Prosecutors interrogate 51 senior Turkish officers in alleged coup plot

By Selcan Hacaoglu, AP
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Prosecutors interrogate 51 Turkish officers

ANKARA, Turkey — The details and veracity of the latest Turkey coup plot allegations are unknown, but the narrative is clear: The army at the highest levels stands accused of plotting several years ago to overthrow the Islamic-leaning government of Turkey.

Turkey was abuzz Tuesday with speculation over whether recordings of the plotters, posted on leading Web sites, could possibly be genuine.

In one, a top officer accuses the political leadership of trying to “tear down the country and carry it into another (Islamic) regime.” He vows: “I will unleash (my forces) over Istanbul. … It is our duty to act without mercy.”

At the heart of the matter is a fundamental Turkish paradox. The army sees itself as the protector of modernity at a time when democracy and modernity may be on a collision course in Turkey, whose government has strong electoral backing and the European Union’s support.

Yet it is telling that the man who headed the military at the time of the supposed plot remains untouched, a stoic emblem of the old system.

The wiretap evidence and discovery of alleged military plans to overthrow Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government led to the detention of 51 ranking officers, including former chiefs of the Air Force, Navy and Special Forces.

Prosecutors questioned them Tuesday over the plot, which they supposedly prepared in 2003 when they were on active duty. The military has strongly denied the allegations.

The military said in a statement that all top generals and admirals met at the military headquarters on Tuesday to evaluate “the serious situation” regarding the investigation. It made no further statement.

It is the highest profile crackdown ever on the Turkish military, which has ousted four governments since 1960 and has viewed Erdogan’s government as a threat to the nation-state they built from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923.

Islam, however, remained a potent force at the grassroots level.

Erdogan mobilized those masses with a business-friendly, pragmatist and mildly Islamic approach to become a formidable enemy of Turkey’s senior officers, who were once deemed untouchable.

The roots of the conflict in Turkey, a NATO member with more than 70 million people, lie in the era of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern state and early 20th century war hero who viewed Islam as an impediment to development.

Ataturk imposed a secular system with an authoritarian streak, restricting religious dress, education and practices. Today, his ideological heirs spar with a government that they fear is undermining the secular establishment

Erdogan, however, insists his efforts to improve human rights and bring Turkey into line with EU standards is evidence that his government is seeking to enhance democracy, while putting the military under civilian rule as in the West.

The alleged secret military plans — dubbed “the sledgehammer” — included blowing up some mosques during Friday prayers and turning stadiums into open-air prisons capable of holding tens of thousands of people if they challenged the troops.

Liberal daily Taraf newspaper, the first to publish the alleged coup plans, called the crackdown “the heaviest sledgehammer to military custody.”

Deniz Baykal, head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, accused the government Tuesday of engaging in a “political showdown.” Erdogan denies the crackdown is politically driven.

The crackdown has signaled that a major political shift is under way in Turkey, NATO’s sole Muslim member and a U.S. ally. The country’s stability is crucial for Washington and the EU, which want Turkey to develop into a mature democracy.

“What is striking about this struggle is that nobody had ever held the military accountable for what it had done. No one ever said what you are doing is wrong,” Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said by telephone from Washington. “A societal change is taking place in Turkey at the moment.”

It is widely believed that Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, then head of the military, did not back his subordinates. He was not implicated in the alleged plot.

It was the latest in a series of alleged coup plots in recent years. More than 400 people, including academics, journalists and politicians in addition to soldiers, have already been charged in a previous case. No one has been convicted.

Associated Press Writer Ceren Kumova contributed to this report.

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