SILIVRI, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkey's former armed forces chief raised a clenched fist and waved to supporters when he faced terrorism charges on Monday in a historic trial that demonstrates the ebbing power of an army that once ranged above the country's political leaders.
General Ilker Basbug, chief of staff from 2008 to 2010, exchanged salutes with former colleagues during a short break in a trial encroaching on sensitive territory in a country that saw three coups in the second half of the 20th century.
"The Turkish army has never been defeated," one fellow officer told Basbug.
"Of course! All this will pass," Basbug, dressed in a dark civilian suit, replied.
The court, sitting in the Silivri high security prison complex, underlined the fall of the military at the start of proceedings by denying Basbug's opening appeal to have his case considered by the Supreme Court.
Basbug is accused of being a leader of a shadowy network dubbed "Ergenekon", behind a string of alleged plots against the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. The accusation is that Ergenekon planned campaigns of disinformation, bombings and assassinations to stir panic and precipitate an army coup.
Comments by Basbug's lawyer reflected a sense among some conservatives that the case itself, and not Basbug, presented a challenge to the constitutional order.
"The allegation...is not only against Ilker Basbug, but also against the Turkish armed forces and even, in political terms, the state," lawyer Ilkay Sezer said on the eve of the trial.
The military has viewed Erdogan, a man with roots in political Islam, and his AK Party with deep suspicion since it was first elected in 2002. Since then, it has built up a huge majority in parliament, reformed the judiciary and used authority bolstered by economic success to strip the military of the power it has enjoyed virtually to make or break governments.
Addressing journalists outside the court, Sezer said he would continue to press for a Supreme Court trial. "I still believe that this court is not authorized to try my client."
Behind him, a couple of dozen people waved Turkish flags -- white crescent and star on a red background and held aloft posters of Basbug.
One banner read: "Soldiers cannot be terrorists. The sun cannot be covered with mud."
The case against Basbug features websites allegedly set up by the military to spread "black propaganda" against the government until 2008, including one titled "Islamic fundamentalism".
"The websites had exaggerated news headlines on the threat from fundamentalism in Turkey designed to provoke the people against the executive organ and create an atmosphere of chaos in the country," the indictment said.
It cited articles with headlines such as "The AKP is gently Islamicising", "The AKP worked for theologians", "The AKP's headscarf plan worked" and "there is no room for women in the AKP".
A search of a website archive indicated that an article was last posted on the "Islamic fundamentalism" website in December 2008, the year that Basbug took up his post.
The military's psychological operations websites date back several years and were active during the time of Basbug's predecessor Yasar Buyukanit.
"CELL BLOCK NUMBER FIVE"
Basbug branded the case against him as tragi-comic when he was first detained in January.
Dressed in a dark suit and tie, he was the first of 29 defendants to confirm his identity to the bench of three judges.
His answers to judges were to the point. Asked where he was living, Basbug said: "Since January 6, I've been staying at Silivri prison, cell block number five."
He gave his monthly income as 7,000 lira ($3,900), and said he paid rent of around 1,000 lira on his residence in Istanbul's Fenerbahce neighbourhood.
Waiting for proceedings to begin, the 68-year-old retiree drummed his fingers impatiently, and sipped from a plastic water bottle on the table, without opening the leather document folder before him.
The 100 or so spectators in the courtroom were dominated by well-dressed men and women from Basbug's generation. Basbug waved to several co-defendants who called out to their former chief, and raised a clenched fist as a sign of solidarity with one old colleague also on trial.
Chatting with family and friends during a break, Basbug told them he was in good health.
Basbug is the most senior officer among hundreds of secularists facing conspiracy and terrorism charges.
For many Turks it had appeared increasingly likely that the special prosecutors, given free rein to investigate by the government, would work their way to the top of the military chain of command in their hunt for anti-government conspiracies.
During his pre-trial detention Basbug has shared a cell with two other generals in the top-security prison at Silivri, west of Istanbul, where an extra large courtroom has been specially built to hear Ergenekon and "Sledgehammer"-related cases.
Basbug's case was heard in a smaller courtroom in the same complex, as a Sledgehammer hearing was underway in the main courtroom.
1980 COUP LEADERS UP NEXT
Police say they discovered Ergenekon when they seized a secret arms cache in 2007, yet many Turks still doubt it exists.
Basbug is just a witness in the Sledgehammer case, which revolves around a 2003 seminar that prosecutors say contained blueprints for a coup, though the military says it was just a war game. Some 365 people are being tried in the case, including the retired commander of the prestigious First Army.
Turkey's generals traditionally saw themselves as guardians of the secular state envisaged by the republic's founder, soldier-statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. It was long the most popular institution in Turkish public life and its utterances treated with a mixture of awe and respect.
Like the judiciary, the generals distrusted Erdogan and other members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) with an Islamist past.
Erdogan denies any ambitions to forge an Islamist state and insists he is committed to a secular political system.
The military staged three coups between 1960 and 1980 and forced an Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, to quit in 1997. These days, however, it is Erdogan who cracks the whip in Turkey as he enters his second decade in power.
On April 4, the court in Ankara will hold the first hearing in the trial of generals who led the 1980 coup, including 94-year-old former military chief and ex-president Kenan Evren.
Tension between the military and the AKP was running high in 2007 when the generals opposed the nomination of Abdullah Gul for the presidency because of his Islamist pedigree. They never regained their clout after failing to cow Erdogan and Gul.
With strong public support, the AKP government brought the military to heel with democratic reforms. Endless investigations into coup plots tarnished the image of the once untouchable top brass.
(Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore)