Turkey Arrests Highlight Military, Government Rift

There were more arrests in Turkey in the long-running investigation into an alleged conspiracy to destabilize and eventually overthrow the civilian government. The developments have heightened tensions between the conservative Muslim leaders of the government and the Turkish military command, which has long seen itself as the guardian of the country's secular constitution.

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In Turkey today, the government detained 18 more military officers for involvement in an alleged plot to overthrow the government. Thirty-one retired and current officers rounded up earlier this week have been formally charged in the alleged plot, which the military denies.

As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, this is just the latest chapter in a long-running battle between Turkey's conservative Muslim leadership and its secular military.

ERIC WESTERVELT: The allegations are shocking. A group of officers in 2003 allegedly conspired to foment chaos by bombing mosques and unleashing other attacks in order to justify overthrowing the Islamist-rooted government here. The military says that's ludicrous. That the plans uncovered were part of war game exercises. The government points to wiretaps and documents to support its case that in fact it was a coup plot masquerading as a training scenario.

Given the history of military coups here, four since 1960, the charges are being taken very seriously. Hugh Pope, the Turkey director for the International Crisis Group says these latest allegations are part of a series of alleged plots the government has uncovered over the last several years.

Mr. HUGH POPE (Turkey Director, International Crisis Group): Look, there's a lot of smoke and no one knows the truth of it. But where the smoke is coming from, there is fire. There has been there have been - arms have been found over the last two, three years. There have been documents found that appear to be genuine.

WESTERVELT: So far there have been no convictions in any of the trials related to the so-called Ergenekon conspiracy. This week's wave of arrests has shaken the political classes here. The Turkish military, which sees itself as the protector of the country's secular constitution, has long wielded enormous political influence.

But since 2007, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken a series of steps partly inspired by Turkey's efforts to get into the European Union to put the military more tightly under civilian rule. In a speech to his ruling Justice and Development Party today, Erdogan vowed to continue that effort.

Mr. RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (Prime Minister, Turkey): (Through translator) No one is above the law. No one has special status and no one is unaccountable. Those who plot behind closed doors against the people should know that they will find justice in front of them.

WESTERVELT: Even a few years ago, the idea that high-ranking current and retired Turkish military officers would be arrested and interrogated by civilian authorities was unthinkable here.

Hugh Pope of the Crisis Group says the idea that the army is becoming less important and less powerful in Turkish civilian life is a sign of the country's maturation. But he warns of serious dangers ahead. Many here don't see the judiciary as impartial. Pope says the process going forward can't be seen as just another power play.

Mr. POPE: We can say that we're moving towards a more modern, more open Turkey. However, the government has to be very careful not to give in to the tendency of which all Turkish governments have, is to give in to an authoritarian streak and to try and just settle scores.

WESTERVELT: Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for the centrist Turkish daily Milliyet is one who thinks the arrest reeked of political score settling. Turkey's military, she says, must finally be put under civilian control. But she's skeptical this track down will produce that result. She says ironically that process was well underway when the latest arrests began, and some of the officers detained where scene is progressive, centrist and open-minded.

Ms. ASLI AYDINTASBAS (Columnist, Milliyet): So, we have this weird situation now where we're not putting on trial the military clues we had over the last 30 years, but we're putting on trial the guys who are heading military during the time it was the most Democratic it had ever been. So, I don't understand how the normalization will come out of putting these guys in jail.

WESTERVELT: This week's arrests, Aydintasbas says, feel too much like just another political fight between the military and the government. And everyone in Turkey, she says, is waiting to see who will come out on top.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Istanbul.

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