By Arresting a Top Military Man, Turkey's Government Throws Down the Gauntlet

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Adem Altan / AFP / Getty Images

This picture taken on December 26, 2009 shows Turkish Chief of the General staff Ilker Basbug speaking at the army headquarters in Ankara.

Turkey's democratically-elected government has broken a decades-old taboo on holding generals accountable to the law by detaining the former head of the country's armed forces in the course of investigating an alleged coup plot. General Ilker Basbug, who stepped down in 2010, was taken in for questioning on Thursday, making him the highest-ranking officer to be detained over an alleged plot to overthrow the moderate Islamist-oriented government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Basbug is accused of giving his approval, while serving as army chief, for several anonymous websites run by military staff that published anti-government propaganda. This, prosecutors say, links him to Ergenekon, an alleged shadowy illegal and armed network of military men, lawyers and businesspeople under investigation since 2007, which had sought to destabilize Turkey to create a pretext for the military to oust Erdogan from power.

"The Turkish army is one of the world's strongest and most respected militaries," Basbug told prosecutors during a seven-hour interrogation. "It is a tragi-comedy that someone who commanded such an army could be accused of leading a terrorist organization."

Turkey's military, which is the second-largest in NATO, had dominated the country's politics for decades, routinely removing elected civilian governments of which it disapproved, and allegedly forming the center of a "Deep State" through which generals, judges and other officials committed to an authoritarian nationalist vision of Turkey exercised an effective veto over Turkish democracy.

"That there were people at the Chief of Staff HQ engaged in anti-government psychological propanganda is a fact, " says Sedat Ergin, a senior columnist at Turkey's largest daily, Hurriyet . "It is undisputable. But whether this constitutes a coup attempt is another question."

Basbug's detention may mark a milestone in for civilian political authority in Turkey, but not all democrats are celebrating. More than four years into the Ergenekon investigation, there is growing concern that the Islamist-leaning AK Party government is also using it as a pretext to jail opponents — including journalists and academics skeptical of its own democratic credentials. "It would not be wrong to say that the Ergenekon investigation and trial is a tool for the AKP to restrict freedoms," wrote well-known investigative journalist Ahmet Sik in his banned book The Imam's Army. He has been in jail for 11 months on dubious charges related to the book and despite international outcry — proof, say his supporters, of the point made in his book. (The book has since been reprinted under a different title and become a best-seller.)

Sik and others argue that the police and prosecutors spearheading the Ergenekon investigation are backed by the Gulen movement — a secretive and highly disciplined movement (Islamist groups remain banned in Turkey) of Muslim laity whose membership is suspected by some to number in the millions. It is led by Fetullah Gulen, an elderly imam based in Pennsylvania since 1998 after fleeing Turkey to avoid being tried for seeking to introduce Islamic rule. (He was acquitted in 2006.) Gulen's followers are believed to be a leading force within the AKP, and he controls a major newspaper and several TV stations. But his crowning glory is a sprawling network of successful schools in 140 countries that operate like Muslim missionaries, promoting welfare work, education and interfaith dialogue.

Sik's book describes a close relationship between the AKP and the Gulenist network — the Gulenists, he argues, supplied votes for Erdogan and helped him in his campaign to rein in Turkey's staunchly secularist military in exchange for more power over the security forces and some ministries. The AKP has not commented on the issue of ties to the Gulen movement, or other allegations in the book. Many observers, including an ex-police chief and former minister, believe the Gulenists are now dominant within Turkey's police forces. Anyone with an even vaguely public profile, for example, now assumes their phones are tapped. Journalists who write about Gulen fear reprisal — several others are on trial alongside Sik. Nor is it clear what the movement's long-term goals are. Gulen himself says he is a voice for moderate Islam and devotes much time to promoting cross-religious tolerance. But while the government has dismantled one secretive power center — the "Deep State" — critics charge that it has allowed another to emerge.

The Ergenekon investigation began in 2007 after the discovery of a stash of hand grenades and documents in a retired officer's Istanbul home. That prompted a series of arrests, beginning with low-ranking officers and eventually reaching the top brass, but extending outside the military. Suspects have languished in jail for months while hearings continue at a glacial pace. Basbug has been sent to the Silivri prison, west of Istanbul, where he is being held with other Ergenekon suspects. His lawyer said he would appeal the decision to hold him in custody pending trial. Such is the political climate outside the purpose-built courtroom where Ergenekon suspects are tried, however, the attitude of many Turks to the investigation is governed by whether they support or oppose the Erdogan government.