September 10, 2016

Questions we dare not ask: Gülen and the coup

Özcan Keleş*

Gareth Jenkins once criticized Turkey’s infamous Ergenekon indictments on the grounds that they were “products of ‘projective’ rather than deductive reasoning, working backwards from the premise that the organization exists to weave unrelated individuals, statements and acts into a single massive conspiracy.” Other than being a far more extreme example of “projective” rather than “deductive” reasoning, how is the Turkish government and its media’s attempt at connecting Turkey’s failed coup with Fethullah Gülen and the Hizmet movement he inspires (also known as the “Gülen movement”), any different?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been projecting Gülen and Hizmet onto almost every development in Turkey since the corruption investigations of December 2013. From the Gezi protests to the downing of the Russian jet, almost all past, present and even potential future impediments to the wishes of the ruling party are pinned on Gülen. Consider the night of the coup; within two hours of the tanks rolling, President Erdoğan called into CNN Turk. He said he was unaware of the whereabouts of his chief of staff, that the national intelligence services had not only failed to intercept intel on the coup and inform him of it before it had happened but that he was unable to reach his head of national intelligence even after the coup was under way; so much so, that despite the overbearing state machinery in place, President Erdoğan was informed of the coup as it took place by no other than his brother-in-law. Yet despite being in the dark and without being privy to the necessary facts, in part as the facts were still unfolding, President Erdoğan was sure of one thing, that he would pin this squarely on Gülen and Hizmet. If that’s not projecting, I don’t know what is.

Yet what disappoints me most is not President Erdoğan but the willingness of the Turkish intelligentsia to uncritically internalize the president’s accusations, especially those who rightly criticized the evidentiary failings of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials; should they not be the very people to caution the country now against this collective déjà vu? What exactly is the weight of the evidence linking Gülen to the coup? Where is the judicial due process that has determined the culpability of Gülen and Hizmet? What is the point of a judicial investigation when its main objective of determining the culprit has already been pre-judged?

Gülen and Hizmet have not only been pre-judged but are being pre-punished even before any preliminary judicial investigation into the coup. I fear that by the time the judicial investigation into the failed coup is complete, there will be no Gülen or Hizmet left to prosecute; I suspect that is what the president and Turkish government would like to see. That so many use the term “FETÖ” (Fethullah Terror Organization) when there is not a single court ruling, even now, on the existence of the thing, demonstrates my point about complete disregard for due process and the rule of law. Do we not recall that even when the Turkish government supported the Ergenekon trials, pundits were forced to refer to it as “the alleged Ergenekon organization” to avoid being sued by the suspects of those indictments? What does it say of the motives and principles of those who claimed to defend the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer suspects in the name of justice and due process when they so willingly betray those same principles and positions today?

As I have said before, don’t defend Gülen or Hizmet, but defend due process, the rule of law, judicial independence and the right to be heard in the face of overwhelming power. In the light of the tsunami of arrests and dismissals of journalists in Turkey, the cancellation of their press cards and passports and arrests of family members when the journalists themselves cannot be found, who is now able to challenge the Turkish government’s narrative about the attempted coup? Who can challenge the working assumptions within the executive, judiciary and intelligence services in Turkey? How can we know fact from fiction, distinguish claim from evidence? Turkey has fallen so far that even civil society and the media are unable or unwilling to offer an alternative perspective to that of the government. Al Jazeera’s “Gülen’s fingerprints in Turkey’s failed coup” is one example among many. The piece merely lists and explains the government’s most commonly cited five “pieces of evidence” to incriminate Gülen uncritically and does not provide a right to reply. These five pieces of “evidence” are being repeated in Turkish and in some foreign media, so they merit evaluation.

The commonly cited five pieces of “evidence” (hereafter “claims”) are italicized and listed below as explained by Al Jazeera. I evaluate each claim in turn in a point-by-point basis by posing questions and counter-perspectives. With limited time, resources and classified files that are unreachable, there is only so much that can be said. As a result, I am posting this as a “working blog” that I will update based on feedback received from readers. Also, readers are welcome to suggest new or alternative hyperlinks to those inserted below. Methodical deconstruction is time consuming; I apologize, therefore, in advance for the length of what follows.

