A former Turkish military chief suspected of leading an Internet campaign to stir revolt was jailed Friday in a sweeping investigation of alleged conspiracies to topple a civilian government that has stripped the armed forces of political clout.
Gen. Ilker Basbug, 68, was the most senior officer to face trial in the anti-terror probes that began years ago, netting hundreds of suspects, many of them retired and active-duty military officers. The government casts the inquiries as a triumph for the rule of law and democracy, but suspicions of score-settling, long imprisonments without verdicts and other lapses have tainted the legal process.
The investigations serve as a pivotal test for Turkey's ability to put its own house in order even as it seeks a higher profile in a turbulent region where the Turkish brand of electoral politics and Islam-inspired government is viewed by some as worthy of emulation.
Perhaps most notable about Basbug's arrest was the muted public response in a country where civilian leaders were once beholden to the generals, and any hint of conflict stirred fears of a coup. The power balance shifted in the past decade as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan undermined the premise that the military brass were the untouchable guardians of secularism, as enshrined in the constitution.
The Turkish military is a part of the national fabric, cloaked in the lore of sacrifice and a conduit for millions of young men who join as conscripts. It assists ably in Afghanistan and other NATO missions, but its private network of construction and other businesses, and a slowness to move toward an all-volunteer force, suggests the institution will be uncomfortable with reform for some time.
The military suffered a blow to its reputation last week when 35 civilians were mistakenly killed in an airstrike meant to target Kurdish rebels, though outrage among Kurds was directed as much at civilian leaders as the generals.
Basbug was arrested and placed in a prison near Istanbul overnight after seven hours of questioning by prosecutors investigating allegations that the military funded dozens of websites aimed at discrediting Erdogan's government in 2009. Basbug, who retired in August 2010, led the military at the time.
Some suspects already charged in the case, including senior generals and admirals, have proclaimed their innocence and said they acted in a chain of command.
Basbug's lawyer, Ilkay Sezer said his client has denied accusations during questioning. NTV television said the former general told court officials the charges were "tragicomical."
"If I am being accused of bringing down the government with a couple of press statements and one or two Internet stories, this is very bitter," the Hurriyet newspaper quoted Basbug as saying, citing court papers. "If I had such bad intentions, as the commander of a 700,000-strong force, there would have been other ways of doing it."
Basbug told journalists before being taken to prison: "The 26th Chief of Military Staff of the Turkish Republic is being accused of forming and leading a terror organization. I leave it up to the great Turkish people to decide."
Hundreds of people are already on trial accused of terrorism charges for alleged involvement in separate plots that prosecutors say were aimed at destabilizing Turkey amid suspicions by military-backed, secular elites that a government led by pious Muslims planned to impose religion on society.
Erdogan's aides describe themselves as conservative democrats and have maintained close ties with the West while seeking to represent the views of the Muslim world. After a fitful start, Turkey emerged as a strong advocate for democratic reform in the regional uprisings.
Despite worries that Turkey is backsliding on its own reforms, a key item on the domestic agenda is the rewriting of a military-era constitution billed as a step forward for individual rights.
President Abdullah Gul, who survived a military attempt to derail his presidential candidacy in 2007, said the "independent courts" would implement the law in Basbug's case, a rebuff to opposition leaders and others who accuse judges of acting on behalf of Turkey's ruling politicians.
"No one can be pronounced guilty before a court decision. I would like everyone to know this," the state-run Anadolu agency quoted Gul as saying. "Everyone is equal before the law. That's why we must follow the process calmly."
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland urged Turkey to handle any prosecution of Basbug or other military officials transparently and respect due process.
"The Turkish government obviously knows that we're monitoring this closely and that we want to see the Turkish constitution upheld and international standards upheld," Nuland told reporters.
Gul has in the past expressed concern about reports of prisoners languishing without verdicts, a chronic problem for Turkey's burdened courts. And an Istanbul court's decision this week to keep investigative journalists Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik in jail in connection with an alleged conspiracy against the government highlighted concerns about threats to press freedom under Turkey's new masters.
Sik, who wrote a book claiming that Islamists had infiltrated the police, said in court that the Turkish judiciary was traditionally susceptible to political power, regardless of its origin.
"It has always been the spokesperson of the powerholders of the time and it has always been under the tutelage of their ideology," he said.
The alleged conspiracy involving Basbug was first reported by a Turkish newspaper in 2009, which printed a photocopy of an alleged plan to damage the reputation of the government by portraying it as corrupt. Investigations into the reported conspiracy were inconclusive because the original document, allegedly signed by a navy colonel, could not be found. The probe was revived last year after an unidentified military officer allegedly sent the original document to Istanbul's chief prosecutor.
The military says 58 serving generals or admirals are in jail. Last year, the nation's top four military commanders, including the chief of staff who succeeded Basbug, resigned in protest against the arrests and prosecutions of military officers.
In the past, the generals showed displeasure with civilian leaders in a different way, staging three coups and forcing an Islamist prime minister to quit in 1997.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser contributed from Ankara, Turkey, and Bradley Klapper contributed from Washington.