By Daren Butler
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Former Turkish armed forces commander General Ilker Basbug failed to appear among defendants in a mass trial over suspected coup conspiracies, witnesses said, in an apparent protest at the merging of his case with other coup investigations.
The court held the first hearing on Monday combining a series of trials into suspected members of an alleged arch-nationalist network called Ergenekon.
Police say the Ergenekon network, uncovered in 2007, was trying to destabilize, discredit and ultimately overthrow Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party government.
A total of 16 indictments have been prepared against the defendants and they have now all been combined in a single case being heard at a court in Silivri, west of Istanbul, where many suspects have been held in an adjoining high security jail.
The sprawling investigation has landed 256 defendants in the dock, overwhelming the courtroom's capacity to accommodate them all at the same time.
Some 61 defendants have been subject to lengthy pre-trial custody, including General Basbug, whose arrest in January shocked Turks, who had otherwise become used to the sight of pashas, as commanders from the Ottoman era were known, being paraded before the courts over the past few years.
Basbug, who was chief of staff from 2008 to 2010, described the has accusation he led a terrorist organization as "tragi-comic".
The case against him revolves around websites set up by the military to run anti-government propaganda. His trial began last month amid drama, as Basbug refused to recognize the authority of the court and at one stage walked out.
Having had a supreme court trial denied him, and with his case bundled together with other Ergenekon trials, Basbug bridled at sharing the dock with underworld figures and the convicted killer of a senior judge assassinated at the Council of State in 2006, a source close to Basbug told reporters.
"I will not sit on the same seats as gangsters and murderers," Basbug was reported as telling those close to him by media reports.
The source quoted him as saying his "reputation and honor have been damaged" by being put in the same category as Alparslan Arslan, the Council of State killer, and the bombers of a secularist newspaper.
PAST COUPS, OLD SCORES
Around 50 defendants attended Monday's hearing and witnesses said the area set aside for defendants had been expanded to make space for the increased number of defendants.
Though investigations into Ergenekon have gone on for five years, many critics doubt whether the network actually exists, suspecting instead that a specter was created to whip up public support for Erdogan's government.
The AK Party has been in power for more than a decade, and Erdogan won a third term in power a year ago, having campaigned on the back of his government's economic strength and its plans for a new constitution to break with Turkey's coup-laden past.
The government began drafting a new constitution on May 1, though it will be months before it will be ready to be presented to parliament.
(Writing by Daren Butler and Simon Cameron-Moore)