A Turkish court formally arrested 14 more people on Sunday for ties to an alleged secularist plot by ultranationalists to bring down the Islamic-rooted government, bringing the total of people involved in the case to more than 100.
The prime minister said the crackdown will shed light on a network of renegade agents within the state and make Turkey transparent. Critics say it is designed to silence the government’s opponents.
The case highlights a difficult question about who holds the levers of power in a country where tensions between secularists and Islamists, and liberals and rightists, have created deep fault lines in the country.
The problem is aggravated by key demands from the EU — which Turkey hopes to join — to reduce the military’s influence in politics, make security officials accountable for torture and grant more rights to the country’s Kurds.
Over the weekend, an Istanbul anti-terror court formally arrested and jailed 18 coup plot suspects, including a former police chief and four active duty military officers. Fourteen of the 18 were arrested on Sunday.
Police detained another 33 suspects in the case on Sunday and displayed confiscated weapons. Prosecutors say the plot aimed to destabilize Turkey through a series of attacks and trigger a coup this year.
There are already 86 suspects on trial in the case and they include a top author, a political party leader, journalists, a former university dean and a lawyer along with 16 retired military officers. All were outspoken opponents of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan’s party — which narrowly escaped a ban last year for allegedly undermining the country’s secular principles — says it is trying to strengthen democracy to steer the country toward EU membership even as allegations mount from the secular opposition that the government is using its power to silence critics.
“Are you afraid of seeing Turkey becoming more transparent? Are you afraid of efforts to enlighten sinister incidents?” Erdogan shouted on Sunday. “Turkey is changing.”
Erdogan has alarmed secularists for trying to lift the ban on Islamic head scarves at universities, and nationalists for policies such as launching the country’s first 24-hour Kurdish-language TV station on Jan. 1. He uttered a few words in the once-banned tongue in a marked shift policy toward Kurds.
Turkey’s military, an instigator of coups in past decades, has warned that secular ideals are in peril, though an armed intervention seems unlikely for now. But many officers are uncomfortable with the government’s Kurdish policy as they fight a war against autonomy-seeking rebels that has killed nearly 40,000 people since 1984.
The coup plot case underlines a widening divide between the country’s growing Islamic class and secularists.
The roots of the conflict lie in the era of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey and early 20th-century war hero who viewed Islam as an impediment to modern development and a symbol of the ills of the Ottoman Empire.
Ataturk imposed a secular system with an authoritarian streak, restricting religious dress, education and practices.