By Abdullah Bozkurt
Coup trials in Turkey over the past several years have been marred by false photographic and video evidence, creating many victims who had nothing to do with the putschist attempt, secret documents have revealed.
In one case Turkish investigators had used faulty facial recognition software to identify alleged putschists while going through a large volume of video footage that recorded events at the headquarters of the General Staff on July 15-16, 2016.
According to the classified documents obtained by Nordic Monitor, the Turkish police department provided a computer with pre-installed facial recognition software to a commission that was looking into CCTV video footage of the General Staff headquarters on the day of the failed coup. The program performed so poorly that the commission had to stop using it. The computer falsely identified people when even the naked eye could spot the difference between what the computer said and the actual identity of the person in question.
A Dell computer with facial recognition software installed called Corvo Identify, developed by Istanbul-based company Nevalabs, was delivered to Commission No. 1, which was composed of a prosecutor and military and police officers. The commission set up its base of operations at the headquarters of the state-run Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) to tap into the technical capabilities of the TRT network. Complying with an order from a public prosecutor on August 5, 2016, the police department counterterrorism unit set up a server unit with facial recognition software and delivered it to the commission on August 22, 2018.
The commission started going through the footage frame by frame with the facial recognition software and after three days, they realized that the system was not working as expected. The computer identified completely different faces as the same person and falsely identified some whose identities were known by the experts. According to commission records, even the naked eye could have spotted the difference in the faces that the computer software failed to take into account. In the end, the commission stopped using the system provided by the police department and gave the computer back to the police.
The false identification gives credence to a series of claims raised by defendants in coup trials during which many said they were incorrectly identified in the footage and questioned the evidence presented by the prosecutors during hearings. Though Commission No. 1 stopped using the facial recognition software, it is not clear whether other commissions, or more importantly the police, which had provided the system, used it in preparing summaries of proceedings to be presented to the prosecutors’ offices. If the allegations of false identity that were raised by many defendants are true, Turkish investigators used the system on other platforms and charged the wrong people with crimes.
In one specific case Maj. Aziz Onur, who was charged with coup involvement, questioned the photographic evidence and stated that he was on night duty in the data processing center at General Staff headquarters and had nothing to do with the putschists. The commission went through the footage again at the request of the prosecutor on September 30, 2016 and concluded that Onur’s claims were true. The commission wrote a report confirming the defendant’s account on October 7, 2016.
Nevertheless, the prosecutor did not drop the charges against Onur and claimed that he must be found guilty because he did not shut down a secure communications system called MEDAS. Defending himself against the charge at a hearing in September 2018, Onur testified that MEDAS runs separately from his data processing department and he had no authority to intervene in those systems, which are operated by officers assigned to a different unit. He also said if MEDAS had been shut down, the anti-coup orders to troops across the country could not have been communicated, exacerbating the chaotic situation further.
One of the talking points the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan often invokes in its coup narrative is that the suspects in coup trials resort to a strategy of denial when still shots from CCTV video recordings show their involvement. The way the investigation was handled as well as documentary evidence suggests that defendants have legitimate claims in casting doubt on identification made from video footage.
Unlike Maj. Onur, who was exonerated of charges of direct involvement in the coup after he managed to get a second examination of the footage, many are not so lucky in challenging the prosecutor’s evidence. In one document Nordic Monitor found that a request for a new examination of the hard drives that contained video recordings from military bases could not be fulfilled because the drive allegedly had become corrupt.
According to the documents, the commission started copying hard drives delivered to it months earlier after the chief public prosecutor in Ankara asked for copies of all the hard drives. However, during the copying process, it was found that the data in Hard Drive No. 1 with 5 terabytes of data was erased. The technicians at TRT tried to recover the data but failed, and the unit was declared damaged and handed over to the cyber unit at the police department, which also failed to recover the data. With the huge data loss, defendants in the coup trials were stripped of their right to challenge the evidence that was used against them.
So many procedural and technical flaws have tainted the evidence in coup trials that they seem more like a witch hunt to prosecute thousands of officers who had nothing to do with what was a very limited mobilization that was quickly quashed. Such flaws reinforce the view that the coup attempt was actually a false flag operation devised by President Erdoğan and his intelligence and military chiefs to transform NATO’s second largest army into a hotbed of Islamists and neo-nationalists.