The old suspension bridge over the Bosporus is 1,560 meters (5,120 feet) long, six lanes wide and connects Europe with Asia. The structure had long been considered a symbol of a country heading into modernity, but on July 15 of last year, a blazing hot day, the bridge became the setting for a coup d'état. And transformed from a symbol of progress to one of reversal.
It's around 9:45 p.m. on that fateful Friday evening when army trucks drive up and armed soldiers jump out onto the road. An army major calls out orders and tanks move forward. The soldiers quickly occupy the bridge, which is bathed in the red glow of spotlights, and cut off all traffic to Europe. A short time later, helicopters begin circling over Istanbul and Ankara as fighter jets take off. The coup has begun. Fighting will continue for around 12 hours, costing the lives of almost 300 people, but by the next day, the coup will have been defeated and most of its leaders jailed.
A new putsch, though, begins almost immediately, a coup from above led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who on television calls the attempt to overthrow him a "gift from God" – a gift that will lift him to the rank of autocrat. His apparatus will investigate 150,000 people, more than 50,000 people will end up in prison and newspapers and radio stations will be shut down. The wave of purges that follows will transform Turkey into an autocracy in which fundamental rights are suspended.
If one believes President Erdoğan, the gift didn't come from Allah alone, but also from one of his greatest enemy, an old man who lives surrounded by bodyguards on a 10-hectare (25-acre) estate in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. From there, Fetullah Gülen, an aging, white-haired cleric, leads an Islamic movement with around 8 million followers around the world. In the massive criminal case that recently began in Ankara against the coup planners, Gülen is listed in absentia as the primary defendant. Erdoğan is painting Gülen to the Turks and to the world as a villain, but in the investigation files, there are plenty of questions, contradictions and obvious gaps. The evidence is far from solid. Reporting by DIE ZEIT in Turkey and Europe, including interviews with intelligence services in the region and with German and American government representatives, has resulted in a different, less black-and-white version of events. So, what happened on the night of July 15, 2016? How did the coup develop? And is Gülen really behind it?
The Background: Two Allies Become Enemies
There was a time in Turkey when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen were close, kindred spirits united by the common goal of taking over power in a secular Turkey created in the image of state founder Kemal Atatürk. In this country, where state and religion were strictly divided, the two men were underdogs.
Erdoğan, the product of a simple family from the Black Sea coast, once sold sesame rings and dreamed of becoming a professional football player, long before he was elected mayor of Istanbul. He is a man driven by his instincts, strong and forceful, with an unerring sense for the popular mood.
And Gülen, from Anatolia, where the population's education tends to be limited and the religious fervor significant. Gülen's father had already served as a village imam before him and, with the provincial region as his base, Gülen built up a movement that he called Hizmet, or "Service," which today runs several hundred schools around the world. Hizmet has an authoritarian structure and most of its members live largely isolated. Those who have left the movement describe it as being like a sect. Followers of Gülen once owned the now banned newspaper Zaman, Asya bank and several insurance companies.
Erdoğan and Gülen were united in their opposition to Atatürk's secularism, which the Turkish military adamantly defended, and the two quickly ran up against the limits of what was allowed in Turkey. In 1999, a secret recording of one of Gülen's appearances got leaked to the public. He can be heard saying: "You must move within the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centers. You must wait until such time as you have got all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey." Gülen moved to the United States and since then has been living in the small town of Saylorsburg, population 1,126, located a two-hour drive from New York.
From his base in the U.S., Gülen supported Erdoğan's newly founded Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the 2002 campaign. When the religiously oriented, largely unknown party unexpectedly won the elections, Erdoğan paid his friend back for the support: Gülen's people were appointed to positions in the administration and government agencies while many others landed in parliament, having been given choice slots on AKP campaign lists. Gülen was essentially a coalition partner, though he didn't actually lead a political party. He had arrived at his goal: the heart of Turkish power structures.
Following Erdoğan's re-election in 2011, however, the alliance between the two men began crumbling. Gülen followers leaked details of Ankara's secret negotiations with the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in an attempt to disrupt the talks. When Erdoğan then announced his intention in 2013 to close all Gülen schools, the power struggle escalated: Just days later, federal prosecutors close to Gülen launched corruption proceedings against high-ranking members of the AKP, several of Erdoğan's ministers and even against his son Bilal. The accused were said to have received millions of dollars to allow oil, natural gas and money to be smuggled out of Tehran via Turkey despite the international embargo of Iran. In the recording of one discussion about illicit money, a voice allegedly belonging to Erdoğan himself can be heard, telling his son: "OK, so what I am saying is, get all that stuff in your house out. OK?" Erdoğan continues to deny all accusations against him.
