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Eye on the News

Claire Berlinski
Subtergenekon and Other Crimes
In Turkey, alleged terrorism requires a brand-new vocabulary.
3 January 2012

George Orwell’s greatest act of genius was the invention of Newspeak, the official language of Oceania, devised to meet the ideological needs of “Ingsoc,” or English Socialism. Explaining the nature of a mass trial in Turkey likewise requires the construction of a language all its own. Of late, journalists’ trials have received particular notice in the foreign press, but only because the arrest of journalists excites other journalists. In fact, early-morning raids, mass arrests, detentions without trial, and mass trials are a common feature of the Turkish landscape—for academics, students, suspected members of the so-called KCK (the urban wing of the terrorist Kurdish group PKK), lawyers of suspected members of the KCK, heads of soccer teams and their associates, members of parliament, generals, admirals, and an indeterminate number of unfortunates who just got sucked up in the vacuum.

It’s relatively fortunate to be a famous arrested journalist: at least there’s hope that someone will notice you’re in jail. The Turkish government denies that the arrested journalists were arrested for journalism—or rather, it says that only eight of them were; the others, it says, are in jail because they are terrorists. This is where a new language must be invented, because the word “terrorist” doesn’t do justice to the concept that the government has in mind. Take, for example, Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin’s recent explanation of the concept:

The efforts of the terrorist group are not limited to vicious attacks. . . . There is psychological terror, scientific terror. There is a backyard feeding the terror. There is the terror propaganda. There is an effort to portray it as innocent, reasonable and right. . . . Some support terror by seriously distorting it, making it sound reasonable by inventing excuses. By drawing pictures, reflecting it onto canvas, writing poems, reflecting it onto poems, writing daily columns. . . . They try to demoralize the military and the police fighting against terror by making them subjects in their artistic work. In such ways, they take on those who fight terror. The backyard is Istanbul, Izmir, Bursa, Vienna, London, Washington, university lecterns, associations, NGOs. They have infiltrated all these places. Sometimes it is the cultural center, educational association. Other times it is a think tank.

Let us say, then, that the accused have been charged with the crime of subtle terrorism—what an official of Oceania might have abbreviated to subter.

Just how many journalists are in jail for subter? The number is in dispute. Not long ago, the Turkish Journalists’ Union put it at 72, but Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin explained that “three don’t exist, six were never arrested, and 48 are terrorists.” Of the 48, no one knows how many have been charged with subter, as opposed to realter. That debate was overtaken by events when recently 49 more members of the media were detained and 36 of them arrested. This probably sets a new record, not to mention a new challenge for record-keepers.

This week, ten journalists—including the two most famous ones, Ahmet Şık and Nedem Şener—are on trial. They’re not being tried for journalism, of course; they are, according to the indictment, members of Ergenekon, a shadowy, ultranationalist group that has been endeavoring to foment a coup against the Turkish government. This crime, too, cries out for a name of its own: subtergenekon, say. It is exceedingly subtle, you see, because Şık is best known in Turkey for having written the definitive two-volume exposé of Ergenekon. That, according to the indictment, was his cover—an interesting example of prosecutorial subtergiversation. The indictment focuses on Şık’s latest, unfinished book, The Imam’s Army, which claims that the followers of Fethullah Gülen—a Turkish preacher living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania—have infiltrated the police. Şık describes a close relationship between the AKP (Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party) and the Gülenists, arguing that the former has used the latter to bring the security forces under its control. The government seized and banned Şık’s draft of the book, but it has since been published in Turkey. If the writing of the book is an act of subter, as the indictment claims, it is a very subtle subter indeed; I myself read a good deal of it without suffering any harm at all; it is even available now in the Atatürk Airport bookstore, an odd place to sell such a lethal weapon. Yet Şık remains in jail.

Şener, too, has been charged with subtergenekon. He is best known for researching the murder of the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink and for proposing that the police and the state were involved in it. Şener’s trial coincides with the trial of Dink’s alleged murderers.

The subter trials commence with the reading of the indictment aloud, a particularly lengthy process in the case of these journalists, as it contains several years’ worth of quotations from the journalists’ tapped phone conversations, including every detail of their vacation plans, weight-loss regimens, and grocery purchases, which the prosecutors claim are cryptic descriptions of their plot to topple the government. Prosecutors, for example, found damning evidence in this comment: “He brought watermelon and bananas. You send the melons, then eat the bananas.” Evidence of subtermelonkon?

The prosecutors accuse the journalists of “preparing the political environment for a junta” and of being members of a “fake terrorist organization.” A fake terrorist organization? No one knows what that means. I was following the reading of the indictment on Twitter until the judge banned Tweeting from the courtroom. (In a separate trial of another group of journalists, the judge banned food from the courtroom on the grounds that it represented a poisoning risk.) The journalists covering the case—presubtergons, we might call them, as they are likely to face arrest soon—have become adept at Tweeting covertly, despite the threat of a six-month prison term. Tweets from the courtroom stopped briefly when undercover cops began looking for the malefactors, then began again as the malefactors further refined their covert Tweeting, then stopped again as the indictment droned on. The reading of conversations 15,916, 15,917, and 15,918 began to wear everyone down. Pro-government countergenekon journalists, meanwhile, accused the presubtergon journalists of being part of the illegal network. They were, after all, lending support to subtergenekon, a crime that we might call supsubtergenekon.

Ece Temelkuran, a prominent columnist from the mainstream daily Habertürk, had a hard time explaining the proceedings for the press overseas: “The international media seems to be confused about the bizarre arguments in the indictment. So are we as Turkish journalists.” I’ve read the indictment myself, and I can testify that if you’re trying to understand it, you might as well read it backward. A new word is required here, too, to indicate a legal argument so weird that everyone believes something is being lost in translation—except that it’s not. Let’s call it an argument that’s been ergenerated.

Still, some of the Tweets that Temelkuran has translated make a comic sort of sense, like this one: “Right now in Turkey journalists in the courtroom being asked ‘why did you write news?’ Not a joke! Real!” Others make sense but aren’t funny at all: “Relatives, friends of arrested journalists are trying to have a word in the court after months of isolation.” And then there’s this one: “Arrested journalist Doğan Yurdakul . . . sits with a gloomy, tired face. Wasn’t allowed to see his wife before her death.” Yurdakul’s wife died of cancer in September. When the court asked him to state his marital status, he answered, “I was married. Now I am a widower.”

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