Turkey's custody laws draw flak after general held

ISTANBUL Sat Jan 7, 2012 1:15pm EST

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) speaks with Chief of Staff General Ilker Basbug during a funeral in Ankara in this February 28, 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/Files

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) speaks with Chief of Staff General Ilker Basbug during a funeral in Ankara in this February 28, 2010 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Umit Bektas/Files

Related Topics

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A day after the jailing of Turkey's former military chief, pending possible trial on accusations he tried to overthrow the government, newspaper columnists criticized the authorities for failing to reform sweeping pre-trial custody laws.

An Istanbul court sent shockwaves through Turkey by sending General Ilker Basbug to Silivri prison, west of Istanbul, on Friday. The prosecution has yet to lay formal charges against the man who was chief of staff from 2008 to 2010.

While pro-government newspapers hailed the decision as a triumph for democracy, demonstrating no one was above the law, other commentators said his imprisonment highlighted a need for legal reform to rein in powers to arrest and detain.

Mustafa Aykol, a writer often cited as sympathetic to the ruling AK Party, said the penal code referring to "helping a terrorist organization" risked being used to criminalize an ideology.

"Turkey's arresting machine, as it has always done, can easily put suspects in prison for years, for accusations that sometimes look very overblown," he wrote in the Hurriyet Daily News in a commentary headlined "Turkey's arresting machine gone mad."

Basbug is accused of involvement in the spread of negative propaganda on websites against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government, which swept to power in 2002 and won a third term last June with 50 percent of the vote.

Tensions between the staunchly secularist military and the Islamist-rooted AK Party are long-held, though the party shuns the Islamist label and calls itself socially conservative.

Some 58 serving and 81 retired generals and admirals are in custody, suspected of involvement in plots against Erdogan's government.

Basbug is also accused of having ties with an ultra-nationalist network dubbed "Ergenekon," that police said they discovered in 2007.

Mehmet Ali Birand, one of Turkey's leading columnists, said the case against Basbug was implausible and his jailing provided further evidence of an unjust system.

"We shall never break this vicious cycle unless the disgraceful practice of arresting, pending trial, comes to an end, he wrote in Hurriyet.

"The parties responsible for this freak show are none other than political authorities who just don't want to fix the situation."

GOVERNMENT LOOKING AT LAWS

Some critics say the government has used the probe to silence opposition and cow the military.

The government denies any such a motive but Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said Friday that the government had taken note of the criticism.

Hundreds of people, including retired and serving military officers, journalists, academics and lawyers, have been detained since 2007 under the widening Ergenekon investigation. Many have yet to face trial.

Atalay said new regulations governing custody orders and arrests may be introduced along with measures to speed up the judicial process.

Basbug's lawyer is expected to appeal in the coming days against the court's order that the general be remanded in custody while the prosecution builds its case.

Some observers point out that Basbug is hardly a flight risk given he is well known, nor could he interfere with the investigation - one reason for remanding suspects in custody - as the probe goes back to 2008.

In the past the military, which overthrew four governments between 1960 and 1997, could count on support from senior judges until Erdogan introduced reforms in 2010 that changed the way judges were selected.

Ahmet Altan, the editor of Taraf, regarded as an anti-military newspaper that has broken many of the Ergenekon stories, suspected the ruling party had its own motives in being reluctant to reform legal processes.

"The AK Party has the opportunity and power to change this country, to set up a new system, and the reason why it's not doing so is because it enjoys the amazing power offered by the darkness."

(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Ben Harding)

FILED UNDER: