By Ece Toksabay
SILIVRI, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkey's former military chief told a court trying coup plot charges on Thursday that unease about the Islamist-rooted government had led commanders to raise the idea of issuing a written warning to it in 2003.
The testimony from General Hilmi Ozkok, called as a witness in the trial of nearly 300 defendants accused of seeking to overthrow Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government, shed new light on military thinking at the time of the alleged plots.
Ozkok was head of NATO's second largest armed forces between 2002 and 2006, the first four years that Erdogan's AK Party was in power. At the time there was widespread concern in the secularist establishment, including the military, that the party had a secret Islamist agenda.
Ozkok is the third former general staff chief to testify in trials of alleged secularist conspiracies against Erdogan.
One of his successors, Ilker Basbug, is among 273 defendants accused of links to Ergenekon, which prosecutors say was a nationalist network intent on unseating the government. MPs, academics and journalists are also among the accused.
Wearing a dark suit and glasses, Ozkok calmly addressed the courtroom in Silivri, west of Istanbul, where many defendants in the coup plot cases are held in an adjoining high security jail.
"When the party in power was elected there was unease among members of the Turkish Armed Forces, including me," he said.
Although investigations into Ergenekon have gone on for five years, critics question whether the network exists, suspecting that a specter was created to whip up public support for Erdogan's government.
At Thursday's hearing, prosecutors asked Ozkok if generals had discussed issuing a "memorandum" warning to the government during his time in office.
"Sometimes we would hold brainstorming meetings. People there would say what's on their minds ... Yes that word was mentioned there," he said.
The army issued a memorandum warning the government to protect secularism in 2007 - a move which backfired and gave the AK Party the upper hand in its power struggle with the military.
The AK Party portrayed the memorandum as a thinly veiled threat from a military that staged three coups between 1960-1980 and pressured an Islamist-led government to resign in 1997.
Army pressure failed to achieve its aim of preventing Abdullah Gul, an AK Party leader with a background in political Islam, from becoming president. The AK Party then won a national election empowering Erdogan to assert authority over the army.
In an illustration of the military's fall from grace, a total of 364 military officers, serving and retired, are being tried in a separate investigation of an alleged plot known as "Sledgehammer".
That plot is alleged to have 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.
In Silivri, prosecutors asked Ozkok if a possible coup was discussed at a conference in 2004. He replied that he was concerned about discussions which commanders were having.
"I was bothered by some of the issues discussed at the conference. I told the commanders 'I wish you hadn't attended it'," he said.
Asked what those issues were, he said: "We are soldiers. The state and government determine their own policies, and we would state our opinions if and when we were asked. I thought that meeting was political."
Basbug, chief of staff from 2008 to 2010, attended Thursday's hearing, the first time he has done so in three months. He has described the charge that he led a terrorist group as "tragi-comic". The case against him revolves around websites set up by the military to run anti-government propaganda.
(Reporting by Ece Toksabay; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Janet Lawrence)