By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The Turkish military retired all 40 generals and admirals currently jailed facing charges of conspiring against the government in a further sign of greater civilian control of the once all-powerful army.
President Abdullah Gul approved a decision at the end of a four-day meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAS) to retire 55 generals and admirals, the General Staff said on its website on Saturday.
The list included all 40 commanders jailed in connection with the so-called "Ergenekon" and "Sledgehammer" trials involving hundreds of defendants accused of trying to bring down Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted government, Hurriyet newspaper said.
The decision marked a departure from last year's tumultuous YAS when the top four commanders quit before the meeting even began to protest the jailing of hundreds of officers, including 20 percent of the military's generals.
Journalists, lawyers and politicians are also in jail on charges of seeking to undermine Erdogan for what they allegedly perceived as his efforts to wreck Muslim Turkey's secular constitution.
NEW DEFENCE COMMANDER
YAS also appointed a new commander of the Second Army, which oversees Turkey's defenses against any prospective attack by Syria, Iran and Iraq.
With so many experienced officers in jail, analysts have questioned Turkey's defense preparedness as tension rises with neighboring Syria.
The army has deployed weapons and troops along its 916-km-long border after Syria shot down a Turkish plane over the Mediterranean Sea in June. Erdogan is one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's most vocal critics over his crackdown of a 17-month uprising that has killed 18,000 people.
Erdogan has warned Kurds in Syria that Turkey could intervene there if it sees them forming a threat, and the army is also battling Kurdish separatists in the country's southeast.
The Turkish military traditionally exerted considerable influence over elected officials. It staged three outright coups from 1960 and forced a fourth government, headed by Turkey's first Islamist prime minister, to quit in 1997.
However, since Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept to power in 2002, it has reined in the military's power by passing laws that meet European Union standards on democracy and appointing prosecutors and judges willing to try previously untouchable generals.
Erdogan is admired at home and abroad for bringing the military under civilian control, but the years defendants are spending in prison without conviction has also raised concerns that the trials are a political witch hunt.
At the latest hearing of the Sledgehammer trial on Friday, a former military chief testified that alleged coup plot plans had been brought to his attention at the time, but he did not act as he was unsure of their authenticity.
The Sledgehammer 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.
YAS, which Erdogan chairs, meets twice yearly to decide key military promotions. The council also promoted 29 generals and admirals to higher ranks and extended the tenure of 33 others, the army's website said.