Turkey Case Highlights Military, Government Rift

An indictment in the largest and most explosive trial in Turkish history claims that an ultranational gang plotted to overthrow the government. The trial has raised tensions between Turkey's secular military and the ruling party, the AKP, which swept to power in 2002 by a rising class of Turks who identify themselves as religious Muslims.

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Turkey's top military commander claims his army is under psychological attack. He's talking about a court case, the most explosive in Turkey's history. The indictment claims that military officers plotted to overthrow the government. This week, eight officers were accused of plotting to assassinate the vice president. The charges have renewed tensions between Turkey's traditionally secular military and the ruling party known as the AKP, which has Islamist roots.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Istanbul.

DEBORAH AMOS: Almost every day, Turkish newspapers headline another dramatic event in the so-called Ergenekon plot. The latest: a Turkish military officer -a suspect in the case - committed suicide rather than face arrest. Coverage has been nonstop since June 2007, when more than two dozen grenades and other weapons were found in the home of a retired military officer. Since then, 194 people have been charged. The revelations have shocked this country.

Mr. SEDAT ERGIN (Columnist, Hurriyet Daily News): My name is Sedat Ergin. I am a columnist for Hurriyet Daily.

AMOS: In his top floor office, Ergin leaves through the indictment that now runs to 5,000 pages. He says he believes there was a threat from ultranationalists who wanted to topple the ruling AKP, believing its party leaders were too Islamist for secular Turkey.

Mr. ERGIN: For example, one eye-opener: The police raided into the house of a retired major.

AMOS: They found enough explosives to blow up a city block.

Mr. ERGIN: Collecting explosives, C3, I don't think is a, you know, a proper hobby. And I don't think it really attest to good intentions.

AMOS: But over time, Ergin has become a critic of the trial. He claims the ruling AKP has widened the investigation to target political opponents in the country's secular establishment.

Zeyno Baran, a Turkish specialist at the Hudson Institute, says there are widespread concerns.

Ms. ZEYNO BARAN (Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute): It has really created a climate of fear in the country where almost everybody are really concerned that they might be pulled in for questioning if they express any negative opinion about the government.

AMOS: There's been outrage over more than 100,000 telephone taps, transcripts, printed in-court documents that often show up in pro-government newspapers and Web sites.

(Soundbite of flipping paper)

Mr. ERGIN: This is the transcription of the tapped telephone conversations.

AMOS: In this one, Sedat Ergin reads from the transcript of his colleague, a newspaper columnist, recorded talking about a television program from Brazil.

Mr. ERGIN: And he really was impressed how Brazilian women were dancing.

AMOS: They have nothing to do with the indictment?

Mr. ERGIN: They have nothing to do with the Ergenekon investigation. It's the fear, you know?

AMOS: Journalist Asli Aydintasbas got a call from a friend who read her private conversations in public court papers.

Ms. ASLI AYDINTASBAS (Journalist): My conversation is a phone conversation, which it turns out my phone conversations were wiretapped.

AMOS: At the time, Aydintasbas worked for a newspaper that took a hard editorial line against the AKP. The prime minister has lashed out at media coverage. Opposition papers have been subject to tax investigations and huge punitive fines.

Aydintasbas says the phone taps are chilling.

Ms. AYDINTASBAS: It's almost like a warning, when you see your name in print in a trial proceedings, you're like, oh, God. And what crosses your mind is every single conversation you've had with every single friend. So it's really damning for a lot of people. Nobody wants to be associated with a coup plot.

AMOS: For Turks, the trial is a struggle between a new, powerful religious elite represented by the AKP and the secular power centers represented by the military.

The European Union has called the Ergenekon trial a test of Turkish democracy.

Ms. YASEMIN CONGAR (Chief Investigative Reporter, Taraf): And I'm not saying that I'm in love with their indictment writing, their style, you know? No, I'm not. But I think they're doing their best to bring together evidence and to follow up the clues.

AMOS: Yasemin Congar is the chief investigative reporter for Taraf.

(Soundbite of beeping and ringing phone)

Unidentified Woman: Hello.

AMOS: This newspaper has broken more stories on Ergenekon than any other, which explains why there's an armed guard at the door. Congar says it's important to air Turkey's political secrets.

Ms. CONGAR: I don't understand where all that cynicism is coming from. Aren't we the country which has, let's say, one, two, three coup d'etats and many coup attempts anyway? I mean, we do not have a military, unfortunately, which is known for staying out of politics and which is known for not attempting coups.

AMOS: But the price may be a backlash. Three hundred people have been detained; nearly 200 charged. But so far, the prosecutors have not delivered a single conviction in a trial that has so much to do with Turkey's future.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Istanbul.

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