'Defenders of Ataturk' on trial for plotting to overthrow government

Controversial case begins amid tension between supporters of secular army and backers of Turkish government

In a case described as the most important in Turkey's history, two retired four-star generals went on trial yesterday at a high-security court outside Istanbul, charged with trying to overthrow the government.

For some, the arrest of the highest-ranking officers in Turkey's 63-year history of multi-party democracy is a critical blow against a once-untouchable military that has toppled four elected governments since 1960.

For others, the charges are an invention of the ruling AKP party to weaken the secular army and open the way for the country's Islamisation.

There are 56 defendants in the case, including journalists, university rectors and businessmen. Outside the courtroom in Silivri, hundreds of their supporters waved national flags and portraits of Ataturk, the secularist founder of modern Turkey. "The patriots are in prison," they chanted.

Inside, the mood was sardonic. "Silivri jail," one of the accused answered, when the judge asked for his address. Asked his occupation, a former mayor responded "professional criminal". One of the retired generals – Hursit Tolon – was in court, wearing a business suit and looking relaxed as he answered questions. The other – Sener Eruygur – did not attend because of his poor health.

In the 1,900-page indictment, prosecutors allege that the men are part of a group bent on triggering a coup against the Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan. Dubbed Ergenekon after a legend of Turks' Central Asian origins, the group formed in 2003, when the one-year-old AKP government pushed through laws to help the country's EU accession talks get under way.

It is alleged the group was unnerved by AKP's roots in political Islam and because its European-backed reforms undermined the army's traditional position at the centre of politics.

"We should have sorted this business out on 28th February, damn it," the indictment quotes one general as saying, referring to a 1997 coup. "There wasn't the EU then ... Now everything is much more difficult."

After the army chief of staff had blocked an alleged coup plot by top generals in 2003, prosecutors say, the conspirators changed tack, deciding to force military intervention by playing on the fear of Islam held by many Turks to destabilise the country. In May 2006, they ordered grenade attacks against a secularist newspaper. A fortnight later, a lawyer walked into one of the pillars of Turkey's secular establishment, the High Administrative Court and shot dead a judge.

Blamed at first on Islamists, the judge's murder sparked public outrage. At his funeral, angry crowds tried to beat AKP cabinet ministers. Within months, millions had taken to the streets to listen to calls from speakers, hand-picked by the No 1 suspect in yesterday's trial, for the military to intervene. In April 2007, it did, issuing a statement that forced early elections – which AKP won.

But in December 2008, the High Court of Appeals ruled that the murderer, who had been sentenced to life by another court, should be retried as a part of the Ergenekon investigation.

A lawyer for General Eruygur, the group's alleged leader, has described the charges against her client as "malicious lies". A secular opposition politician has compared the investigations to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Despite appearances, the investigation has been as much the result of co-operation between the military and the government as a clash: none of the officers charged with Ergenekon membership could have been arrested without the consent of the current chief of staff, Ilker Basbug.

Over the past month, however, that tacit entente has begun to crumble. At the end of June, after the publication of a document outlining another alleged military plot against the government, General Basbug complained of an "organised smear campaign" against the army. In another twist last week, pro-government newspapers claimed that members of a board responsible for appointing magistrates were trying to stifle ongoing investigations by removing prosecutors in charge of the Ergenekon case.

With frictions between state institutions rising, and the Ergenekon case coming to resemble a tug-of-war between factions united only by a questionable attachment to democracy, even supporters of the investigation are starting to fear it may do as much harm as good. Umit Cizre, an expert on civilian-military relations, noted: "There is nobody left to trust".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Part Time

£10500 - £14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Part Time Accounts Assistant ...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant

£18000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company supply, install an...

Tradewind Recruitment: Reception Teacher

£120 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: An excellent three form entry scho...

The Green Recruitment Company: Commercial Construction Manager

£65000 Per Annum bonus & benefits package: The Green Recruitment Company: The ...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'