New trial begins for coup-plotting Turkish army officers

Nearly 200 military officers face allegations of planning to overthrow Turkish gov't, assassinate Christian and Jewish leaders, blow up mosques.

December 16, 2010 11:34
3 minute read.
Masked Palestinian Hamas members hold up a Turkish

Turkey Flag 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

ANKARA, Turkey — About 200 active and retired Turkish military officers, including former chiefs of the air force as well as dozens of generals and admirals, went on trial Thursday on charges of plotting to overthrow the Islamic-rooted government in 2003.

The trial is being held behind closed doors at a special court house in the town of Silivri, near Istanbul, and marks the government's increasing confidence in confronting a military that once held sway over Turkish political life. All 196 suspects, who are free pending trial, face between 15 and 20 years in prison if convicted on charges of "attempting to topple the government by force," according to the indictment, the state-run Anatolia news agency said.

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Prosecutors have not made public any evidence or details of the accusations, but the Taraf newspaper has published what it calls leaked copies of documents pertaining to an alleged conspiracy dubbed "Sledgehammer."

The allegations include plans to blow up at least two major mosques during Friday prayers; assassinate some Christian and Jewish leaders; and shoot down a Turkish warplane and blame it on Greece, the country's historic rival.

Taraf said the conspirators hoped the chaos would lead to calls for a military takeover, and planned to turn stadiums into open-air prisons capable of holding tens of thousands of detainees. The paper says it has provided the documents to prosecutors, who are using them in their case.

The military, which has overthrown three governments since 1960 and pressured an Islamic-led government to step down in 1997, has denied such a plot, saying documents used as evidence were from a military training seminar during which officers simulated a scenario of internal strife.

HaberTurk television said the suspects arrived at the court in buses from a military guest house. They quickly entered the giant court house, which was specially designed to hold the large number of suspects.

Dozens of television crews stood far away from the entrance of the compound since media members were not allowed to attend the trial.

Unable to independently assess the evidence, Turks remain divided on the authenticity of the plot and the threat it may have posed. What is clear, however, is that the balance of power in Turkey has tipped significantly in favor of civilian authorities, whose arrests of high-ranking military officers would have once been unimaginable.

In late November, the government suspended three high-ranking officers — two major generals and a rear admiral — from duty pending the outcome of the trial, which could take at least a few years.

Also among the suspects is the former head of the country's National Security Council, once a powerful group of top military officials that exerted strong pressure on the government to follow a strictly secular line, including conducting close surveillance of radical Islamic movements. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has dramatically curbed its powers since coming to power in 2002 and turned it into a merely advisory body on security affairs.

A panel of three judges headed by newly appointed Omer Diken is expected to ask every suspect to identify himself during the opening hearing. Diken was appointed on Tuesday when the previous presiding judge was removed in an unanimous vote by a state judiciary board because of an ongoing disciplinary probe related to other cases.

More than 400 people — including academics, journalists, politicians and soldiers — are already on trial on separate charges of plotting to bring down the government. That case focuses on a conspiracy by an alleged gang of extremist secular nationalists called "Ergenekon," the name of a legendary valley in Central Asia believed to be the ancestral homeland of the Turkish people.

Critics say the cases are built on flimsy evidence and illegal wiretaps, and are designed to silence Erdogan's pro-secular opponents. The government denies the cases are politically motivated.

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