Turkish ex-army chief jailed over anti-govt plot

General Ilker Basbug held in prison in trial seen as part of struggle between AK and secularists.

January 6, 2012 10:53
3 minute read.
Turkish General Ilker Basbug.

Turkish General Ilker Basbug 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

ISTANBUL - Former Turkish armed forces chief General Ilker Basbug spent his first night behind bars on Friday, charged with trying to overthrow the government in an unprecedented development likely to exacerbate tensions with the military.

Basbug, who retired in 2010, is the highest-ranking officer to be caught up in the so-called Ergenekon case, a long-running crackdown on EU candidate Turkey's once all-powerful military and secularist establishment.

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The former general was taken from an Istanbul courthouse in the early hours of Friday for a health check before being transported in a police convoy to Silivri prison, some 80 km west of the city, where hundreds of defendants in the Ergenekon case are being tried in a specially-built courtroom.

"The Republic of Turkey's 26th general chief of staff has been remanded in custody for forming and directing a terrorist group. I leave it to the great Turkish nation to judge," Basbug said as he was lead from the courtroom.

The decision to send Basbug to jail came hours after prominent Turkish journalists on trial over alleged ties to the ultra-nationalist Ergenekon network said the charges against them were "a massacre of justice."

Ergenekon is accused by prosecutors of being behind multiple conspiracies against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party government, and several hundred suspects, including retired senior military officers, academics, lawyers and journalists, have been detained in cases related to the network.

Investigations into Ergenekon have spiralled since they first opened in 2007, and critics accuse Erdogan's government of scaremongering to silence opponents. The government denies any such motives.

Basbug, facing charges of "gang leadership" and seeking to unseat the government by force, told the court after seven hours of questioning by prosecutors that he rejected the charges and described them as "tragicomic," broadcaster NTV reported.

"To hear such an allegation hurts my pride as a general who has done his duty to the country and state with honor. Accusing a chief of general staff of forming a terrorist group is the biggest punishment I could be given," he was quoted as saying.

Basbug's lawyer said he would challenge the decision to jail him pending trial, state-run Anatolian news agency reported.

"The fact that prosecutors are now touching senior generals is a turning point in the democratisation process of Turkey. Many were skeptical that prosecutors would go this far," said military affairs analyst Lale Kemal.

"I would not be surprised if we see some commanders resign (if Basbug is remanded in custody) but I do not expect this to bring serious instability to Turkey," she said.

Turkish media reports this week suggested senior commanders could resign if Basbug was charged in the case. The General Staff subsequently issued a statement denying those reports but speculation about possible resignations continued.

"There is every possibility there will be resignations if cases continue to be brought like this," said security analyst Gareth Jenkins. "Morale is already at rock bottom. It is already affecting operational capability," he said.

Last July, Basbug's successor and the heads of the army, navy and air force resigned in protest at the detention of more than 200 officers charged in a separate alleged conspiracy against the government, dubbed "Operation Sledgehammer".

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