Claim 1 – Police officers were found among putschist soldiers

The first sign of “Gülen’s connection” with the coup came from the streets on the night of the coup attempt: Among the ones, who participated in the coup attempt along with the putschist soldiers, were ‘police officers who were prosecuted as part of the investigations regarding the Gülen’s organization’s parallel structure but could not be found’. One of those under prosecution, former police chief, Mithat Aynacı was captured in an armored vehicle in front of the Istanbul Police Department. The fugitive police chief was in military camouflage when he was caught.

There were other police chiefs among putschists that night as well. Wanted former police chiefs Lokman Kırcalı and Gürsel Aktepe were among the soldiers captured in front of the Ankara Police Department. In his statement, Gürsel Aktepe said he has sympathy for Fethullah Gülen, adding that ‘he had gone to the US on a mission as part of his career, that he had stayed in Gülen’s house for two days there and attended his conversation gatherings’. Stating that he received a monthly financial support of 4,500 Turkish liras after he was be ostracized from profession, Aktepe said that on the night of the coup he received a message telling ‘everyone to go to their former places of duty’ and so he went to the front of the Ankara Police Department. Aktepe said “It is impossible for the coup attempt on the night of July 15th to have taken place without the knowledge and order of the top leader of this organization, Fethullah Gülen.


The claim is that three “Gülenist” police officers were apprehended while supporting the coup and that this proves the link between Gülen and the coup. The first point to make is that if Hizmet wanted to support the attempted coup by reinforcing it with current or former police officers, should there not have been thousands of such police officers involved, especially if we accept the government claim that the nation’s police force was overrun by “Gülenists”? Note that the government had purged 45,000 police officers and 2,500 judges and prosecutors by 2015 (and more since, until the failed coup of 2016, when it began a new wave of purges). How is it that of these 45,000 police officers, dismissed, wanted or still active, only three were identified as supporting the putschists?

The piece mentions three police officers by name: Mithat Aynacı, Lokman Kırcalı, and Gürsel Aktepe. It claims these officers were “prosecuted” for being part of the “Gülen organization’s parallel structure.” This is factually incorrect. Firstly, any prosecution alleging any link to Gülen or his movement is still ongoing, and so far no court has given a ruling on any charge incriminating Fethullah Gülen, Hizmet or on any alleged association with either. Therefore, suggesting that these police officers have been “prosecuted” and, by implication, found guilty, is grossly misleading. Furthermore, according to media reports, Mithat Aynacı was dismissed, not prosecuted, from the police force on Nov. 1, 2014 for being a member of the so-called FETÖ/PDY. Mithat Aynacı is reported to have taken the matter to court, which ruled in his favor and reinstated him as a police officer. Therefore, at the time of his arrest on the night of the coup, Mithat Aynacı had no judicial investigation or decision against him proving his link to any organization whatsoever.

Secondly, had there been any evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, on Mithat Aynacı’s connection to Hizmet, he would have been dismissed immediately after the December 2013 corruption investigations and not approximately a year later. Thirdly, when eventually dismissed in November 2014, he would have been prosecuted and not just dismissed, as others are being, and fourthly, the government would have countered his claim for unfair dismissal in court.

Moreover, neither of these terms (FETÖ or PDY) has any legal standing. FETÖ is an acronym for “Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organization.” According to Turkish law, an organization can only be designated as “terrorist” by a high court (Yargitay) decision, and there is no such court decision. PDY is an acronym for “Parallel State Organization”; again there is no court decision that has ruled on the existence of such an organization. In its absence, the Turkish government passed a cabinet decree on June 29, 2015, many months after Mithat Aynacı’s dismissal, recognizing “PDY” as an enemy of the state; that proves nothing about Aynacı.

As for Lokman Kırcalı, and Gürsel Aktepe, the Al Jazeera piece states that these officers were wanted at the time of arrest on the night of the coup but does not state on what grounds they were wanted. Given the explanation above on FETÖ and the PDY, it is very unlikely that these police officers were formally dismissed on the basis of links to the Hizmet movement if they were investigated prior to June 29, 2015. In any event, no court has yet ruled on any FETO or PDY charges, and therefore there is no formal link between the two police officers and Hizmet.

What links the three police officers to Gülen is the popular assumption that the dismissals of police officers following the 2013 corruption investigations were based on links to Gülen. However, it is well documented that following the corruption investigations of 2013, the Turkish government purged 60,000 police officers, prosecutors and civil servants to disrupt the judicial investigations into government corruption and prevent new investigations from surfacing. Unless we concede that the government profiled 60,000 people prior to the 2013 corruption investigations, then we must assume that these were blanket purges of positions considered sensitive by the government. For example, immediately after the corruption investigations, the government purged all financial crime and organized crime units across the country’s police force – the very units that are responsible for investigating government corruption and money laundering charges. Without more evidence, we cannot assume that the police officers purged following the 2013 corruption investigations – including Mithat Aynacı, Lokman Kırcalı and Gürsel Aktepe – were linked to Gülen.

