They were praised as great heroes, true defenders of Turkey’s sovereignty and honour: but the two pilots who shot down a Russian warplane last November are now lingering in prison, accused of being part of the attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The arrests of the two men have received little international attention, but it is a useful indicator of the fast changing dynamics in Turkey. The country’s deputy prime minister, Mehmet Simsek, has claimed that as well as bringing down the Russian jet, the two F-16 pilots may also have taken part in the bombing of the parliament in Ankara - one of the most iconic acts of the turbulent night, and one that led people, fearing that the military was trying to crush civil power, on to the streets in their thousands.
Tying the two pilots to the coup fits into the government’s narrative that downing of the Russian Su-24 was part of a scheme of Fethullah Gulen to destabilise the country by dragging it into conflict. That is the version of events put out by Ankara as it tries to repair relations with Moscow. The arrests continue: Kutbettin Gulen, exiled cleric’s brother, was arrested in Gaziemir, in Izmir province, on Sunday and questioned about “membership of an armed terror group.”
Meanwhile Mr Gulen’s continuing presence in the US also feeds into the accusation of “a hidden foreign hand” behind the attempted putsch. Relations between Ankara and Washington are increasingly fractious: some Turkish ministers and officials refuse to believe that the Americans did not know about the plot, especially as key parts of it involved Incerlik air base where there is a large US presence. There are demands that Americans extradite Mr Gulen without further delay, and also acrimony between the two Nato members about Turkish military action in Syria.
The arrests also support the claim that the military was one branch of the state which had been most heavily infiltrated by the Gulenists. And, of the three services, it is the Air Force which was taken over the most. In the crackdown which followed the coup, around 35 per cent of the fighter-bomber pilots have been arrested.
All branches of the services have faced President Erdogan’s retribution . Around 180 senior officers were detained, of whom 140 are said to remain in custody. In addition 149 senior commanders --- 87 Army generals, 30 Air Force generals and 32 admirals --- were dismissed along with 1.099 officers of other rank and 151 non-commissioned officers.
Denuding the armed forces of such large numbers of experienced personnel has meant that joint ventures with Nato requiring ‘inter-operability’ has suffered. A more immediate issue is the problems which might arise with a Turkish mission now going ever deeper inside Syria in fighting Isis and Kurdish groups.
The extent and culpability of the Gulenists in the July plot is the subject of fierce dispute. Mr Erdogan and his Justice and Development party (AKP) are accused of colluding with the exiled cleric in a religious alliance to persecute secularists and adherents of Kemal Ataturk for years, the relationship souring only after Gulenist police officers started investigating the President’s family and associates for alleged corruption.
President Erdogan warned last week that the current three-month state of emergency could be extended over a year. He said “This state needs time to be purged of these terrorist organisation’s extensions. Right now we’re racing against time, the matter is so deep and complicated that it looks like three months will not be enough.”
That came to pass – at least in part – on Monday with an announcement that the state of emergency, would be extended by a further three months.
Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said after a weekly Cabinet meeting that the state of will be prolonged by another 90 days from 19 October.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has threatened a fresh round of purges. “Now it’s time to clear them out of all structures. We will uproot these traitors from anywhere, within state, business, politics,” he has said.
Mr Gulen has countered that President Erdogan may himself have been behind the putsch which was a “gift from God”, claimed the cleric, because it allowed the Turkish leader to “cleanse” the army. A Turkish officer had admitted, he claimed, that the “ Chief of General Staff and the intelligence chief met during the night of the coup [so] they already knew everything that would happen later.”
However many Turks, including opponents of the Erdogan government, are convinced that the Gulenists had indeed infiltrate public institutions. Those who tried to expose this say they suffered as a consequence in the hands of the Cleric’s followers.
Ahmet Zeki Ucok began to look into allegations of Gulenist entryism in his role of an Air Force investigator. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2009 for allegedly being involved in a coup plot --- a victim of retaliation, he claims, organised by Gulenists. The evidence against Mr Ucock turned out to be forged and he was freed after the schism between Mr Erdogan and Mr Gulen.
“It became impossible to act against them, almost all of the military personnel chiefs, almost all of the intelligence chiefs and 72 per cent of the military judicial staff were members of this group” said Mr Ucok. “They had the intelligence officials and military staff responsible for personnel.”
Mr Ucok claimed that a key aspect of the Gulen movement’s success was suborning the military examination system. His prosecution team had found evidence, he claimed, that “answers were stolen every year, and 70 to 80 per cent of the students got in that way. The process began in the 1980s, which means that 40,000 people may have benefited over the last decade.”
Nihat Ali Ozcan, an academic and former army officer, also maintained that the Gulenists played the long game. “If you look at the time from which they began this process, it’s about 35 years. That’s the reason there were so many of them who got to the ranks of one or two star generals, but not many three or four stars” he wanted to point out.
“We had the stolen exam papers and things like that; but they also focused on getting into the personnel and medical departments, in that way they could channel promotions. They could, influence, for example, who became fighter pilots.”
Mr Ozcan says , however, that he is aware that non-Gulenists have been picked up in the roundup which followed the putsch and alleged that there has been mistreatment of prisoners. A member of his wife’s family, a 21 year old soldier, is among those arrested.
“I know he is not involved in the Gulen movement and hopefully this will be proved when the case comes to trial”, he said. “I have been to see him in prison and lots of these young guys have cuts and bruises. An F-16 hit a police station during the coup attempt and 49 policemen died. So, it could be it was angry policemen taking revenge. We all want those guilty to be punished and those innocent to be freed.”
Turkish officials have repeatedly denied that any prisoners have been mistreated either during or after their detention.
Ceren is another one who hopes those not guilty of taking part in the coup would be freed without delay. Her 26 year old brother, an infantry lieutenant, was detained the morning after and is still being held.
The 22 year old medical student, who did not want her family name made public, continued “We were told that they carried out so many arrests as a precaution and after checks are made those without any evidence against them would be freed. We have been unofficially told that they have found no evidence against my brother. So many of them went out under orders not knowing what was going on. They were just being used, there was total confusion about what was happening, a lot of them thought they were responding to a terrorist attack.
“The authorities accept this, but they still will not release him. We do not support [the ruling] AKP we have a right to oppose them if we want to. But no one in our family supports Fethullah Gulen : we are not a religious family. How can the government say they defended democracy against the coup and still keep innocent people in prison.
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