Turkish court releases ex-Navy, Air Force chiefs without charges in coup plot

By Selcan Hacaoglu, AP
Thursday, February 25, 2010

Turkish court frees ex-Navy, Air Force chiefs

ANKARA, Turkey — A Turkish court released the former chiefs of the navy and air force late Thursday without charging them with involvement in an alleged coup plot several years ago to overthrow the Islamic-rooted government.

Twenty current and former senior officers, including five admirals and three generals, have been formally charged of plotting to topple Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, and ordered held in jail.

The court in Istanbul released former navy chief Adm. Ozden Ornek and former air force chief Gen. Ibrahim Firtina. Both were released hours after the country’s military chief, the president and the prime minister met to defuse tensions over the probe into the alleged military coup plot in 2003.

Firtina told reporters as he left the courthouse that he “clarified some misunderstandings about some issues …

“I believe that I have done this satisfactorily, and I am among you now,” Firtina said.

The tensions between Turkey’s two main political forces — the Islamic-based government and the fiercely secular military — have worried businesses and investors, shaking the markets. Opposition parties have urged early elections to end the turmoil.

Earlier Thursday, Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul held a rare, three-hour meeting with Gen. Ilker Basbug, chief of the military, and afterward all three issued a joint statement.

“The public must be assured that matters will be handled in line with the law and everyone should act responsibly not to damage institutions,” the statement said.

Television channels quoted Erdogan as saying that “it was a pleasant meeting.” But in pictures and video distributed by the palace, the military chief looked anxious and uneasy. Basbug and Erdogan carried briefcases — something unusual — and sat around a small round table.

Later, Erdogan sounded even more confident.

“Keep watching us,” Erdogan was quoted as saying by CNN-Turk television. “Early elections is certainly not on our party’s agenda. Everyone should know this.”

Opposition leaders claim the coup probe is tinged by politics, a charge the government rejects. It says it is trying to put the military, which has ousted four civilian governments since 1960, under civilian rule, just like it is done in Western democracies.

An analyst said the seeming consensus Thursday might be cosmetic.

“The summit meeting was aimed at easing tensions,” said Tufan Turenc, a political analyst for the daily Hurriyet newspaper. “But unfortunately, the institutions are in a position not to trust each other anymore.”

The Istanbul court formally charged eight more military officers of plotting to topple the government, increasing the number of officers who have been charged and jailed to 20. Other high-ranking generals were still yet to be questioned.

Wiretap evidence and the discovery of alleged plans for a military coup drafted in 2003 — a year after the current Islamic-based government was elected — led to the detention of about 50 military commanders by police Monday.

The court must decide whether to formally charge, arrest and jail them. Some are accused of plotting to blow up mosques and kill some non-Muslim figures to foment chaos and trigger a military takeover.

Turkey’s top court has warned that no one was immune from prosecution if they violate the law.

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

Sedat Laciner, head of the Ankara-based think tank USAK, said the military was particularly uneasy over the fact that it failed to punish its own, and that left those officers to the mercy of civilians.

“Today soldiers are on trial in civilian courts, which did not happen before,” he noted.

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