x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Journalist's notes show near coup in Turkey

A former general allegedly wanted to topple the newly elected government of Erdogan after his party was elected in 2003.

ISTANBUL // Only months after Turkish voters elected a mildly Islamic party to lead the country, a senior general in Ankara was clear about what the military's response should be: topple the freshly installed government and take over the reins of power for a long time. "This time, the job has to be finished without us leaving [power] for 10 to 15 years," Gen Erdal Senel told the journalist Mustafa Balbay in April 2003, according to what newspapers say are notes in Balbay's diary. The notes became public last week and caused a public outcry. Balbay, who is in detention awaiting trial for suspected membership of a right-wing organisation accused of plotting a coup, says his notes have been manipulated. But the damage to the army's reputation may have been done already. "There is no doubt anymore that there were plans for a coup ? that involved top commanders of the Turkish Armed Forces in one way or another," Hasan Cemal wrote in a column for the Milliyet daily newspaper. Conversations between Balbay and several generals recorded in the notes throw a spotlight on the mindset of some hardline military officers and their supporters, who felt they were above the law and saw it as their duty to act against the elected government of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which they regarded as an Islamic threat to Turkey's secular values, analysts say. The military sees itself as a guardian of secularism and has removed four elected governments from power since 1960. "For them, staging a coup is a 'natural' undertaking," Etyen Mahcupyan wrote in a column in the Taraf newspaper, one of several dailies that published what they said were Balbay's notes. Led by a conviction that they themselves, and not democratically elected politicians, represent the true spirit of the republic, the suspected plotters believed that a coup against the government "is not something that must not be done, on the contrary, it is something that duty demands if the occasion arises", Mahcupyan wrote. Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which has roots in political Islam, has been in government since Nov 2002. Since then, there have been numerous reports about efforts in the army to remove the AKP from power. Balbay's notes seem to confirm a widely held assumption that it was Gen Hilmi Ozkok, the chief of general staff at the time, who prevented officers from staging a coup against the Erdogan government in 2003 and 2004. "It is being said we should first get rid of Number One and then of the government," Balbay's reported notes quote an officer as saying in 2003. Gen Ozkok, who retired in 2006, may soon be asked by prosecutors to give evidence about his knowledge about the suspected plots, Turkish media reported yesterday. It would be the first time that a former head of the Turkish military testifies in an inquiry into alleged illegal activities in the armed forces. Balbay was arrested this month, and his diaries and other documents were seized by prosecutors. He is to be tried as a suspected member of Ergenekon, a right-wing group prosecutors say was led by former generals and had worked out a plan to destabilise Turkey with the help of terrorist attacks and assassinations to provoke a military coup against the Erdogan government. A trial for several ex-officers and more than 80 other Ergenekon suspects started in Istanbul last year. The cases of a second group of suspects, including Balbay and two additional former generals, are expected to be added to the trial in the coming weeks. In a statement carried by Balbay's newspaper, Cumhuriyet, yesterday, the journalist said his notes had been taken out of context and rearranged to fit the image of an alleged coup plan. "Comments and manipulations have been made in such a way that I could not even recognise my own notes" when reading the version published by newspapers, Balbay said in the statement. Former Gen Senel also denied having talked about coup plans with Balbay. Still, at least some of the conversations reported to have been recorded by Balbay tie in with known facts. It is no secret that the military leadership does not trust the AKP. Two years ago, the general staff, led by Gen Ozkok's successor, Gen Yasar Buyukanit, issued a thinly veiled threat to stage a coup in protest against the AKP's choice for the office of president, Abdullah Gul, the foreign minister at the time. The coup warning triggered early elections, which the AKP won with a landslide. Mr Gul was elected president shortly after the elections. ---- As several retired and serving military officers have been arrested since the Ergenekon investigation began in the summer of 2007, the military leadership in Ankara has been struggling with damage control. When military-issue hand grenades were found in a suspected Ergenekon weapons stash, the military leadership ordered an internal investigation. Last month, a military court handed down a suspended prison sentence against a former major accused of stealing the grenades. The former major is a suspect in the Ergenekon trial. But almost every day brings fresh reports about the suspected involvement of army personnel in illegal activities. This week, a colonel of the Gendarmerie, a part of the army that has police function in rural areas, was arrested. The officer, Cemal Temizoz, is to be questioned by prosecutors in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir about his possible involvement in unsolved murders in the Kurdish area in the 1990s. Human rights activists say security forces engaged in extrajudicial killings of suspected supporters of Kurdish rebels in the region and threw the bodies of the victims into the wells. Inspections of several wells in the area uncovered parts of human remains in recent weeks. tseibert@thenational.ae