- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2006

ISTANBUL — Two Turkish military intelligence officers are facing life sentences in a case widely viewed as a test of democratization in a nation long dominated by its powerful military.

Together with a Kurdish separatist turned informer, the two officers were arrested in November, seconds after a grenade exploded in a bookshop, killing one man in Semdinli, a town close to Iraq.

The car in which they were attempting to flee was found to contain grenades identical to the one used in the attack, plus a sketch map of the scene of the bombing.

The two officers went on trial earlier this month in the southeastern city of Van, with prosecutors accusing them of membership in an execution squad that targeted suspected Kurdish insurgents. The judge must decide whether they were working on their own or under orders.

The trial has stirred memories of the war Turkey fought against Kurdish insurgents from 1984 to 1999.

Of the 35,000 killed in that struggle, hundreds were Kurdish villagers and intellectuals who were either targeted in a dirty war of extrajudicial killings or disappeared without a trace. The culprits remain unknown.

In a country where successful prosecutions of members of the security forces are rare, hopes nonetheless were high that the Semdinli investigation will mark a turning point.

Prosecutor Ferhat Sarikaya — who has since been dismissed — indicted the two officers, claiming the bombing was a deliberate attempt to undermine Turkey’s democratization process by stirring up Kurdish unrest.

The indictment also called for the nation’s second-ranking general to be investigated for helping to set up execution squads at the height of the Kurdish war in the 1990s.

Reputedly a hawkish secularist, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit is expected to become chief of staff in August.

In bringing the case to trial, Mr. Sarikaya had to cope with repeated interference by military and government officials.

Shortly after Mr. Sarikaya issued the indictment in March, Gen. Buyukanit publicly described one of the suspected bombers as “a good kid.”

The military high command subsequently called for the “punishment” of those responsible for the indictments, which it described as an “intentional onslaught … aimed at wearing down the Turkish armed forces.” Late last month, a panel of senior judges fired Mr. Sarikaya from his post as prosecutor.

Most legal analysts agree that Mr. Sarikaya overstepped his authority. Turkey has a separate system of courts, appeal courts and high courts for the military, and it is impossible to bring officers as senior as Gen. Buyukanit to trial.

But the severity of the action caused widespread surprise. Only one other prosecutor has suffered Mr. Sarikaya’s fate, after seeking to prosecute the general who led Turkey’s 1980 military coup.

The panel of judges said they fired Mr. Sarikaya for “providing propaganda material for supporters of terrorism” and politicizing the judicial system.

The decision was cheered by members of Turkey’s staunchly secularist main opposition party, who denounced the prosecutor as a secret stooge of an Islamist government determined to undermine the army and take over the country’s state structure.

Amnesty International is less sure, describing Mr. Sarikaya’s dismissal as “a flagrant assault on the independence of the prosecution in Turkey today.”

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