ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The former head of Turkey's armed forces, General Ilker Basbug, was in custody on Friday on charges of trying to overthrow the government, a stunning move by the country's judiciary against a military that was once the ultimate power in the land.
Basbug, who retired in 2010 as chief of NATO's second-largest army, is the most senior officer to be caught up in the Ergenekon case, a long-running crackdown on the military and secularist establishment.
He was charged overnight and jailed, crowning a fall from grace for the once invincible military. The General Staff chief was effectively Turkey's ultimate power until Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government gradually eroded army influence in the last decade.
Erdogan has managed to engineer the transformation thanks to overwhelming public support for his government, now in its third term.
Police first unearthed evidence five years ago of an ultra-nationalist network dubbed "Ergenkon," said to be conspiring to create an atmosphere of chaos that could pave the way for military intervention to unseat the AK Party government because of the Islamist pedigree of its leaders. Erdogan denies that his socially conservative party harbours any religious agenda.
Hundreds of people have been arrested in the Ergenekon investigation, including military officers, academics, lawyers and journalists, though there are many sceptics over the existence of the shadowy network.
The former general was taken from an Istanbul courthouse in the early hours of Friday for a health check before being transported in a police convoy to Silivri prison, some 80 km (50 miles) 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 journalists on trial over alleged ties to the ultra-nationalist Ergenekon network said the charges against them were "a massacre of justice."
Basbug's lawyer has appealed to reverse the custody order.
Turkey's military, NATO's second-largest army, has long seen itself as the guarantor of the country's secular constitution, and had staged three coups between 1960 and 1980 and pressured another government from power in 1997.
Few Turks believe the military represents a threat to their democracy any longer, as Erdogan has decisively driven the generals out of the political sphere.
In the first government reaction to the court's decision, Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said the jailing of Basbug was an "important event" but played down concerns about its impact on relations with the military.
"I don't think it will affect civilian-army relations. There is a great normalisation process in Turkey, the point of view is changing, where whoever does something wrong, it is deemed wrong," he said in an interview with CNN Turk.
President Abdullah Gul appealed for calm and stressed the principle of suspects being innocent until proved guilty.
"We need to follow this with a cool head," Gul said.
Turkey's financial markets, hardened to political turmoil, showed no reaction to the news, with the lira and shares firmer.
MILITARY PRESTIGE ERODED
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 honour. Accusing a chief of general staff of forming a terrorist group is the biggest punishment I could be given," he was quoted as saying.
The current investigation of Basbug centres on allegations that the military set up websites to spread anti-government propaganda to destabilise Turkey.
Ergenekon is seen as part of a power struggle between Erdogan's AK party, which has roots in a banned Islamist party and swept to power in 2002, and the secularist establishment.
Critics accuse the government of scaremongering to silence opponents. The government denies any such motives.
The charge of leading a terrorist group is especially painful for an officer who spent his military career fighting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group, designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and EU.
The military is currently under the spotlight over airstrikes on the Iraqi border which killed 35 villagers mistaken for PKK fighters.
Its prestige suffered another blow this week when prosecutors sought life imprisonment for former general staff chief and president Kenan Evren for leading a 1980 coup.
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 democratisation process of Turkey. Many were sceptical that prosecutors would go this far," said military affairs analyst Lale Kemal.
"I would not be surprised if we see some commanders resign but I do not expect this to bring serious instability to Turkey," she said.
SENIOR ARMY RESIGNATIONS POSSIBLE
Turkish media reports this week suggested senior commanders could resign if Basbug was charged. The General Staff denied those reports but speculation continued.
"There is every possibility there will be resignations if cases continue to be brought like this," security analyst Gareth Jenkins said. "Morale is already at rock bottom. It is already affecting operational capability."
Last July, Basbug's successor and the heads of the army, navy and air force resigned in protest at the detention of more than 200 officers charged in a separate alleged conspiracy against the government, dubbed "Operation Sledgehammer."
Nicknamed pashas, a title dating back to Ottoman times, Turkey's once untouchable generals have seen their influence decline as Ankara pushes reforms aimed at strengthening civilian rule and winning Turkey's accession to the European Union.