He had never been as close to falling from power as he was in 2013. Gülen's people had hit him hard, but Erdoğan reacted like a reeling boxer who hasn't yet been knocked out. He fired the ministers who had been accused of corruption – and, along with them, hundreds of police and state prosecutors he believed belonged to the Gülen movement.
And that wasn't all. Erdoğan also began systematically pushing aside the defenders of Atatürk's secularism within the military. In early 2016, he removed the leadership of a Kemalist institution, the Oyak concern, which has managed military pensions since 1961. For 50 years, Oyak had been a symbol of the power and autonomy of the Turkish military.
Such was the political climate within which the coup plans were hatched.
Ankara, November 2015: The Coup Is Planned in a Villa
On Nov. 9, 2015, businessman Serkan Aydın rents a nondescript, white-plastered villa in Ankara. The three-story house with a columned portico is located at Ahmet Taner Kışlalı Mahallesi 2880 Sokak, a quiet side street in the capital's southwest. The villa is to serve as the coup planners' headquarters, according to the indictment and to the testimony of several witnesses. Investigation files should be approached with care, but some of the information therein could be confirmed by independent reporting.
The fact that the house is rented at precisely this point in time is no coincidence: On Nov. 1, 2015, Erdoğan's AKP won an absolute majority in parliamentary elections and his opponents' hopes for political change were dashed. Erdoğan will be in power for at least an additional four years – and he will take advantage of all that power grants him.
Unless he is overthrown.
Peace at Home
In November 2015, the conspirators begin holding regular meetings in the living room of the villa, with the last gathering taking place on July 10, 2016, five days before the uprising. Several participants will later testify that generals from the air force and army, in addition to members of the general staff, took part in the meetings, as did civilians.
As time goes on, the circle of those in the know begins to grow. The conspirators call themselves Yurtta sulh, Peace at Home, an election slogan once used by Atatürk. Invitations to join the group are sent out via WhatsApp with a park in central Ankara serving as a meeting point before a circuitous route is taken to the villa. Mobile phones must be turned off prior to arrival. That is according to two witnesses who are listed in the indictment as Şapka, the hat, and Kuzgun, the raven. Other evidence supports their testimony, such as the fingerprints of two alleged conspirators that were found in the villa.
In the house at the edge of the city, the conspirators speak extensively about the best day for the overthrow. Should it be July 15? Or perhaps one week later, on the 22nd?
Both days have the advantage that they fall during the holiday period and both are followed by weekends, meaning the streets of the city are likely to be emptier than usual. And there is reason to move ahead quickly: The annual meeting of the Supreme Military Council is set for early August, during which key military posts are to be reassigned. It is thought that the government intends to replace 800 to 1,000 army officers, including Kemalists, Gülenists and pure careerists who don't really stand behind Erdoğan.
The president's opponents don't have much time left to prevent the purge. They decide that the coup shall take place in the night of July 15-16, starting at 3 a.m.
Ankara, July 15, 2016, 3 p.m. Intelligence Headquarters: The Plan Is Exposed
Rumors have been swirling for weeks. In a March 2016 essay, Michael Rubin, an American and a former Pentagon official, poses the question: "So, if the Turkish military moves to oust Erdoğan and place his inner circle behind bars, could they get away with it?" Rubin believes the answer is yes.
On April 21, journalist Fuat Ugur, who has excellent government connections, issues a threat to Erdoğan opponents in the newspaper Türkiye, which is closely linked to the AKP: "The state is attentive. With its intelligence service, military commandos, government, police, public, politicians and nongovernmental organizations, the Turkish state is simply waiting for you to commit a crime."
On July 10, five days before the coup attempt, Erdoğan's former campaign manager Erol Olçak sends out a series of 11 tweets. "This summer is purge season," he writes. Olçak's final tweet sounds like a prophecy: "The coups have all come from secularism, that will stop."
And the Turkish intelligence agency MIT, DIE ZEIT has learned, begins observing individual suspects on the day before the coup, if not earlier.
