ISTANBUL, Turkey — A civilian court in Istanbul ordered the arrest of Turkey's retired head of the army early on Friday on charges of leading a terrorist organization that aimed to overthrow the elected government.
Gen. Ilker Basbug, a former chief of staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, who served from 2008 until his retirement in 2010, denied the charges. Basbug is the highest-ranking military officer to be charged within the scope of Turkey's wide-reaching coup trials, which allege that Ergenekon, an ultranationalist armed terrorist organization with deep ties to Turkey's business, military, media and social elites, planned a takeover of the government.
Basbug's arrest marks the first time in Turkish history that a prosecutor has called for the arrest of a former military chief of staff.
"It is pitiful that I am being accused of toppling the government because of one or two press statements and one or two internet website articles. If I had such mal-intent, as the commander of a 700,000-person force, I would have found other ways to do it," Basbug said in his statement to the court, according to daily newspaper Hurriyet.
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The arrest order implicates Basbug in the Internet Memorandum case, a plot, prosecutors allege, to establish more than 40 websites to disseminate propaganda against the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in order to destabilize and topple the government. Basbug testified about his knowledge of the websites during seven hours of questioning inside a courthouse in Istanbul.
The ruling AKP is the moderate offshoot of an Islamist movement in Turkey, several of whose previous party incarnations have been banned by Constitutional Courts. But the websites were aimed at painting the AKP as a fundamentalist threat to Turkey's constitutional, secular order.
Other defendants in the case have made statements indicating that orders to establish the sites came from the top of the Turkish military's chain of command. Prosecutors thus allege that Basbug was not only aware of but also directing activities behind the propaganda websites. The court ruled that, due to "strong suspicion," Basbug would be remanded in custody.
Today's arrest is the latest installment in the fight between the AKP government and the secular old guard.
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More than 450 people are already on trial within the scope of the Ergenekon trials, including retired and active generals. The main allegations against most of these officers involve plots to destabilize Turkey by bombing mosques, assassinating minority leaders and escalating tensions with Greece so as to create an atmosphere of chaos that would "justify" the establishment of a military junta.
To date, none of the trials associated with Ergenekon have concluded and no verdicts have yet been handed down.
The successor of Basbug as the general chief of staff, as well as the commanders of the navy, army and the air force, resigned en masse to protest the prosecution and arrest of military officers implicated in the coup plots.
The Turkish military long saw itself as the guarantor of the Turkish Republic and has carried out three coups — in 1960, 1971, and 1980. The military also intervened in politics in 1997's "post-modern coup," during which it successfully, but nonviolently pushed for a series of harsh restrictions on religion.
In 2007, after the inauguration of Turkey’s current president, Abdullah Gul, the military issued a statement expressing displeasure with Gul's appointment and urged the government to reconsider. Long seen as the moment at which the AKP called the military's bluff, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party called snap elections and a referendum that resulted in Gul's favor and the AKP garnering even more votes.
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The Ergenekon trials were seen as Turkey's efforts to reign in the military and create a more democratic country. The military was viewed by many as untouchable until the start of the coup plot cases.
"Everyone has a responsibility within the justice system and therefore everyone is equal before the law, " said Gul in press statement after Basbug's arrest.
But critics of the ongoing cases say the trials have gone too far and have become a tool to silence the opposition in Turkey.
"These special courts are not courts that serve justice but rather they are courts that serve to validate the decision of the political authority," said main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
The wide scope of the coup plot trials as well as the judicial system in Turkey, which allows courts to detain people for long periods of time have led many to question whether or not Turkey is committed to democracy and human rights.
Below is a video of Basbug's arrest: