ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Raising a clenched fist to supporters and storming at one point from the courtroom, former military chief Ilker Basbug has cut a defiant figure defending the army’s prestige at his trial for terrorism. But the extraordinary scenes have stirred mixed emotions among Turks and raised questions about the way a sprawling coup plot investigation is being handled.
“The Turkish army has never been defeated,” one fellow officer told General Basbug in court at the start of his trial this week in the Silivri high-security prison where the former commander has been jailed since January.
“Of course! All this will pass,” Basbug replied, having denounced his trial as an assault on the entire military leadership and a “black stain” on the country’s history.
The reality is that NATO’s second biggest army has already been defeated as a dominant political force in Turkey. The sight of a former Chief of General Staff in the dock on terrorism charges would only a few years ago have been unthinkable.
For the “Pashas”, there is little prospect of a return to the days when the army staged coups, some bloody, some an act of behind the scenes pressure, to unseat governments in the name of stability and defence of Turkish secular democracy.
Basbug’s personal battle to prove his innocence got off to a explosive start this week. Besides his brief exit from the court room, he refused to recognise the authority of the court and, talking to journalists expressed horror at the terrorism charge.
Besides those who demonstrated support alongside the barbed wire-topped fence of the prison, there was some sympathy on the streets of the country’s biggest city, Istanbul.
“Why would a man as powerful as Basbug join a terrorist organization? He’s already the head of one of the best armies in the world,” said pharmaceuticals sector worker Guven, 33, drinking tea in an upmarket district of Istanbul.
“He has a million armed men ready to act as soon as he says the word. It doesn’t make sense to me. Justice is losing prestige with such frivolous allegations,” said Guven, who declined his given his surname.
Basbug is among hundreds of officers, lawyers, academics and journalists charged with membership of an alleged underground network, Ergenekon, that planned a campaign of disinformation, bombings and assassinations to precipitate an army coup against a government suspected by some of Islamist ambitions.
Legal experts questioned elements of the prosecution and there was support for Basbug’s argument, rejected by the court, that he should be tried by the supreme court, or Yuce Divan.
“The constitution is clear that the Yuce Divan is the place for chiefs of staff and force commanders to be tried for crimes related to their duties,” constitutional professor Ergun Ozbudun told Reuters.
“The court is exceeding its authority in my view and it is insisting on it. I hope this mistake will be corrected at the appeals court stage,” Ozbudun said.
Basbug’s court room clash with judges hearing a case he has dubbed a “comedy” vividly illustrated tensions that have simmered between the military and Erdogan.
Since coming to power in 2002, Erdogan’s government has gradually reined in the previously dominant generals, who had just a few years earlier had engineered the departure of Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister in what became known as the ‘post-modern coup”.
Despite the historical significance of the top general’s court appearance, newspapers gave the trial only limited front page coverage on Wednesday, possibly reflecting political sensitivities rather than news judgement on the day.
That said, there is a degree of public weariness and confusion at an array of coup probes dating back to the police discovery of a hidden arms cache in Istanbul in 2007.
The Konda research consultancy said this month some 60 percent of Turks believe Ergenekon exists and those involved should be prosecuted. So, despite five years of investigations, there has been a dearth of convictions, and some 40 percent have their doubts.
And there is a persistent chorus of critics who question the investigations and argue that they have been used to stifle opposition to the government.
The polarisation between supporters and opponents of Erdogan’s AK Party is evident on the streets of Istanbul, where some saw the Ergenekon trials as an attack on the secular republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
“They’re trying to undermine everything and everyone who loves Ataturk. They are trying to change the system into an Islamic republic. I don’t believe Ergenekon exists,” said Aysenur, 19, as she shopped with a friend.
Many see the case as revenge for the 1997 ‘post-modern coup’, but the government denies any political motivation.
Advocates of the investigation, however, see it as part of the country’s democratisation and say Basbug should not be given special treatment.
“Everyone is equal before the law. His former title doesn’t give Basbug the right to walk out of court,” said Osman Ozal, a man in his fifties, between pulls on his cigarette.
“Everyone is equal in the eyes of God and justice.”
Basbug’s trial is another milestone in the diminishing status of the military.
Erdogan established control over the armed forces after its failed attempt to prevent former Islamist Abdullah Gul from becoming president in 2007. The General Staff posted a note on its website cautioning against his appointment, clearly expecting the government to back down. Cabinet, however, called the military’s bluff and publicly rejected the advice.
Erdogan’s dominance was assured by the resignation of Basbug’s successor and the other force commanders last year in protest at the detention of more than 200 officers in another army coup plot investigation -- “Sledgehammer”.
Among the most enthusiastic opponents of the investigations is the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), two of whose deputies are in jail as Ergenekon defendants.
CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu questioned the integrity of the Ergenekon judges and described the Silivri prison where they are held as a “concentration camp”.
The charge of leading a terrorist group is especially painful for an officer who spent his military career fighting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant group designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the EU.
Veteran commentator Taha Akyol found the charge perplexing.
“In order to say that somebody is a ‘terrorist group leader’ it is essential for that person to have a close link to violence even if he does not comment violence himself. There is not even an allegation of that against Basbug,” Akyol said in the Hurriyet daily.
He also found an apparent contradiction in an indictment that describes Basbug as both a top leader of Ergenekon and just an “intermediate leader” conducting psychological operations for the group.
After last year’s resignation of the top brass and with many former leading military figures like Basbug in jail, the armed forces now face the task of carving out a fresh role under new chief General Necdet Ozel.
In a sign of a possibly more harmonious relationship between government and military, Erdogan recently addressed the military academies in Istanbul. President Gul also attended army manoeuvres for the first time in the southeast of the country.
For all the bluster of the Silivri courtroom, ministers and the “Pashas” may yet be finding a way to live together.
Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz; Writing by Daren Butler