The head of MIT, Hakan Fidan, is a charismatic intelligence agent whose appearance is reminiscent of the movie star Omar Sharif. Fidan is characterized by a greasy malleability and he has survived all manner of political crises. His agency, with its 6,000 employees, is one of the most important pillars of the government – and ever since Erdoğan charged him with monitoring the country's telephone network and internet, Fidan's intelligence service has become enormously powerful. MIT's "longtime collection of data" about Erdoğan's political opponents later provided the "basis" for the purges undertaken following the coup, reads a secret analysis compiled by the intelligence agency of a NATO member state. As early as 2012, the analysis continues, MIT was tasked "with the collection of information and creation of files about Gülen followers."
Who learned what when? What is known is that the coup plan was betrayed, and that MIT learns of the putsch attempt from a defector.
On the morning of July 15 at the military Air Logistics Command in eastern Ankara, coup leaders inform several soldiers, whose support they would need, of the plan. Among them is an air force major named Osman Karaca. He is to remain on standby with his helicopter for a special mission: That evening, intelligence chief Fidan is to be kidnapped from his home. Karaca is given the assignment of flying the prisoner out. But he decides not to go along with the plan.
At around 1:55 p.m. that day, Karaca leaves his base, climbs into a taxi and heads to MIT headquarters. Upon arrival, he states his business to the guard on duty at the entrance: "I have come to provide relevant information regarding parallel structures in the military," he says, according to visitor logs.
Intelligence agencies lead the helicopter pilot to an interrogation room: "At 3 a.m. tonight, three helicopters are to attack the home of the MIT chief and kidnap him," Karaca says. "It could be part of a larger operation. Perhaps even a coup d'état." It is 3 p.m.
About an hour later, intelligence chief Fidan picks up his phone and calls the head of the military police, who then informs Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar. Akar asks Fidan to report to him immediately.
The First Stage of the Coup Fails
The crisis meeting, including the head of the army, the intelligence service and the military police, begins at 6:15 p.m. Fidan tells them of the defector and of the suspicion that a coup is in the works. "I am now going to inform the president," Fidan says. He calls Erdoğan's security chief, according to witness testimony, but Fidan is not transferred to the president and is only able to talk to the security chief himself. "Should there be an attack from outside, do you have enough forces, enough weapons, enough men?" Fidan asks. Surveillance camera footage shows that it is 10:22 p.m. by the time the intelligence chief leaves military headquarters.
Ankara, 8:30 p.m., Military Headquarters: The Coup Begins
The first step in the coup d'état, the kidnapping of Fidan, fails. The plotters have been discovered. Now, every minute counts. For both sides.
Chief of the General Staff Akar has issued a ban on military flights over Turkey and ordered that no armored vehicles be allowed to leave the military base on the outskirts of Ankara. If a coup is in the offing, Akar's orders mean that it will be easily visible – in the skies and on the streets.
But the meeting between the heads of the military police, military and intelligence service doesn't go unnoticed. Shortly before 7:30 p.m., a lieutenant belonging to the conspiracy realizes that Fidan's meeting is taking place. The plotters now know that they have to act fast. The coup's start time is moved up from 3 a.m. the next morning to 8:30 p.m. that night.
Major General Mehmet Dişli, who works at army headquarters under Chief of the General Staff Akar and is part of the conspiracy, is actually in the process of leaving the facility. Dişli is the brother of a deputy leader of the AKP and is responsible for strategic planning in the army. He is listed as the third most prominent suspect in the indictment.
When he learns that the plans have been betrayed, he turns around and walks into the office of his boss Akar, as recorded on surveillance camera footage. Akar, 65, has already survived multiple crises and is considered to be an incorruptible man of integrity. The coup plotters did not inform him of their plans, but now they want his support. Akar's help would drastically increase the chances for a successful overthrow.
Mehmet Dişli says: "My commander, the operation has begun. We are abducting all of them. The units are on the way." Dişli then asks Akar to take over command of the operation. But Akar merely shouts: "Are you crazy?"
Suddenly, additional members of the military push their way into Akar's office, including his adjutant. They force the chief of the general staff into a chair and tape a piece of material over his mouth and nose. His hands are bound with cable ties and Akar's adjutant points a pistol at his own superior. But Akar doesn't waver. The coup d'état will have to begin without orders from the very top.
At 9:20 p.m., a surveillance camera records a white bus driving up to Gate 1 at the entrance to general staff headquarters. Around 40 soldiers from a special forces unit jump out, armed with automatic weapons, and force their way into the building. The general staff is now in the hands of the coup plotters. But they weren't able to achieve their most important goal: getting Akar to join the putsch. The prisoner is flown in a helicopter to the Akıncı military airport northwest of Ankara. That is where the coup leaders have set up their command post.
