ISTANBUL // If Turkish prosecutors are to be believed, this country's government was in danger of being overthrown by the military after just one year in office. In September 2003, 10 months after voters brought the religiously conservative Justice and Development Party, or AKP, to power in Ankara, several high-ranking generals of the Turkish armed forces decided the time had come to act, the prosecution says. Four of them met and joined their hands in a sign of unity and determination.
"Things are going very badly for the country," one officer noted in his diary that forms part of the evidence gathered by the prosecution. "Someone has to say 'stop', otherwise we will turn into Iran soon." Six years later, the diary that prosecutors say belongs to retired Adm Ozden Ornek, the former head of the Turkish navy, has become a key document in a case that marks a new era for Turkey. This weekend, Adm Ornek and two of his former colleagues of the general staff are to be questioned by prosecutors in Istanbul about their role in several suspected attempts to overthrow the AKP government between 2003 and 2005. The commander of the gendarmerie at the time, retired Gen Sener Eruygur, is already on trial.
That means that civilian investigations into alleged coup attempts have reached the very top of the military hierarchy. For the first time in Turkish history, four of five former members of the military leadership - the retired heads of the navy, army, airforce and gendarmerie - have to face civilian justice, a spectacular development in a country that has seen four elected governments pushed out of office by the military since 1960.
"Authorities who were once thought to be the most untouchable are being touched," wrote Murat Yetkin, a columnist with the Radikal newspaper. The suspected coup attempts, codenamed "Moonlight", "Blonde Girl" and "Glove", came to nothing because other officers refused to support them and because the plotters' superior, the chief of general staff Hilmi Ozkok, stopped them. "He knows everything, absolutely everything," one of the generals is quoted in the diary as saying about Gen Ozkok.
Adm Ornek and former generals Aytac Yalman and Ibrahim Firtina are to testify as suspects, not as witnesses, media reports have said. If the questioning leads to a trial against them, they could face life in prison. Gen Ozkok testified as a witness earlier in the year. According to media reports, he told prosecutors that he had learned of the coup plans but did not take legal action against the officers involved because he did not have hard evidence at the time. The ex-generals have been summoned by prosecutors who are investigating a suspected network of nationalists called Ergenekon, which they said planned to create chaos by terror attacks in an effort to get the military to stage a coup. The probe has unearthed other suspected plots. Gen Eruygur, a former colleague of Gen Ornek who is mentioned as a coup supporter in the diary, is a suspected leader of Ergenekon and has been standing trial in Istanbul since the summer.
The Turkish military is strictly secular and regards itself as the guardian of the republic, far above the fray of elections, party loyalties and political horse-trading that play a big role in Turkey's parliamentary system. As the highest representatives of an institution that is revered by the public, not least because of its role in creating the republic out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire almost 90 years ago, members of the general staff like Adm Ornek have long been among the most powerful men in the country.
But that is changing. Turkey's efforts to become a member of the European Union have led to a number of legal reforms that have dented the military's political influence, while the country's media and civil society organisations have become more self-confident in questioning the generals' power. The Ergenekon investigation has given a boost to this trend. "The Ergenekon operation has cleared the way for a freer atmosphere," Hasan Saltik, a writer in Istanbul, said this week. "It is like a second revolution" after the creation of the republic in 1923, he said.
Although generals regard the AKP of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, as an Islamist organisation, they have found it difficult to take action against the government. The military publicly threatened to stage a coup against the AKP two years ago, but voters reacted by strengthening the party even further at a subsequent election. The diary said to belong to Adm Ornek was first published by a news magazine in 2007. Adm Ornek denied being the author, and the magazine was closed down. But prosecutors say they have determined that the diary was indeed written on the former admiral's computer.
Critics of Mr Erdogan say the government has used the Ergenekon investigation to intimidate opponents and to undermine the military. But the discovery of weapon stashes and of alleged plans by officers to destabilise the government have raised widespread doubts even in parts of society that normally side with the army. Only last week, a court in Istanbul ordered the arrest of several military officers who are accused of hatching a plan to attack members and institutions of Turkey's non-Muslim minorities and to blame them on supporters of the Erdogan government.