Two Turkish generals held over plot to kill Nobel laureate

Conspirators 'planned armed rebellion to destabilise Turkey'

Turkish police have arrested two retired top generals they believe were members of a state-backed gang suspected of a slew of high-profile killings and a plot to murder the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk.

The former military police chief Sener Eruygur and Hursit Tolon, former army number two, were among 25 people taken into custody in Ankara early yesterday in the latest twist in investigations that began last year.

Dozens of people – including another retired general and a prominent ultra-nationalist lawyer – are already in custody on charges of "provoking armed rebellion against the government".

The plotters' plan, allegedly, was to assassinate public intellectuals, Kurdish politicians, even target military personnel, as part of a campaign to destabilise Turkish society and force military intervention.

The arrests mark a sudden intensification of a power struggle consuming the country. The arrest of the two members of the secular establishment came on the same day that the religious-minded ruling party was fighting court charges aimed at shutting it down.

The country's senior prosecutor has brought a case against the AK Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accusing it of trying to establish an Islamic state. If the prosecution results in the party being banned it is likely to lead to political turmoil and an early parliamentary election.

The latest developments hit the Turkish stock market and could dim Turkey's chances of joining the European Union.

The editor of the liberal daily Radikal, Ismet Berkan, compared the plan to the civil unrest in 1960 that preceded the first of Turkey's three full-on coups. "It's a classic model, a classic case of social engineering", he said.

"The difference is that, this time, for the first time in Turkey's history, four-star generals – the big fish – have been hauled in by a civilian prosecutor."

Not everybody shares his view. Coming just hours before the state prosecutor in the case against the Islamic-rooted government argued his case in court, the arrests are seen by many as the latest step in an increasingly bitter power struggle between government and state.

"It's not one coup d'etat Turkey is facing, it's two," said Cuneyt Ulsever, a liberal columnist for the mass market daily Hurriyet who is critical of AKP's increasingly authoritarian rhetoric.

The state prosecution issued the charges in March, saying the AKP should be dissolved because it threatens Turkey's secular principles. Party leaders deny the charge. Prosecutors also are calling for about 70 AK party members, including Mr Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, to be barred from politics.

Belma Akcura, an investigative journalist, is also concerned about the way the investigation into what Turks have dubbed the "Ergenekon" network is unfolding.

"It's been over a year and we still don't know for sure what these people are being accused of," she said. "I get the feeling the government is using Ergenekon as a card in its own fight for life – 'take me down, and I'll take you down too.'"

Yet as the author of a recent book on what Turks call the "Deep State", which means a paramilitary grouping of military and civilian bureaucrats and mafia opposed to full democracy, Ms Akcura is not surprised by the accusations or the identities of the people arrested.

Turkey's army has long considered itself the final arbiter on the nature of the country's regime, she pointed out, adding "paramilitary efforts to shape politics go back at least 50 years".

A well-known hardliner, Sener Eruygur, was revealed last year to have played a central role in two aborted attempts to unseat the government in 2004.

The first – codenamed "Yellow Girl", a popular Turkish name for cows – was a plan for direct military intervention that foundered because of the opposition of the Chief of Staff. The second, "Moonshine", was closer to Ergenekon and its scheme to mould public opinion via the media.

Mr Berkan said: "They came to talk to all the big media bosses in 2004 to ask for their support. They didn't get it."

Mr Eruygur appears not to have forgotten the slight. When the staunchly secularist lobbying group he has led since his retirement organised massive protests last year, a favourite slogan was "buy one Tayyip, get two Aydin Dogans free." (Tayyip is the Prime Minister, Aydin Dogan is in charge of the country's biggest media group.)

For Alper Gormus, left-leaning editor of the investigative magazine that revealed the 2004 coup plans last year and was shut down for its pains, Mr Eruygur's arrest is evidence of a fundamental change in the balance of power between the elected government and the state. "People say Turkey is in crisis and they are right, but what revolution comes to pass without a political crisis?", he asked.

"What we are living through today are the birth pangs of a new regime – the death of 60 years of limited democracy, the birth of a Turkey that has the full democracy it deserves."

*Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, has arrived in Ankara where he is expected to discuss bilateral relations and regional issues, including efforts to resolve the standoff with Iran over its disputed nuclear programme. Mr Lavrov's visit to Turkey, which borders Iran, comes amid renewed demands for more diplomatic pressure on Iran over its nuclear activities.

Who is Orhan Pamuk?

A best-selling novelist at home and abroad, Orhan Pamuk became the first Turkish author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006.

His achievement met with an ambiguous reaction in his home country, where his literary reputation had been all but forgotten amid a scandal over comments he made to a Swiss newspaper the year before.

"Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it," Pamuk told Tages-Anzeiger in February 2005. A prosecutor promptly charged him with "insulting Turkishness" under the most notorious of a raft of Turkish laws limiting freedom of speech. He was cleared in January 2006, but not before the car ferrying him to court had been attacked by an angry mob of nationalists. Facing death threats, he left Turkey and now spends most of his time in the United States.

Talking about Turkey's conflict with Kurdish separatists and the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in 1915 remains taboo among conservative Turks.

But possibly his greatest crime, in a country which can feel positively Sicilian in its insistence that dirty washing be kept "in the family", was to talk to foreigners about it.

Most Turks remain convinced that Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for political, not literary, reasons.

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