By Pinar Aydinli
ANKARA (Reuters) - The Turkish parliament has approved a reform abolishing the special courts used in coup conspiracy cases, without touching on existing prosecutions of hundreds of military officers that have drawn wide criticism.
The special courts have helped to sharply reduce the power and influence of the military, in the process helping to insure Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist AK Party against any threat of a secularist putsch by an army that has staged four coups in the past 52 years.
With swathes of the current and former military leadership including General Ilker Basbug, Erdogan's own former chief of staff, already on trial under the existing system on suspicion of plotting to topple his government, he has now acknowledged some of the concerns of secularists and human rights groups.
The reform, pushed through by the ruling AK Party late on Sunday night, means any future cases concerning coups and terrorism-related crimes will be heard by regional high criminal courts, not special courts, according to a text obtained by Reuters.
Since coming to power in 2002, the AK Party has worked to clip the wings of the staunchly secularist military, which distrusted his Islamist past, although relations have recently improved as the army's power has waned.
While Erdogan presented the special courts as part of a drive to strengthen the rule of law, critics say his aim was to neutralize political opposition.
While the reform found wide support in parliament, it was unlikely to satisfy those involved in the "Sledgehammer" trial, deadlocked by a defense boycott over the handling of the case against 364 military officers charged with plotting a coup.
The case has been left in limbo by the court's refusal to consider evidence that the defense says proves prosecution documents were faked.
The plot allegedly included plans to bomb historic mosques in Istanbul and trigger conflict with Greece to pave the way for an army takeover. Defendants say the prosecution documents were part of a war game scenario and not a coup plot.
Hundreds of people, including military officers, academics and journalists have also been in pre-trial detention for years in connection with a five-year investigation of alleged secularist plots to overthrow the government by a nationalist network known as "Ergenekon".
Public support for the courts dwindled as fears grew that prosecutors were using their powers to stifle dissent.
This month, Erdogan noted the public disquiet about the courts. He 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.
The dismantling of the courts had been expected to face opposition in particular from followers of the influential U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, who see them as an important part of Turkey's democratization.
However, opposition may have been blunted by the fact that trials already under way will remain in the special courts.
(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Kevin Liffey)