Trial begins for nearly 200 suspected of plotting to overthrow Turkish government

By Gul Tuysuz
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 11:35 PM

ISTANBUL - The latest installment of civil-military confrontation in Turkey began Thursday with the opening of a trial of nearly 200 active and retired military officers on charges of plotting to overthrow the conservative Muslim government in 2003.

The indictment in the trial, which is being held in the town of Silivri, outside Istanbul, outlines an alleged plot to create instability that would pave the way for a military coup. The Turkish military has several times voiced its discontent with the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, since the party came to power in 2002.

According to the indictment, the plot, dubbed "Sledgehammer," was drawn up in 2003 and would have begun with operatives setting off bombs in two mosques in central Istanbul and making it look as if Greek forces had shot down a Turkish military jet. It also allegedly made a list of journalists who would be jailed and a list of potential appointees to ministerial posts, according to Taraf, the daily newspaper that broke the story in early January.

The defendants have denied the allegations, saying that their activities were part of a military training exercise simulating scenarios of domestic strife. If convicted, the officers, who include serving generals and admirals as well as former air force and naval commanders, could face sentences of up to 20 years in prison.

The prosecution of such high-ranking military personnel would have been unthinkable as recently as 2007 in a country that still has a constitution written by the last military junta. But mass indictments of prominent military, media, academic and political figures have become common in Turkey in the past two years. Roughly 400 people have been charged with efforts to topple the AKP government, most of them allegedly as members of a shadowy organization known as Ergenekon, which prosecutors claim has been behind other efforts to overthrow or interfere with the civilian elected government.

The Turkish public remains divided over such indictments. Supporting the prosecutions are the economically emerging Muslim conservatives, who want to claim a greater space for Islam in public life, as well as opponents of the military who want to lessen its influence over the government. They point to Turkey's history of military ousters of democratically elected governments in 1960, 1972 and 1980, as well as the soft coup of 1997.

For critics, the Sledgehammer case represents an increasingly open attempt to dismantle elements within the military that are viewed as unfriendly toward the AKP. Opponents include members of the military and a formerly ruling elite who adhere to a strict interpretation of secularism and view the new ruling Muslims as a threat. This case, they say, is a political move to retaliate against figures who have spoken out against the AKP, an accusation the government denies.

Tuysuz is a special correspondent.

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