Former Turkish armed forces chief General Ilker Basbug spent his first night behind bars yesterday, charged with trying to overthrow the government in an unprecedented development likely to exacerbate tensions with the military.
Basbug, who retired in 2010, is the highest-ranking officer to be caught up in the so-called Ergenekon case, a long-running crackdown on Turkey’s once all-powerful military and secularist establishment.
The former general was taken from an Istanbul courthouse in the early hours of yesterday for a health check before being transported in a police convoy to Silivri prison, about 80km west of the city, where hundreds of defendants in the Ergenekon case are being tried in a specially built courtroom.
“The Republic of Turkey’s 26th general chief-of-staff has been remanded in custody for forming and directing a terrorist group. I leave it to the great Turkish nation to judge,” Basbug said as he was led from the courtroom.
The decision to send Basbug to jail came hours after prominent Turkish journalists on trial over alleged ties to the ultra-nationalist Ergenekon network said the charges against them were “a massacre of justice.”
Ergenekon is accused by prosecutors of being behind multiple conspiracies against Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party government, and several hundred suspects, including retired senior military officers, academics, lawyers and journalists, have been detained in cases related to the network.
Investigations into Ergenekon have spiraled since they first started in 2007, and critics accuse Erdogan’s government of scaremongering to silence opponents. The government denies any such motives. Basbug, facing charges of “gang leadership” and seeking to unseat the government by force, told the court after seven hours of questioning by prosecutors that he rejected the charges and described them as “tragicomic,” broadcaster NTV reported.
“To hear such an allegation hurts my pride as a general who has done his duty to the country and state with honor. Accusing a chief of general staff of forming a terrorist group is the biggest punishment I could be given,” he was quoted as saying.
Basbug’s lawyer said he would challenge the decision to jail him pending trial, state-run Anatolian news agency reported.
“The fact that prosecutors are now touching senior generals is a turning point in the democratization process of Turkey. Many were skeptical that prosecutors would go this far,” military affairs analyst Lale Kemal said.
“I would not be surprised if we see some commanders resign [if Basbug is remanded in custody], but I do not expect this to bring serious instability to Turkey,” she said.
Turkish media reports this week suggested senior commanders could resign if Basbug was charged in the case. The General Staff subsequently issued a statement denying those reports but speculation about possible resignations continued.
Turkey’s once untouchable generals have seen their influence decline as Ankara pushes reforms aimed at strengthening civilian rule and winning Turkey’s EU accession.
The current investigation of Basbug centers on allegations that the military set up Web sites to spread anti-government propaganda to destabilize Turkey.
Turkey’s military, NATO’s second-largest army, has long seen itself as the guarantor of the country’s secular constitution, and staged three coups between 1960 and 1980 and pressured another government from power in 1997.