Turkey 'Ergenekon plot': Ex-army head Ilker Basbug held

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Gen Ilker Basbug - photo 1 August 2010 Critics say the investigation focuses on opponents of Mr Erdogan (L), pictured here with Gen Basbug

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A former head of the Turkish armed forces has been remanded in custody to face charges over an alleged plot to overthrow the government.

Gen Ilker Basbug, who retired in 2010, is the highest-ranking officer to be caught up in a widening probe into the so-called Ergenekon network.

Prosecutors say in 2003 the hardline nationalist group tried to bring down PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government.

Gen Basbug rejects the allegations. Some 400 suspects are already on trial.

"We can say it is really tragicomic to accuse somebody who commands such an army of forming and directing a terrorist group," Turkey's NTV network quoted Gen Basbug as telling prosecutors.

The Ergenekon trial is one of several involving accusations of anti-government plots by the military and secular establishment.

Some military officers already charged in the case have said they acted in a chain of command.

Analysis

Gen Basbug's arrest comes amid heightened tensions between Turkey's once-dominant military and Mr Erdogan's democratically elected government.

Turkey's military elite has made no secret of the fact that it disapproves of the moderate Islamism of Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The AKP's re-election in landslide victories in 2007 and 2010 did nothing to improve relations.

Hundreds have been arrested and charged with belonging to the secret "Ergenekon" group, alleged to have plotted to overthrow the government.

The government says the investigation is following due process of law. It is supported by many Turkish intellectuals and business people who normally have little sympathy for the AKP.

But many more have openly expressed discomfort at the investigation. They feel it has gone far beyond the scope of its initial remit, threatening the very democracy and freedom of expression it was instigated to protect.

Turkey's military, the second largest in the Nato alliance after the US, has long seen itself as the guarantor of the country's secular constitution. It staged three coups between 1960 and 1980.

But it has a history of tension with Mr Erdogan's governing AK party, with the two sides engaged in a war of words for the past two-and-a-half years over the alleged plots.

Critics have complained that the Ergenekon investigation has focused on opponents of the Islamist-rooted AK. The government denies any such motives.

The AK is considered a successor to the Welfare Party, an Islamist party which led a 1996-97 government forced to resign by an army-led campaign.

'Gang leadership'

The former army chief was taken to Istanbul's Silivri prison early on Friday morning after a health check.

Turkish state-run media said it is the first time a former army chief has been referred to a court as a suspect.

Gen Basbug could face charges of "gang leadership" and attempting to topple the government.

Correspondents say the general was more sympathetic to the governing party than his predecessors.

"How could it be possible that I plotted against the government which appointed me? If they knew that I was involved in such a plot, why did they keep me in the post?" he asked journalists on his way to jail.

The Ergenekon network is also accused of establishing websites to disseminate anti-government propaganda to destabilise the country.

How 'coup plots' emerged

  • June 2007: Cache of explosives discovered; ex-soldiers detained
  • July 2008: 20 arrested, including two ex-generals and a senior journalist, for "planning political disturbances and trying to organise a coup"
  • Oct 2008: 86 go on trial charged with "Ergenekon" coup plot
  • July 2009: 56 in dock as second trial opens
  • Nov 2009: Taraf newspaper reports "cage" plot, arrests begin
  • Jan 2010: Taraf reports 2003 "Sledgehammer" plot
  • Feb 2010: More than 40 officers arrested over "Sledgehammer"
  • June 2010: 33 naval officers on trial over Operation Cage
  • July 2011: Military chiefs resign in protest over further arrests of senior officers
  • Nov 2011: 13 journalists on trial, accused of role in Ergenekon

The decision on Gen Basbug came hours after prominent Turkish journalists on trial over the same case said that the charges against them were politically motivated and "a massacre of justice".

Correspondents say the defendants and their supporters were shocked by the court's decision to reject their requests to be released from custody.

The 13 defendants include prominent journalists Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener and the writer Yalcin Kucuk, a prominent government critic.

Mr Sener won a press freedom award for a book about the murder of the ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

Western countries have raised concerns about the arrest of journalists in Turkey.

Almost 100 are currently behind bars, and the Turkish Journalists' Association has spoken of a "climate of fear".

Hundreds of military officers have also been charged over "Sledgehammer", an alleged coup plan thought to date back to 2003.

The case led to the resignations of the chiefs of the armed forces, army, navy and air force last July.

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