Istanbul, 11:22 p.m., Moda Deniz Club: The Air Force Is Taken Hostage
Among the first targets of the coup is the Moda Deniz Club in Istanbul, a place of relaxation for the old Turkish elite. Founded in 1935, only members are allowed in and a lifetime membership costs more than 10,000 euros. The rooms are walled in marble to keep them cool and there is a terrace with a pool, from which the view extends far across the sea to the Prince Islands.
On the evening of July 15, the Moda Deniz Club is hosting a wedding reception for the daughter of a high-ranking commander in the Turkish air force. With the exception of one general, the entire air force leadership is gathered at the club.
The coup leaders send out a helicopter full of heavily armed soldiers and, as the newlyweds are dancing, the attackers storm into the Moda Deniz Club and tie up the generals. The air force leadership is now lying on the floor, powerless to do anything.
Even though they are in a hurry and having to improvise as they go along, coup leaders do their best to maintain an overview of what is going on. One of their couriers is Major Murat Çelebioğlu. Using a WhatsApp group that is named after the conspirators' group – "Peace at Home" – he supplies news to his comrades. Çelebioğlu has rapidly risen up the career ladder to this point: Following his training in the Turkish army, he obtained a degree from the West Point Military Academy, the elite officer-training university north of New York City, and later studied in Washington D.C. He is not known at this point as a follower of the Gülen movement.
"This Is Not a Joke Here!"
Just before midnight, coup plotters record their first significant symbolic victory: The first Bosporus Bridge has been blocked. A short time later, an officer sends word that the second bridge over the strait has been taken. The Istanbul stock exchange? Occupied. Atatürk Airport? Occupied. The Istanbul city administration? Under control. A riot police barracks? Blocked by tanks. It looks as though the coup d'état might be successful. Now comes the time to announce it officially.
Ankara, July 16, 12:13 a.m.: A Communiqué Is Read at the TV Station TRT
Broadcast journalist Tijen Karaş, a woman with shoulder-length, blonde hair, has just finished hosting the news on the state channel TRT in Ankara as soldiers storm the studio. They order the editorial team and the technicians to lie on the floor with their faces down. "This is not a joke here!" one of them shouts. "Anyone who doesn't listen will be shot." Karaş is scared to death.
The leader of the group then speaks directly to her, saying she should read a statement on television. He holds a mobile phone up to her with a statement from the putschists on the display. But there's a problem. Anchor Karaş says she can't make out the small letters on the phone. Then the statement needs to be fed into the teleprompter, the leader says.
The putschists sit Karaş in front of the camera with the commander sitting directly across, pointing his weapon at her. Karaş is wearing a sky-blue blazer and her knees bump against the legs of the anchor's desk as she trembles. "I thought those were my final moments," she would later recall in an interview with DIE ZEIT. "I knew I had to read it to survive."
So, she reads it. "The president and the government cabinet have betrayed the country and violated fundamental rights; they have eliminated the secular state and the separation of powers. Our state has become an autocracy. That's why the 'Peace at Home' council is taking over administration of the state. The council will maintain relations with all international organizations like NATO and the UN. The political leadership is dismissed."
The commanders force her to read the statement one more time, and then another. It's almost as if the putschists are having trouble believing their own words: The political leadership is dismissed ...
Marmaris on the Mediterranean, around Midnight: How Does Erdoğan React?
The timing of the coup attempt is well chosen for another reason as well. The president has been on holiday since July 11 with his wife, daughter and several relatives. Erdoğan and his family are spending their time off in the hotel of a friend in the small city of Marmaris on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. The Grand Yazıcı Club Turban's facilities are located right on the coast, beneath pine and cedar trees. The president, who is staying in a villa on the property, has been given exclusive access to the hotel. There are no other guests besides the president and his family.
It isn't clear when and from whom the president learned about the coup. The indictment notes that his intelligence chief Fidan tried unsuccessfully to reach Erdoğan between 6 and 7 p.m. The president, though, would later say that he had unsuccessfully attempted to speak to Fidan, one of his closest confidants, adding that his brother-in-law first informed him of the coup late in the evening.
Is it really possible, though, that a president and his top intelligence official are unable to reach each other for several hours on a day like this? This riddle still hasn't been resolved today, and it has fueled further speculation: Is the president being intentionally ambiguous regarding when he first learned of the attempted coup?