Based on the above, the safest assumption is that Mithat Aynacı was purged as a non-loyalist (to the ruling party). We know from the current wave of purges that people of all persuasions and walks of life are being purged under the pretext of being Gülenist. When these people resurface elsewhere, are we simply to assume that they were all Gülenists because they were hanged with the same rope?

Nevertheless, the discovery of an off-duty police officer in a tank on the night of the coup is an important lead. If nothing else it suggests collusion between the putschists and that particular police officer. However, despite his importance, there have been a number of news reports by pro-government media outlets that Mithat Aynacı committed suicide while in custody. Reports of Mithat Aynacı’s suicide also coincided with pro-government media reports that Gülen had ordered the assassination of key witnesses held in custody. Conceivably, these latter reports were run to cover up the number of “suicides” occurring in custody. However, soon thereafter, Yeni Şafak ran a new story, this time claiming that Mithat Aynacı was alive and had attended court without providing any accompanying footage to prove its claim or its source. Given Amnesty’s report of detainees being tortured, beaten and in some cases, raped, coupled with unverified reports of the death of at least half a dozen detainees, it is possible that Mithat Aynacı did in fact die while in custody as originally reported by pro-government media. If that is the case, the question that must be asked is, given his importance as a suspect and material witness, why was Mithat Aynacı allowed to commit suicide, if that is in fact how he died? If Mithat Aynacı’s arrest proved the government’s allegation, as suggested by pro-government media and indeed this Al Jazeera piece, then why was he not guarded and supervised round the clock to prevent any harm from coming to him?

The death and/or torture of Mithat Aynacı disproves the argument that his arrest was a key piece of evidence for the government. It further proves that the authorities are not interested in investigating this failed coup in a manner and form that provides a verdict that meets the standards of international law.

Claim 2 – Confessions of Akar’s aide, Lt. Col. Levent Türkkan

One of the most important developments, which reveals Gülen’s connection with the coup, took place within the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). Statements by the Chief of General Staff Hulûsi Akar’s aide, Lieutenant Colonel Levent Türkkan, have once again exposed this connection. Türkkan was the leader of the group which detained the Chief of General Staff that night. Türkkan, who names himself a member of the Gülen organization, said that there was an “older brother” named Murat who was in charge of him. Adding that he was the child of a poor family and met with Gülen organization’s older brothers while he was at junior high school, Türkkan also said he had been given the exam questions before he entered the Işıklar Military High School’s admission exams in 1989. He also told that while he was serving as the Assistant Adjutant of the former Chief of General Staff Necdet Özel, he planted a bugging device, “which Brother Murat gave him”, in Özel’s room.

Claim 3 – Brig. Gen. Sağır: I had served the organization for 10 years

Another statement revealing the Gülen organization’s connection with the coup came from a brigadier general. Commander of the 5th Infantry Training Brigade in Sivas and Garrison Commander Brigadier General Fatih Celaleddin Sağır, confessed his connection with the Gülen organization. In his statement, Sağır said “I had been going to the [Gülen organization’s] houses and and dormitories between 1988-1992, attending all their gatherings. I had served the Gülen organization for 10 years. After 2007, especially with the Sledgehammer and Ergenekon operations, I started to move away. I suspended my relationship with them.


Lt. Col. Levent Türkkan’s statement was released to the press with a number of photographs. It is claimed that Levent Türkkan wrote his statement by hand. In the accompanying photographs, Levent Türkkan is shown with extensive bandages covering both hands and his entire waist, consistent with reports that his hands and ribs were broken. What is more, his face shows multiple bruises and swelling. Coupled with Amnesty’s report, it appears likely that Levent Türkkan was tortured while in custody. As a result, his “confession” would not serve to convict himself, let alone Gülen or anyone else. That Al Jazeera has used his statement as an “important development, which reveals Gülen’s connection” is deplorable. At the very least, they most certainly should have pointed out the significant possibility of torture given the accompanying photographs served by the pro-government media.

