By Ozge Ozbilgin
ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's ruling AK Party plans to abolish widely criticized special courts used in the trials of alleged coup plotters, a parliament official told Reuters on Wednesday, making the future of the politically sensitive cases uncertain.
A series of trials investigating hundreds of people accused of links to coup plots or Kurdish militants would be affected by the reform, which one newspaper report said could be put before parliament before it go into recess on Sunday.
Critics of the courts say the trials, one of which is a conspiracy case involving hundreds of military officers, have spiraled out of control and been used to stifle dissent. Many defendants have spent years in custody with no verdict in sight.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan himself has cast doubt on the handling of the cases, suggesting court powers could be curbed, but such a reform was not expected so quickly.
The Hurriyet daily said Erdogan had ordered the abolition of the courts be inserted into a reform package which his party aims to push through parliament before the recess.
Asked whether there were plans for such a reform, a parliamentary official told Reuters: "Work is being conducted within the party. It has not come to parliament yet."
Since first coming to power in 2002, Erdogan's AK Party has been sharply at odds with the staunchly secular military, which distrusted the prime minister's Islamist past.
The special authority courts, established by Erdogan's government in 2005 to replace state security courts, have pursued cases against alleged anti-government plots within the secularist establishment, including the officer corps.
One of the most prominent case started in 2007 when police said they had uncovered an ultra-nationalist network, called Ergenekon, running plots against Erdogan's government.
Many of the hundreds of suspects rounded up and held in lengthy pre-trial detention belong to the military. Others included academics, journalists and social activists.
NEW COURTS ENVISAGED
Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag is leading a commission working on the court reform and AK Party legal experts are examining how the coup-related cases would then be heard, Hurriyet said.
Hurriyet, which did not identify its source, said special authority courts would be replaced by a regional court structure to deal with crimes such as coup-plotting and terrorism. It was not immediately clear how this would affect the ongoing cases.
Erdogan previously criticized special prosecutors for acting as if they were "a different power within the state" and said the courts had been useful at times but also harmful, noting public discontent at the way they had worked.
In the long-running "Sledgehammer" case where 365 military officers are charged with plotting to overthrow the government, defense lawyers boycotted the trial, forcing the court to send the case back to the prosecutor's office.
Prosecutors allege an army seminar in 2003 laid out plans to undermine Erdogan's government by planting bombs in historic mosques and tourist sites in Istanbul and provoke an escalation of tension with Greece, to pave the way for a military takeover.
The defendants deny the allegations and say the seminar was just a war game scenario and not an actual plot and that some documents used by the prosecution were fakes. The trial could now be referred to another court.
(Writing By Daren Butler; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)