At around midnight, Erdoğan appears before local journalists at the hotel and calls for the people to resist. But his words don't have the desired impact. Erdoğan needs another, more direct, method for mobilizing his supporters. He needs to make a live television appearance.
Ankara, July 16, 12:24 a.m., CNN Studio: Journalist Hande Fırat Gets a Phone Call
Hande Fırat, the star anchor of CNN Türk, is a familiar face to many in Turkey and she has excellent contacts within the president's closest circle. On the previous day, she left the Ankara TV studio early to pick her daughter up from school and head home. "Until then, it had been a normal workday. We had mainly been focusing on the terrorist attack in Nice the night before," Fırat told DIE ZEIT in an interview.
When a colleague writes to her on WhatsApp that the military in Istanbul has begun confiscating weapons from the police, she calls her sources inside the government. No one knows exactly what is going on, but Fırat senses something is wrong. She rushes back to the station.
At 11:30 p.m., Fırat calls Erdoğan's private secretary. She learns from him that the president is safe and that he's staying in a hotel in Marmaris.
Shortly after midnight, Fırat calls Erdoğan's secretary again and offers to interview the president live via video chat. A short time later, at 12:24 a.m., her smartphone actually does ring, a video call. The president's secretary is recognizable and Erdoğan can also be seen in the background, although the image is unclear. From her anchor desk, she calls out "Give me the picture!" -- meaning, all cameras on me! The main CNN studio turns the broadcast over to Ankara, where Fırat is sitting with lightly tousled hair and holding her phone up to the camera. President Erdoğan can be seen on the phone's screen, sitting in the darkness. "Mr. President, we can hear you," Fırat says.
The Solo Appearance of a Politician Fighting for Survival
"Good evening," Erdoğan replies. "Today's events are a coup attempt by a minority within the armed forces." He says the effort is being led by a mastermind, an open allusion to Fethullah Gülen, and urges the public to resist, calling on them to gather in public squares and in airports.
Anchor Fırat attempts to ask Erdoğan a few questions, but he brushes them aside. The would-be interview turns into a solo appearance of a politician who is fighting for survival. "I don't know of any power that is greater than the power of the people," Erdoğan exclaims. "Let's give them an answer together!" His address lasts five minutes and it changes the course of that night's events. Erdoğan's supporters now know that their idol hasn't been captured. Their president is alive and he's fighting.
Shortly after the live interview, the studio starts to shake as fighter jets begin bombing downtown Ankara. In several waves, the putschists attack police headquarters, parliament and intelligence headquarters. Anchor Fırat and her co-workers flee toward the elevator in the middle of the building out of fear that the glass walls won't withstand the blast waves.
Ankara, July 16, 1:43 a.m.: Erdoğan Flies Back to Istanbul
The president knows that there's not much he can do from a tourist hotel on the Mediterranean. He has to head for the front. Together with his companions and his friend, the hotel owner, he discusses possible escape routes. By plane? By land? Or by sea? "Where can we get to by water?" Erdoğan asks, as the hotelier will later tell journalists.
"The Greek islands are very close – I could take you there," the hotel owner answers. Erdoğan responds, "What am I going to do on the Greek islands? I'm asking you how we can get to Istanbul."
A helicopter is waiting above the hotel complex and it brings Erdoğan and his family to Dalaman, the nearest large city, where a government Gulfstream IV is waiting for him on the tarmac. Erdoğan, it would seem, is well prepared for whatever this night might bring. According to flight records from the night, the jet takes off at 1:43 a.m.
A short time later, special forces from Izmir arrive at the hotel in Marmaris. They're on orders to arrest Erdoğan, but they're too late. The president is already en route to Istanbul.
Fearful of being shot down by the putschists, Erdoğan's flight is declared to be a scheduled passenger flight with the number THY 8456, making it appear to air traffic controllers as a Turkish Airlines flight. The aircraft's transponder reports document Erdoğan's flight path: The Gulfstream IV flies along the country's west coast before, some 140 kilometers short of Istanbul, beginning to circle over the southern Marmara Sea – once, twice, five times. During this time, the putschists' fighter jets are thundering through the night sky over Istanbul. Erdoğan's pilot waits for the right moment and it is only at 3:02 a.m. that the aircraft carrying the president first begins its approach to Istanbul's Atatürk Airport, which is already back under government control at this point.