Amnesty’s report, the number of deaths in custody, and the images and footage shown by the AA state news agency showing detainees bearing the bruises and marks of physical assault all suggest that these so-called confessions and statements are being extracted with extreme prejudice and should therefore be treated with great caution. There is ample ground to have these statements dismissed when they eventually reach an independent court of law. Furthermore, we are accessing these statements in bits and pieces through the pro-government media, which is not renowned for its scrupulous reporting. It is both unethical and naïve, therefore, to determine culpability for the coup on the basis of these statements. This applies to the statements of former police officer Gürsel Aktepe and Brig. Gen. Sağır, too.

Why is the government parading detainees whose appearance corroborates claims of torture, beatings and inhumane treatment? By using these tactics, the government proves that it is focused on scaring the court of public opinion and dissent into line rather than making its case in any independent court of law. That it has opted out of the European Convention on Human Rights, in an attempt to elude the international court’s oversight on rights such as Article 3 on the absolute prohibition of torture or degrading treatment and Article 6 on the right to a fair trial further supports this view.

President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Yıldırım pre-judged and pre-sentenced Fethullah Gülen and Hizmet as the mastermind of the coup while the coup was still under way and before any official judicial investigation had been launched. Given that the coup failed, is it not highly likely that the putschists are tempted to point the finger elsewhere to protect their own affiliations and ideologies? And given that Erdoğan has already identified the mastermind of the coup, is it not convenient for these putschists to corroborate the president’s narrative? Faced with the literal, not metaphorical, stick and offered official and unofficial plea bargains, is life not easier for all concerned, apart from Gülen and Hizmet, if all just join the chorus of blame against Gülen? Does anybody in a position of authority now dare to disclose any evidence that contradicts the president’s narrative?

It is reported that thousands of putschists have been detained so far. How many of those interrogated have “confessed” their link to Gülen? How is it that Gülen was pre-judged as the mastermind of the coup without such information?

Claim 4 – Tasking list discovered on putschist general

One of the most notable information exposing the Gülen organization’s connection with the coup attempt was a name on the putschists’ tasking list. That name, which the public had already been familiar with, was Brigadier General Hamza Celepoğlu. Although he is currently in prison as part of a case regarding the stop-and-search of Turkish intelligence agency trucks, Celepoğlu was on the junta’s ‘tasking list’. Next to his name it says ‘ Gendarmerie General Command, Department of Inspection” as his post-coup place of duty. The indictment prepared against him stated that Celepoğlu “was acting as part of the Gülen organization’, which reveals ‘Gülen’s connection’ not only with the coup attempt, but also with the stopping of the Turkish intelligence agency trucks.


A number of questions emerge in relation to this claim. For example, on whom was the “tasking list” discovered? How was it determined to be a tasking list for the failed coup? Has it been tested for fingerprints and authenticity? Why would the putschists not commit those names to memory and risk getting caught with a list? Why did the putschists not destroy the self-incriminating list when they realized that the coup was failing?

On the coup statement being Kemalist in tone and language, some have argued that this does not preclude the coup plotters from being Gülenists as Gülenists like to hide their true identities behind others. Can that statement not equally apply to others, especially when attempting a coup, which should it fail, would have dire consequences for those behind it? Based on that logic, why can’t the tasking list be a decoy, in case the coup failed. The coup looked like it was failing from 1 a.m. local time onwards; if not prepared before, could the list not have been prepared as a decoy from that point onwards?

Lets imagine that this was a genuine tasking list, envisaging Brig. Gen. Hamza Celepoğlu as head of intelligence. How has that got anything to do with Gülen?

The Al Jazeera piece suggests Celepoğlu is in prison standing trial for the stop-and-search of Turkish intelligence agency trucks and that the indictment against him for this states that “he was acting as part of the Gülen organization.” According to Al Jazeera, that is sufficient to link Celepoğlu with Gülen. The problem with this proposition is that the said trial is still ongoing, so the indictment proves nothing. Former editor-in-chief of secular Cumhuriyet newspaper Can Dundar is also being charged in relation to this incident; are we to concede that he is “Gülenist” also? Furthermore, Turkish authorities have been blaming a great deal on Gülen, willy-nilly, as even acknowledged by the likes of Mustafa Akyol. Therefore, that there is an indictment alleging a Gülen connection is indicative of nothing other than a government crackdown.

