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TURKEY: ‘Plots’ Not Very European

ISTANBUL, Jan 12 2009 (IPS) - In widespread sweeps, dozens of prominent personalities have been detained in Turkey – among them retired generals, active officers, academics and journalists – on suspicion of attempting to overthrow the Islamic-rooted government.

The opposition is crying foul, and sees it as a move to stifle dissent and engage in vendetta because of their earlier attempts to ban religious parties.

Turkey, the first Muslim country aspiring for European Union membership, appears still saddled with coups and coup plots, that the EU has long been free of.

The country has had four of its elected governments booted out by the military since the introduction of multi-party democracy in 1950. The armour intervened against perceived Islamic militancy to protect a secular order it considers its mission to preserve.

And there may still be plots to overturn the administration of the country’s Islamic-inspired government under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to the new allegations.

Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin said the detentions were aimed at ridding the country of clandestine gangs and to make it more democratic. “Turkey is cleansing its intestines,” he said.

What is at stake in ‘the trial of the century’ of the detained persons could decide the future of a major member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) caught in a dogfight between entrenched secular forces, and political Islam with wide popular support.

“The case certainly has political overtones,” Jerome Bastion, Istanbul-based French author and analyst of Turkish politics told IPS. “There also are legal grounds for accusations, but the way the accused were detained creates doubts.” Some were hauled in during post-midnight raids at their homes.

Now backing the prosecution, the ruling party was at the receiving end last year when a different set of prosecutors asked for it to be banned for being a hotbed of Islamist agitation. In a cliff-hanger trial, the 11-member Constitutional Court condemned the party as charged but shied away by a single vote from closing it down.

The ruling party called that trial an attempt by secular prosecutors to stage a “judicial coup” against a party that had come to power with a massive 47 percent of the vote. Now, it is the reverse. The party in power leads the prosecution, and the secular opponents are calling this a witch-hunt.

Those arrested now “have one thing in common: their enmity to AKP,” says Ahmet Yalvac, a restaurant owner in Istanbul. “I am not sure if innocent ones are not being taken in just because of their views.”

The 100 or so who stand accused are so diverse that doubts are being raised whether they knew each other, and how they could have worked to topple the government. The mastermind has yet to be found, if there ever was one.

The indictment says the plotters did not plan direct moves to take control of the government, but conspired to create internal chaos through targeted assassinations and bombings that would entice the military to take over once again.

The top military brass, which still sees itself as protector against both external and internal threats to the established secular order, has not taken sides openly so far. But it is irked. Some senior officers and a slew of retired generals are among those detained. The military has expressed its sympathy with arrested generals through courtesy visits to them in jails.

Senior commanders met urgently last week, and Chief of General Staff Gen. Ilter Basbug held an unscheduled meeting with Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, both founders of the AKP.

The military, subject only to nominal civilian authority, had openly opposed Gul’s ascendancy to presidency. It occasionally expresses views differing from the government.

Some of the retired military leaders charged are the ones who were active in driving an Islamist-led coalition from power in a “coup-by-communiqué” in 1997 – when the army threatened to step in unless the government stepped down. The government collapsed.

This time the traditional secular parties are weak, and secular opposition to the ruling party is being led by the media, academics and not least the military, which never stops watching and, when it judges necessary, marches in.

The country trying to integrate itself into the EU has produced no more coups yet, but it is not short of reports of coup plots.

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