x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Former leader of Turkey's army arrested, charged with coup plot

Analysts said the detention was a sign that the military's political power is waning.

Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaks with General Ilker Basbug in February 2010. Gen Basbug is charged with creating a terrorist organisation.
Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaks with General Ilker Basbug in February 2010. Gen Basbug is charged with creating a terrorist organisation.

ISTANBUL // The former chief of the country's armed forces was arrested today after a court charged him with creating a terrorist organisation and an internet propaganda campaign to undermine the elected government.

With the decision by the High Criminal Court in Istanbul, General Ilker Basbug, who served as Turkey's chief of general staff from 2008 until his retirement in 2010, became the first military chief in the history of the republic to be detained by a civilian court. After being questioned until late on Thursday, the general was detained shortly after midnight and driven to Silivri prison outside Istanbul.

Judge Vedat Dalda was quoted by Turkish media as saying that Gen Basbug, 68, was under "strong suspicion" of having established "an armed terror organisation" designed to overthrow the government. Gen Basbug's lawyer said he would appeal against the court decision to have his client detained.

Analysts said the detention was a sign that the military's political power was waning. Military leaders have pushed four governments from office in the past 50 years and have long enjoyed final say on important matters of the state.

In 2007, the strictly secularist armed forces threatened to unseat the Islamist-rooted government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, but a subsequent landslide victory by Mr Erdogan in a general election dealt a heavy blow to the military. Last year, Mr Erdogan scored another political victory when he forced almost the entire general staff to resign.

"The fact that a former chief of general staff is being put on trial is extremely good for democracy in the country and a step forward," Mehmet Ali Birand, a television host and newspaper columnist, said on Facebook today. But Birand called on the government to shorten the long periods of detention typical in many high-profile court cases in Turkey.

Huseyin Tanriverdi, a deputy chairman of Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), also welcomed the arrest of Gen Basbug. "The detention of Ilker Basbug is a sign of Turkey's democratisation," Mr Tanriverdi told reporters, according to the Anatolia news agency.

Gen Basbug is accused of approving a document, dubbed the "Internet Memorandum", in which he ordered the creation of websites to spread propaganda against the government. Since September, 22 suspects, including former high-ranking military officers, have stood trial in connection with a total of 42 now-defunct websites, which spread propaganda against the government and minorities such as Greeks and Armenians.

The general staff in Ankara confirmed that the websites were set up under its auspices, but blamed the anti-government propaganda on individual officers who violated orders. But several former officers on trial told the court the responsibility lay with the military leadership. Some said Gen Basbug had approved the "Internet Memorandum". Based on that testimony, prosecutors last week decided to question Gen Basbug.

Prosecutors have merged the "Internet Memorandum" with another case against military officers accused of planning to destabilise the Erdogan government. According to the prosecution, officers of the general staff produced an "Action Plan for the Combat against Islamist Extremism" in 2009, when Gen Basbug was chief of general staff. The trials are connected to a wide-ranging investigation against members of a suspected organisation, called Ergenekon, that prosecutors say included coup-plotters inside and outside the armed forces.

During his questioning on Thursday, Gen Basbug rejected the charges against him. "The commander of such an army facing charges of forming and leading an armed organisation is really tragicomic," he told prosecutors, according to the Anatolia news agency.

Opponents of Mr Erdogan argue that the government is using special criminal courts like the one in Istanbul to weaken the military. A group of supporters of Gen Basbug gathered in front of the prison today with Turkish flags to show their backing for the general, the Hurriyet newspaper reported in its online edition.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the secularist opposition leader in Ankara, said the arrest of Gen Basbug showed that the government was putting pressure on the military through the courts. "I have said before that the specialised courts are not courts dispensing justice, but courts executing decisions made by the political authority," Mr Kilicdaroglu told reporters in Ankara. "I am still of that opinion."

The government kept a low profile today. Suat Kilic, the minister for youth and sports, told reporters it was perfectly normal for the government to refrain from comment, because Gen Basbug's detention was a matter for the judiciary.

Abdullah Gul, the president, said Gen Basbug was presumed innocent until proven guilty. "Everybody is equal before the law," the president said. Mr Gul's ascent to the top job was the reason why the military issued a coup threat in 2007.

tseibert@thenational.ae