Claim 5 – Chief of Staff Hulûsi Akar was offered to be put in touch with Gülen

One of the most striking information about ‘Pennsylvania’s connection’ with the coup can be found in Chief of General Staff Hulûsi Akar’s statement. According to the statement Akar gave to the prosecutor, the putschists asked him to sign the coup declaration that night and told him ‘I you want, we can get you in touch with our opinion leader, Fethullah Gülen”. In his statement, Akar said the person who made this proposal to him was Brigadier General Hakan Evrim, the commander of the Akinci Air Base, the command center of the attempted coup.


Many argue that this is the most damning piece of evidence against Gülen. Al Jazeera describes it as the “most striking information” connecting Gülen to the coup. Its power comes from the fact that the statement is made by Hulûsi Akar, Turkey’s chief of general staff. However, this accusation is nonsensical and internally contradictory. Akar claims that he was told by putschist Brig. Gen. Hakan Evrim that he could be put in touch with Fethullah Gülen over the phone. The purpose of this offer is to convince the chief of general staff to join the putschists. Why would an alleged crypto-Gülenist, sworn to secrecy, who has infiltrated the military ranks through stealth, patience and cunning, volunteer the most important piece of information regarding the coup, the mastermind behind it, to no other than the chief of general staff, who until that point has proven that he is adamantly against joining the putschists? It makes no sense whatsoever and is at complete odds with how these “secretive Gülenists” are described.

Those that argue that the coup was masterminded by “Gülenists” explain the Kemalist tone and language of the coup statement as a ploy by “Gülenists” to hide behind a Kemalist cloak. But why would a group go to such lengths to cover its tracks and then volunteer its affiliation to no less than the chief of general staff?

Wouldn’t the putschists know that a call connecting Turkey’s chief of general staff from Turkey with Gülen in Pennsylvania, on the night of the coup, would be intercepted by dozens of foreign intelligence agencies, thereby alerting them as to the real mastermind behind the coup? Could they be so stealthy and stupid at the same time? Instead, according to German Focus magazine, within half an hour of the start of the coup, the UK’s GCHQ detected government communications stating that the coup would be pinned on Gülen and that the purges would start the next day; it was, in Erdoğan’s words, a “gift from God.”

The alleged offer to connect Hulûsi Akar to Gülen over the phone was made at the air base to which the chief of staff was subsequently transferred after being held in Ankara for some time; that is, after the coup attempt started to look as if it was failing. Is it not possible, therefore, that the putschists attempted to misdirect and mislead Hulûsi Akar by offering to connect him to Gülen and thereby protect their true allegiances? How has this possibility been ruled out? Why is some evidence taken at face value, like this, but others, like the coup statement which points at a Kemalist leadership of the coup, not?

Hulûsi Akar’s claim is not supported by the witness statements of the other people that were allegedly with him on the night of the coup. Brig. Gen. Hakan Evrim rejects the accusation and says he has nothing to do with Gülen or his movement whatsoever.

The chief of general staff is no fan of Gülen. As a staunch secularist, he is likely to be against the Gülen movement and indeed the ruling party of Turkey. Given that the government pinned the failed coup on Gülen, does it not make sense for the chief of general staff to corroborate this and thereby eliminate a group that the Turkish military have traditionally opposed? Also, Hizmet participants do not refer to Fethullah Gülen as their “opinion leader.”

There are multiple problems with Hulûsi Akar’s position and many unanswered questions which at best make him incompetent and at worst, implicate him as the missing leader of the failed coup. For example, we now know he was informed of the coup at 4 p.m., six hours before the coup took place. Why and how could he not avert it? Why did he not immediately discuss this life-threatening intelligence with the president and prime minister, when, after all, they were the ones being overthrown? A number of Turkey experts, including Gareth Jenkins, Eric Jan Zurcker and others believe that the secularists were behind the coup, which would implicate him. Ahmet Şık claims that the coup had a much larger coalition but that the larger factions pulled out at the last minute. James Clapper, the head of US national intelligence, says he does not believe the Gülenists were behind this coup, making the secularist involvement all the more plausible. This scenario would also implicate Hulûsi Akar. In any event, given that Hulûsi Akar is an “interested party” in this coup, do his statements not merit far greater skeptical scrutiny?

*Özcan Keleş has been chairperson of the London-based Dialogue Society since 2008 and is a non-practicing barrister as well as a full-time Ph.D. candidate in the sociology of human rights at the University of Sussex.

Published on Turkish Minute, 9 September 2016, Friday