ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Retired Turkish military commanders expressed fury that a former top Kurdish rebel was allowed to testify against them in a coup trial, citing it as proof the proceedings were meant only to intimidate and undermine the armed forces.
Semdin Sakik, known as “Fingerless Zeki” when number two in the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), waived his anonymity this week at the ‘Ergenekon’ conspiracy trial at which hundreds, including military, academics, businessmen and journalists, are accused of plotting to overthrow the Islamist-rooted government.
Opponents of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan say the trial of the alleged nationalist Ergenekon network and another plot for which hundreds of army officers were convicted in September are designed to silence the secularist opposition.
The appearance of Sakik, known as “Fingerless Zeki” since losing a thumb while firing a rocket, was a disturbing revelation for military leaders, who have fought for 28 years against the PKK - designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union.
The conflict has killed more than 40,000 people.
A joint statement released late on Wednesday by former armed forces chief General Ilker Basbug and three other commanders, who like him are defendants in the Ergenekon trial, said the use of Sakik as a witness was part of a campaign to undermine NATO’s second biggest army (the TSK).
“Leaving honored members of the TSK face-to-face with the disgusting slander of terrorists who are clearly enemies, once again shows that one of the fundamental aims of this trial is to intimidate, weaken and undermine the Turkish army,” they said.
Sakik, who testified to the court on Nov 6-7, was an “enemy of the Turkish armed forces, which had suffered thousands of martyrs and tens of thousands of war wounded since 1984.”
The government says the trials are purely a matter for the judiciary but sees the reckoning with Turkey’s past of military intervention and coups as a part of a democratization process.
During his 10 years in power, Erdogan has brought the once all-powerful armed forces to heel with political reforms designed to end the political role of a military which carried out a series of coups in the previous decades.
Captured in northern Iraq in 1998 and sentenced to death before the death penalty was abolished, Sakik is most notably held responsible for the killing of 33 unarmed soldiers on a remote road in eastern Turkey in 1993.
The statement described the use of Sakik as a witness as a “legal massacre”, allowing him to accuse the armed forces of being “solely responsible for all the extrajudicial killings, terrorism and illegal activities in Turkey”.
In his testimony, at the high security court in Silivri near Istanbul where the trial is being heard, Sakik spoke of links between the PKK and the Ergenekon network and also alleged state involvement in extra-judicial killings.
Before voluntarily revealing his identity, Sakik had been one of more than 40 secret witness in the case. However, trial observers say he is not a key witness.
Turkish special forces captured Sakik in 1998 after he fell out with PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan and defected to an Iraqi Kurdish group. Ocalan was caught in 1999 and is jailed in an island prison in the Marmara Sea, south of Istanbul.
Hundreds of Kurdish militants are currently on hunger strike across Turkey calling for greater Kurdish rights and improved jail conditions for Ocalan, including access to his lawyers, who have not held talks with him for 15 months.
Sakik was sentenced to death for the killing of 125 members of the security forces and 123 civilians in 191 rebel attacks, but Turkey subsequently abolished the death penalty and Sakik is serving a life sentence in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.
At the time of his trial he apologized for his role in the conflict as he sought to benefit from a repentance law and said he was ashamed of taking orders from Ocalan. (Editing by Ralph Boulton)
Writing by Daren Butler