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

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

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.

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.

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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