Istanbul, July 16, After Midnight: Erdoğan's Supporters Strike Back
The night turns out to be a demonstration of the scale of Erdoğan's power and sophistication. It shows how he was able to become the all-powerful leader of this country. The telephone company Turkcell sends a text message to all its customers, a message from the president: "To the esteemed children of the Turkish nation! This movement in Ankara and Istanbul was carried out on the part of a small cadre by means of extortion, armored vehicles and weapons belonging to the state," the message reads. "I call on you to take to the streets and take care of your nation. Take care of your country." The text message is signed "Recep Tayyip Erdoğan." The message reaches more than 30 million people, close to half the Turkish population.
Diyanet, the state religious authority, likewise mobilizes the imams of Istanbul and Ankara. Calls for people to take to the streets and defend the president ring like alarm sirens from the minarets. And police leaders open up their weapons depots in a number of cities and begin distributing them to Erdoğan supporters. In Istanbul, streets are barricaded with sandbags that are brought in with astonishing speed.
The mobilization has an impact: The putschists' movement is slowed across Istanbul, heavy traffic prevents their reinforcements from getting through and civilians halt military vehicles. "A really large crowd is approaching," one colonel writes to the coup's WhatsApp group. Another officer, who is responsible for securing the square around the Borsa stock exchange in Istanbul, requests backup. "They've broken down the doors." Then: "Need help."
Ankara and Istanbul, July 16, in the Morning Hours: The Coup Collapses
At the insurgents' headquarters at the Akıncı Air Base, a decision is made that will cost the lives of around 300 people. And popular support for the coup. A lieutenant colonel responsible for coordinating part of the operation sends a message via WhatsApp: "Crowds that have gathered will be fired on." At the same time, a message arrives from the Bosporus Bridge. "We have shot 20-30 people. But our guys at the 2nd bridge are struggling. Need helicopter." Across the city, the putschists are now shooting at people trying to thwart their coup. The lieutenant colonel sends out a message in all caps: "FRIENDS, RESPOND WITHOUT HESITATION."
Now the Legal Process Has Begun
But police have already begun arresting the first rebel soldiers. They've blocked Taksim Square in Istanbul and they've erected barriers across the city. Erdoğan supporters climb on top of tanks on the Bosporus Bridge – which will later be rechristened the "Bridge of the Martyrs of July 15". They surround the soldiers, who don't dare to defend themselves, and beat them. In the end, two soldiers lay motionless on the asphalt, covered in blood – beaten to death.
On the morning of July 16, between 7 and 10 a.m., the attempted coup comes to a halt. Major Çelebioğlu, the creator of the WhatsApp group, signals capitulation by writing: "Do what is necessary to stay alive."
"Meaning?" one of the officers asks in response.
"Surrender," Çelebioğlu answers. "Or flee."
One Year Later – Ankara, May 22, 2017: A Jury Court
One morning in May 2017, hundreds of angry Erdoğan supporters are standing in front of Ankara's 17th Jury Court. The purpose-built courthouse is located on the grounds of Sincan prison, where many of the putschists are being held. Akıncı Air Base, the erstwhile headquarters of the coup plotters, is only a few kilometers away.
Almost one year has passed since the revolt was crushed. Now the legal process has begun, with trials against 221 men, including Mehmet Dişli, who stands accused of unsuccessfully trying to convince the head of the army to collaborate on the night of the insurgency, as well as other alleged members of the putsch committee. Fethullah Gülen is also being tried in absentia.
Lined up in a row, the defendants are led past onlookers, their hands bound in front of their bodies. The protesters curse them as traitors and murderers, and some have brought along rope, which they have tied into gallows knots and throw at the feet of the accused to taunt them.
The man at the head of the procession, a soldier of 46 years, wears a black pullover and reading glasses. His name is Akın Öztürk and he is considered to be the highest-ranking coup plotter within the military.
Öztürk provides an example of why it is so difficult to follow the Turkish government's official depiction of events. On the morning of the attempted coup – this much is clear – Öztürk was together with his wife at a notary public in Izmir before returning to Ankara. That night, he was supposed to attend the wedding celebration at the Moda Deniz Club in Istanbul, but his wife wasn't feeling well, so Öztürk decided to stay in Ankara and visit his daughter there. She is married to an air force officer and lives on the Akıncı Air Base for that reason. The fact that Öztürk was the only air force general who was not at the wedding when the putschists arrived makes him look suspicious.
According to his testimony, Öztürk first learned of the coup attempt from his assistant, who stormed into his daughter's apartment at Akıncı Air Base, where they then watched television footage from the occupied Bosporus Bridge together. Öztürk was not with the conspirators at this time.
