Mani Pulite and Ergenekon: Contrasting picture in Turkey and Italy

There are valuable experiences Turkey ought to take from the Italian experience of the “Mani Pulite” (Clean Hands) initiative of the early 1990s. The Italian experiment teaches us that it is imperative to pursue dismantling gangs, illicit groups, criminal networks and the terrorist organization called Ergenekon all the way to the end. If the job is left unfinished or stops halfway through, as happened in Italy, we will eventually end up with a fractured political system, unable to formulate urgently needed policies to address our challenges. Polarized public opinion, dysfunctional security forces and a heavily tainted justice system would linger on for many years to come.

One might argue that Turkey’s Ergenekon probe resembles more the Operation Gladio inquiry conducted by Magistrate Felice Casson in 1990 and offers a different kind of lesson in exposing state-sponsored secret terrorist networks. I tend to agree with that argument. Perhaps I would be able to discuss similarities and differences between the Gladio and Ergenekon cases in detail in another column. But here I believe the “Clean Hands” case offers unique insights into pitfalls in judicial proceedings that we in Turkey should carefully avoid to finalize the Ergenekon trials successfully.

When Antonio Di Pietro, the former Milan magistrate, launched the Clean Hands investigation in 1992, he initially became a national hero for exposing widespread corruption that had long endured among the politicians and business world with the involvement of all kinds of clandestine networks. Over 2,500 people, including 120 deputies and senators of the Italian parliament, 12 current or former ministers, four ex-prime ministers, businessmen and others from all walks of life were investigated by prosecutors during the course of the investigation.

In Turkey’s landmark Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases we are nowhere near that number yet. But the cases brought the dirty dealings within the state to light for the first time, unveiling a vicious terrorist network known as Ergenekon, whose leadership would do anything, including killing civilians and non-Muslim minority leaders, to protect its interests. They even plotted to overthrow the government by enlisting top generals to their cause, hoping to trigger a military coup with the support of journalists, academics, jurists and others who were on Ergenekon’s payroll.

There is a similarity between the Ergenekon and Clean Hands investigations, in the sense that both cases were associated with a single name. The Clean Hands operation was in fact conducted by a group of magistrates in Milan headed by Francesco Saverio Borrelli. Di Pietro was just a member of this group who became the dominant figure. In the Ergenekon case, specially authorized prosecutor Zekeriya Öz became a leading figure even though he was only one in a group of prosecutors who were assigned by the chief prosecutor in İstanbul to examine the case.

When Di Pietro launched his political party later on, it dealt a heavy blow to the credibility of Clean Hands, as the public was led to believe that he had political motivations all along. A propaganda campaign fiercely launched by politicians and their extensions in the media to discredit Di Pietro tainted the Clean Hands investigation. In the Turkish case, we do not see any indication that Öz will be getting involved in politics anytime soon. In fact, Turkey’s Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) did the case a favor by taking him off of it after four years on the assignment, effectively preventing the case from becoming synonymous with his name. His work did not go unrewarded, however, as the HSYK promoted Öz to another position. The remaining prosecutors and newcomers assigned to the case are actively presenting the government’s case in ongoing trials.

The second difference between the Turkish and Italian experiences is that when Clean Hands started, magistrates opened a wide front against any and all political figureheads involved in the corruption network. It was a kind of all-out war across political parties. When politicians realized that the operation would land them in jail, be they in the governing or opposition parties, they collaborated closely to stop the investigations and launched a campaign to discredit prosecutors. They succeeded in doing so in three years when 27 criminal charges were raised against Di Petro in 1995. Though he was eventually acquitted of all charges, the negative campaigning was successful in stopping the investigations.

In the Ergenekon case, Turkish prosecutors are investigating the terrorist network whose ultimate aim is to overthrow the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, which has been elected to office in three consecutive elections since 2002. Therefore, unlike Italian magistrates, Turkish prosecutors enjoyed strong backing from the government and the largest political party in Turkey, which won 50 percent of the vote in a landslide victory in the June 12 elections of this year. The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the third-largest party in Turkey, maintained a neutral position to the case overall, while implicitly supporting the governing party in its bid to get rid of clandestine networks nestled in the state organs for decades.

That left only the main opposition party Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) as a defender of suspects arrested and being tried in Ergenekon and other cases. But the party leadership’s close association with suspects accused of serious crimes and an overwhelming body of convincing evidence submitted to the court have hurt the CHP more than ever. The party suffered in the last national election, failing to win over 30 percent of the vote, a psychological threshold the new leadership put forward as a benchmark for success. Realizing that the attack on prosecutors does not bring any votes, the CHP seems to have eased on the rhetoric of accusations leveled against prosecutors. As such, prosecutors in Turkey enjoyed what Italian magistrates lacked in their pursuit of justice — political cover.

The third difference is that Di Pietro and others were systematically attacked by major media outlets acting as proxies for political heavyweights in the country, and magistrates were therefore portrayed negatively. The reason was obvious, of course, as the investigation reached even the media magnate leader of the center-right alliance, Silvio Berlusconi, who later became the prime minister. In one of his interviews, Di Pietro was critical of the media in Italy, saying: “Our media is notoriously successful at warping the truth. Those under investigation were falsely represented as victims and the judges as assassins, but no innocent person was imprisoned.”

In Turkey, however, thanks to a diversification of media outlets and pluralism in recent years, prosecutors have found more than enough support to continue their operations to dismantle gangs. In fact, the small independent and liberal Taraf daily, a newcomer in the media market, published many leaked documents of the coup plots, eventually leading to official investigations into “untouchable” generals. Other big media groups such as Zaman, Sabah, Star and Yeni Şafak lent huge support to these investigations, while only a few remaining media groups continue to attack prosecutors.

Looking back at the Italian case, the stakes for Turkey are quite high. If Turkey fails to conclude these landmark trials and allows the suspects to go back to the community without paying the price, we will be confronted with a highly fractured and polarized political system, just like that in Italy. No one would dare launch similar investigations against powerful generals and others. We would go back to square one just like the Italians did under Berlusconi, where corruption is once again rampant. When that happens in Turkey, we will suffocate under the constant pressure of internal political problems. We may have to kiss our role as major regional player goodbye.

The good thing is that policymakers in Turkey have come to an understanding that the country simply cannot afford to lose in this game. They seem to have a strong resolve to see the Turkish version of the Clean Hands investigation through to the end.

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