* Hundreds of people were convicted in Ergenekon trial
* Courts start to free defendants after legal changes
* Erdogan now battling Islamic cleric, not military
(Updates with more releases)
By Ece Toksabay and Gareth Jones
ISTANBUL, March 10 Turkey ordered the release of
19 men convicted of plotting a coup, days after an ex-military
chief was freed in a case now entwined in a power struggle
between Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and a U.S.-based Muslim
The 19 people, including prominent journalists, lawyers,
retired military officers, a convicted gang leader and the
killer of a top court judge, were among hundreds convicted in
the "Ergenekon" case, which lay at the heart of Erdogan's drive
to break the political power of Turkey's military.
Cleric Fethullah Gulen is widely believed to have helped
Erdogan by using a network of supporters in the judicary and
police to drive the Ergenekon trial forward. But the two men
have since fallen out and the government now suggests the
defendants may have been unjustly treated.
The latest releases underscore how radically the
Erdogan-Gulen feud has altered Turkey's political landscape.
In emotional comments on emerging from almost six years in
jail, journalist Tuncay Ozkan said: "Turkey is today in a very
dramatic situation, resembling a country on the edge of a cliff.
We cannot leave it in the hands of thieves and murderers."
Retired General Ilker Basbug, the former chief of Turkey's
armed forces, spoke with similar bitterness about his
incarceration when he was released on Friday.
Murat Yetkin, columnist for Hurriyet daily, saw the release
as symptomatic of a new political climate stirred by conflict
between Erdogan and Gulen. "This new atmosphere seems like it
will have further effects on political life as Turkey heads for
critical local elections on March 30," he wrote.
Erdogan's quarrel with Gulen now poses one of the biggest
challenges to his 11-year rule after a series of audio
recordings anonymously posted on the Internet purportedly
revealing corruption and other malpractices in the government.
Erdogan has placed the blame for the wiretaps on Gulen and
his followers, whom he accuses of building a "parallel state" -
an ironic echo of Turkey's "deep state" comprising staunchly
secular, nationalist army officers and security personnel at the
centre of the Ergenekon allegations.
Gulen denies involvement in the wiretaps.
Erdogan says the recordings are "fabricated" and part of a
plot to sully his ruling Islamist-rooted AK Party and to
undermine his government before the local elections and a
presidential poll scheduled for Aug. 10.
The government's response, transferring thousands of police
officers and seeking to tighten its grip on the courts, has
brought sharp criticism from the European Union, which Turkey
has been seeking to join for decades, and rattled investors,
helping send the lira to record lows.
In Monday's Ergenekon ruling, the Istanbul court said the
convicts should be released because parliament recently cut the
maximum detention period before conviction to five years. They
have already spent a longer period of time in detention.
The reduction in detention limits was part of legislation
abolishing special courts used to try those involved in
conspiracy plots such as Ergenekon.
Among others the Istanbul court ordered to be freed on
Monday was lawyer Alparslan Arslan, jailed for life after
killing a judge and wounding four others in an attack in 2006.
He had also been charged with involvement in the Ergenekon plot.
The other lawyer freed was Kemal Kerincsiz, an
ultra-nationalist best known for his efforts to bring charges
against Nobel laureate novelist Orhan Pamuk and other writers
for insulting "Turkishness".
Among those released later in the day was Dogu Perincek, a
leftist politician heading Turkey's Worker's Party. He was
handed an aggravated life sentence in August as part of the
The abolition of the special courts, driven by Erdogan's
desire to purge Turkey's judiciary of Gulen sympathisers, has
also led to the release of prisoners involved in other cases.
A defendant in the trial over the murder of Turkish-Armenian
journalist Hrant Dink was freed last Thursday. At the weekend
another court released five defendants held over the killing of
three Christians, whose throats were slit in a publishing house
in the southeastern city of Malatya in 2007.
Their release has sparked anxiety among members of Turkey's
small Christian minority.
"Releasing some (defendants) ... may be justified since
holding people in detention for five years is, of course,
unjustified," said Yavuz Baydar, a columnist at the
English-language daily Today's Zaman.
"But the core matter is that after Erdogan's desperate
gamble for survival, by abusing the outdated judicial system's
weaknesses ... we now enter a very delicate phase ... with,
possibly, gruesome consequences."
(Additional reporting by Daren Butler and Humeyra Pamuk;
Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Alistair