The indictment claims that the general gave the order for the uprising. The indictment cites a telephone conversation between Öztürk and putschist general Mehmet Partigöç carried out just before midnight. In the call, Partigöç urges him to join the uprising.
Later that night, Öztürk did drive to the offices of the chiefs of the general staff, where the coup plotters were holding army chief Akar. But witnesses claim to have heard Öztürk appealing to the insurgents to "stop this!"
Government sources claim that Öztürk's son-in-law is a Gülen supporter. But Öztürk himself was known to be a supporter of the ultranationalists with the MHP party, Gülen's archenemy. He was slated to retire in August 2016, just a few weeks after the coup attempt. But on the morning of July 16, 2016, only shortly after the revolt had been brought to an end, his photo popped up on television screens together with a headline claiming he was the No. 1 coup plotter. During his trial, Öztürk will testify that there could be no greater punishment for him than to be sitting in the dock as a defendant. He says he had nothing to do with the "cowardly uprising." So far, the Turkish government has failed to find witness testimony, telephone recordings or written documents to disprove his claim.
In the case of Adil Öksüz, it is easier to see a connection to Gülen. He's considered a confidant of the cleric and is referred to in Turkey as the "imam of the armed forces" because he was responsible for the army within the Hizmet movement. The indictment claims that Öksüz was present at several preparatory meetings the coup plotters held at the villa on the outskirts of Ankara. Investigators cite the testimony of an anonymous witness who claims that Öksüz boasted shortly before the coup: "Friends, I just spoke to our highness and I've been asked to greet you." The reference is to Gülen.
He said he was flying to a meeting abroad and, "if there are no mishaps, I will speak to our highness on Tuesday and then return on Wednesday or Thursday," the anonymous source claims Öksüz said.
"Nothing in this Report Will Resolve Our Questions"
In the indictment, state prosecutors accuse Öksüz of having flown from Istanbul to New York on July 11, 2016, on Turkish Airlines Flight TK 003. They say he returned on July 13, two days before the coup attempt. Prosecutors claim that Öksüz, while he was in America, received the order from Gülen to launch the coup. On the night of the putsch, Öksüz was arrested near Akıncı Air Base with a trolley suitcase. A few days later, an investigating magistrate mysteriously released him again. He hasn't been found to this day.
As with Akın Öztürk, the general, conclusive evidence is lacking for Öksüz's involvement in the coup attempt. Did Öksüz really meet with Gülen in the United States and receive the order to move ahead with the coup?
"The FBI investigated Gülen and didn't find any evidence he was plotting to overthrow the Turkish government," a U.S. government official said, answering a list of questions compiled by DIE ZEIT. "The FBI met with Turks here and in Turkey and asked for any evidence the Turks had. The Turks never provided anything." But what about Öksüz's trip to New York? A lot of supporters of the Hizmet movement traveled back and forth, the government official said, "but there was no evidence that they were plotting a coup."
Ankara, May 2017: Turkish Parliamentarians Have a Lot of Questions
An investigative committee of the Turkish parliament, where Erdoğan's AKP party has an absolute majority, spent months attempting to untangle the events of the night of the coup. The result is a farce. The committee's report is more than 650 pages long, of which around 550 are devoted to the question as to what the "Fethullah Gülen terrorist organization" is, who belongs to it and how it got started. Slightly fewer than 80 pages are dedicated to the night of the attempted coup itself, but they "don't provide us with any new insights," says constitutional law expert Mithat Sancar, who was on the committee as a representative of the pro-Kurdish HDP party. "There is nothing in this report that will resolve any of our questions," he says.
There is still no indication that the Turkish government learned of the plans early on, but there are plenty of questions that remain unanswered – especially regarding the hours leading up to the coup attempt. How many members of the Gülen movement actually took part in the putsch? Were other groups also involved? Why are there discrepancies between the version of events provided by Erdoğan and that of his intelligence chief? At what point did the intelligence service and government receive their first indications that a coup d'état was in the works?
Parliamentarian Sancar says he would love to have asked this question on the committee, but two of the most important actors on the night of the coup attempt – intelligence chief Fidan and Chief of the General Staff Akar – did not make personal appearances before the committee, instead providing only written statements. Sancar suspects that the government isn't interested in resolving events. "They have created a narrative for July 15, a 'founding myth' for a new Turkey," he says. And no one is to question it.
CHP, the largest opposition party, has since presented a report from its own investigation. It speaks of a "controlled coup" and claims that the government saw the coup coming and allowed it to happen so that it could exploit the consequences for its own purposes.
