Wall Street Journal - EUROPE NEWS
Turkey Charges 11 More in Coup Plot
February 26, 2010
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European Pressphoto Agency
Turkey's former top Navy Commander Ozden Ornek was escorted by police as he arrived to the court in Istanbul.
Mr. Gül issued his statement after a rare three-hour, three-way meeting with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and army chief Ilker Basbug. Hours later, the two most senior of some 50 military officers detained Monday on charges of plotting a coup—a former chief of the air force and of the navy—were released without charge.
But it was far from clear that the meeting would resolve tensions. Eight current and former officers were formally charged Thursday with having plotted a coup in 2003, and were jailed pending trial. Early Friday morning, a further 11 officers were charged. That brought the total number of officers charged to date in connection with the alleged coup plot to 31, including seven admirals and four generals, according to Anadolu Ajansi, Turkey's state news agency.
The arrests and lack of retaliation from Turkey's once-untouchable military have underlined just how dramatically the country has changed in recent years, analysts say. As recently as 1997, the army helped to push a government out of power—for the fourth time since 1960. Criminal charges were pursued in military, not civilian courts. Now, for the first time, an elected government and civilian prosecutors appear to have the upper hand.
But Monday's arrests also underscored the deepening power struggle between the Islamic leaning Justice and Development party, or AKP, and the traditional secular elite, above all the military, which has long seen itself as the guardian of Turkey's secular order.
A similar battle is being fought out within the judiciary, a body that is charged with defending Turkey's secular constitution and that has become starkly split between pro- and anti-government justices and prosecutors.
The government has said repeatedly that it wants to redraw the country's constitution, drafted after a military coup in the 1980s.
Rumors continued to swirl through Turkey's media Thursday that the country's courts were preparing a case to ban the AKP for overstepping its constitutional powers, a move that would sharply escalate political tensions and likely trigger early elections.
Chief of the General Staff Gen. Basbug, who appeared grim-faced in television footage of Thursday's meeting, earlier this week described the move against the military as "serious."
The alleged coup plot, known as Sledgehammer, included operations to blow up crowded mosques in Istanbul and to shoot down a Turkish aircraft over Greek waters to create a state of emergency. No coup attempt materialized. The military has said the alleged plan was part of an annual war-gaming seminar.
The arrests and their aftermath have gripped the attention of a nation in which the military remains the most trusted institution. In deeply polarized Turkey, supporters of the pro-Islamic AKP say the crackdown is needed to end military interference in Turkish democracy. Opponents fear the government is attempting to undermine modern Turkey's secular foundations.
Citigroup said Thursday it was downgrading Turkish stocks to neutral from overweight in light of increased political risk triggered by the arrests. Istanbul's XU100 index fell 1.85% Thursday, dropping with markets world-wide.
Many analysts continue to believe a full-blown political crisis will be averted, if only because any effort to ban the AKP would likely boost its flagging opinion poll ratings at a time when elections could be called at any moment. Elections must be held by the middle of next year, but could be called earlier. A case to ban the AKP in 2007 helped it to a sweeping victory in snap elections.
The way the Sledgehammer arrests were handled—in particular the dramatic dawn raids in which active and former generals and admirals were seized—has raised suspicions of political motivation, says Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul based analyst. Mr. Jenkins last year wrote a skeptical and within Turkey controversial study of the much wider case known as Ergenekon, in which more than 200 defendants, including military officers are accused of crimes from assassinations to coups.
The dawn arrests "make it look like a demonstration of strength, after the government took quite a serious blow," said Mr. Jenkins. He was referring to an incident last week, when courts stripped four special prosecutors of their powers after arresting a fellow prosecutor as an Ergenekon conspirator.
Many television news and press accounts of the latest coup allegations have treated the coup threat as current, failing to note that the alleged plans were drawn up seven years ago and that no coup materialized.
Yet hardliners in the military who might have backed a coup attempt were marginalized around the time of the alleged Sledgehammer plot, making any attempt to seize power by force today highly unlikely, said Mr. Jenkins.
The government has distanced itself from any perception that is driving the arrests, insisting that the case is entirely a matter for the judiciary.
Turkey's armed forces have long considered themselves guardians of the country's aggressively secular traditions, introduced by the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Excerpts from some 5,000 documents and other records a newspaper provided to prosecutors in January purport to show generals venting their hatred for the AKP's Islamic leanings.
The AKP came to power in 2002, shortly before the 2003 seminar.