Thursday, December 01, 2011

Turkey: Mystery Surrounds Deaths of Defense Industry Engineers

Originally published by

Mystery Surrounds Deaths of Defense Industry Engineers

by Yigal Schleifer

Is Turkey's defense industry a dangerous place to work? It certainly was for three engineers working for Aselan, a large military-owned defense contractor, all of whom died under mysterious circumstances in 2006 and 2007 that were ultimately ruled suicides. But questions have lingered about the deaths. For example, if one of the engineers, Huseyin Basbilen, had actually committed suicide, why was he found with his throat slit? Could there have been something more to these three deaths? In the case of Basbilen, investigators are now saying he was murdered. From a Hurriyet report about the case:

A Turkish engineer working on secret military projects was murdered and did not commit suicide, a court-appointed criminal expert has said, contradicting previous explanations for the man’s death in 2006.

Hüseyin Başbilen, an engineer at Turkey's military research and development enterprise, Aselsan, was found dead in his car on Aug. 7, 2006. A court ruled in 2009 that he committed suicide.

The case was reopened by a specially authorized prosecutor in Ankara as part of the "Ergenekon" investigation, which is probing an alleged ultranationalist gang that stands accused of attempting to overthrow the present government by force.

The criminal expert said Başbilen was not alone in his car at the time of death, drawing on material evidence, photographs and video recordings from scene of the incident, Arzu Yıldız of daily Taraf reported.

Other people’s fingerprints were found in the car, and his briefcase was planted in the vehicle after his death, the criminal expert's report said.

Meanwhile, veteran military analyst and Today's Zaman columnist Lale Kemal ups the ante regarding the engineers' deaths, suggesting in a column today that they might have been killed because of their work on making Turkey less dependent on foreign weapons suppliers. Turkey in recent years has been making a concerted push to develop its own weapons industry, promising to build its own fighter jet and light-duty helicopter, and recently launching its first domestically produced naval patrol boat. Were some interests looking to sabotage Turkey's efforts? Kemal (who is no crackpot) suggests so. From her piece:

Back in 2004, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) made a major policy shift in the Turkish defense industry to lessen as much as possible Turkey's dependence on third countries, which stood at around 80 percent at the time when it came to critical military technology. Under the new policy, Turkey abandoned the joint arms systems production model with foreign companies that had not helped at all to create a strong Turkish defense industry base. In this model, Turkey's foreign partners had always been major and leading defense industry companies in the world. Third countries normally prefer to buy arms from a source country building the arms system instead of, for example, from Turkey jointly building the same systems with these major companies. Therefore, the joint partnership model neither helped Turkish defense exports nor contributed to producing Turkish military technology.

Resorting to such wrong models had a direct link to the Turkish state mentality of buying military products off the shelf from major producers instead of making any effort to indigenously build critical arms systems. This mindset increased Turkish dependence on third countries when it comes to critical technology while Turkish arms expenditures always formed the largest bulk of the budget of Turkish ministries.

However, as a result of the 2004 policy, Turkey at least reduced to a certain extent its dependence on foreign technology from abroad while focusing on producing certain arms systems domestically instead of buying them from abroad.

Turkey's ongoing policy of creating a strong defense industry base is also understood to have reduced the appetite of those foreign companies and their local partners, who earned large sums of money at the expense of Turkish taxpayers through marketing the self-defense projects to Turkish buyers.

Aselsan engineer Başbilen, now suspected to have been murdered, was working on a project stipulating the development of a local tank through the maximum usage of local industry capabilities after the government in 2004 canceled the joint production of 1,000 tanks with a foreign company. As a matter of fact, Turkey signed a tank production agreement with local companies in 2006, several months after Başbilen's mysterious death.

Therefore, the years in which Turkish engineers were found dead coincided with the years in which Turkey was at a turning point in boosting its defense industry base.

Reopening old cases where individuals have died under mysterious (or even not so mysterious) circumstances has actually become something of a national pastime in Turkey over the last few years, particularly because of the influence of the sprawling Ergenekon case, which deals with an alleged plot by secularist ultranationalists to topple the Turkish government. Many Turks also believe Ergenekon was behind numerous assassinations and unexplained deaths over the last few decades. For example, a prosecutor in Ankara is currently looking into the 1993 death of Turkish President Turgut Ozal, who died of a heart attack. Members of Ozal's family believe he was poisoned.