Several European governments and parliaments that have examined the events hold a similar view. "It's unlikely that Fethullah Gülen participated directly in the putsch attempt in the sense of ordering it," reads the classified report from a NATO member-state intelligence agency, which DIE ZEIT has obtained. Some Western observers speak of an "African-style" coup: badly planned, chaotic and bloody.
The Foreign Affairs Committee of Britain's House of Commons believes there was an alliance of at least three different groups who had different reasons to support a regime change: strongly pious Gülen supporters, strictly secular members of the military in the tradition of Atatürk and opportunistic members of the military who joined the coup out of fear for their own positions. An alliance of convenience.
"The coup was likely just a welcome pretext," Bruno Kahl, the president of Germany's foreign intelligence agency, recently told the German newsmagazine Spiegel in an interview. He says he sees no indication the Hizmet movement was behind the coup attempt. "Turkey has tried to convince us on a number of different levels," says Kahl. "But they haven't yet been successful." Erdoğan considers such doubt on the part of Western governments to be an impertinence. He feels they didn't support Turkey after the coup attempt, despite the destruction and despite the deaths.
And perhaps it really is true that Gülen ordered the coup – maybe it was indeed his group's last gasp in the face of growing government suppression. To prove it, though, Turkey would have to present evidence and not just claims that are largely based on the testimony of anonymous witnesses. The allegations are strong, but the evidence is weak. One possibility would be that of establishing an independent commission of inquiry to look into the coup, but the Turkish government is standing in the way.
Gülen, who DIE ZEIT visited in September 2016 for an interview in Pennsylvania, vehemently denies having had anything to do with the coup attempt. "I condemned the coup attempt even as it was happening," he said. Gülen also said that whoever was involved betrayed both the government and his movement's principles.
Stavanger, Norway, May 30, 2017: A New Life in Exile
There was a time, says Turkish officer Burak Deniz (whose name has been changed for this article), when the Kemalist military also had high hopes for Erdoğan. "Early on, he pursued a path that Atatürk had wanted: turning Turkey toward the West."
Until last year, Deniz represented Turkey at a NATO base in the Norwegian city Stavanger. Today, he is a political refugee sitting at a long wooden table in his lawyer's office. "Ten years on from those hopes," Deniz says, "Erdoğan is now turning Turkey to the East, toward torture, free speech limitations, intolerance. Toward Russia and China." Since the night of the attempted coup, he says, anyone who doesn't approve of that shift, anyone who doesn't want to support it, has been considered a terrorist.
According to official statistics from the Turkish military, 8,651 members of the army – including 1,200 cadets who were mostly following the orders of their superiors without knowing what exactly was going on – participated in the coup d'état. The coup plotters deployed 35 warplanes, 37 helicopters, 74 tanks and three warships.
The punitive response, however, has extended far beyond the military. Courts have been penalized, as have schools and companies. Around 170 media outlets and publishing houses have been shut down and more than 170 journalists are sitting behind bars.
The real name of soldier Burak Deniz, who has spent the last three years abroad and is now stuck in Norway, is also on the long list of those for whom an arrest warrant has been issued.
When Deniz and his comrades were ordered to return home at the end of September 2016, they decided to remain in Norway. "We saw on television how friends of ours were being tortured because they had allegedly participated in the coup. We knew that we would receive the exact same treatment."
They applied for asylum, and their applications were approved.
"If it really was an attempted coup, then those involved deserve to be punished," says Deniz. But he doesn't believe it. "There is probably no other country in the world with as much experience with coups as Turkey," he says. "And there is no military apparatus that could carry such a thing out more professionally." If an organization like the Gülen movement or large parts of the military had been behind it, Deniz believes, the night would have turned out differently. But on July 15, he says, nothing was done professionally. "It was amateurish."
Ankara, July 2017: Turkey Builds a Future
Once the trial against the coup participants begins, things return to normal in front of the courthouse. Police sit in the shade of awnings, visitors come and go and the demonstrators have all left. With rising frequency, trucks appear and drive onto the courthouse grounds to the Sincan prison. They are loaded down with cement.
On the side of the street stands a sign, with blue writing on a white background: "Prison construction," it reads. The Turkish justice minister has announced that 175 new correctional facilities are to be built across the country.
Turkey has run out of room for its prisoners.
Additional reporting by Burçak Belli
Translation: Charles Hawley
and Daryl Lindsey