand of politics, several ministers were physically attacked by crowds as they tried to attend the judge’s 19 May funeral. The next day, Turkey’s normally mild-mannered army chief, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, called on the public to maintain protests, drawing a swift condemnation from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

During a meeting of the AKP parliamentary faction on 24 May, Erdogan said that the "bloody conspiracy, behind which stands a gang of traitors, targeted economic and political stability, as well as democracy," according to the Zaman Online web site.

Relations between the AKP government and staunchly secular elements of the state apparatus have never been warm. Many members of the judiciary and army believe that the AKP’s fast-fading, pro-European reformism is a ploy aimed at weakening Turkey’s secularist tradition.

Recent comments by AKP members about the need to rethink Turkish secularism have generated considerable controversy. But commentators say the main reason that staunch secularists want to send the present government packing is connected with the upcoming rotation of the country’s presidency. The term of the incumbent, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, is set to expire in May 2007. Some believe Erdogan is angling to succeed Sezer.

Though largely ceremonial, the president is seen as the figurehead of Turkey’s secular state. Veteran commentator Mehmet Ali Birand has no doubt the killing of the judge was a veiled warning to the AKP. "Something’s become very clear: a secular lobby will not let Erdogan get the presidency," he says. "If he tries, it will be as bloody as we have witnessed."

For months, opponents of the government have been calling on it to take the country to early elections. Now, some of their supporters are joining in. A political analyst sympathetic to the AKP, Cengiz Candar points out the growing signs of stress in Turkey’s economy. "To ward off more tension and potentially even worse crises ahead," he wrote in the daily Bugun on 24 May, "the public must be asked its opinion."
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