* Basbug held in prison with other alleged conspirators
* Ultra-nationalists accused of trying to topple government
* Pursuit of top generals a watershed for Turkey -- analyst
* Trial seen as part of struggle between AK and secularists
(Adds Basbug quotes, fresh analyst comments, details)
By Daren Butler and Can Sezer
ISTANBUL, Jan 6 Former Turkish armed
forces chief General Ilker Basbug spent his first night behind
bars on Friday, charged with trying to overthrow the government
in an unprecedented development likely to exacerbate tensions
with the military.
Basbug, who retired in 2010, is the highest-ranking officer
to be caught up in the so-called Ergenekon case, a long-running
crackdown on EU candidate Turkey's once all-powerful military
and secularist establishment.
The former general was taken from an Istanbul courthouse in
the early hours of Friday for a health check before being
transported in a police convoy to Silivri prison, some 80 km (50
miles) west of the city, where hundreds of defendants in the
Ergenekon case are being tried in a specially-built courtroom.
"The Republic of Turkey's 26th general chief of staff has
been remanded in custody for forming and directing a terrorist
group. I leave it to the great Turkish nation to judge," Basbug
said as he was lead from the courtroom.
The decision to send Basbug to jail came hours after
prominent Turkish journalists on trial over alleged ties to the
ultra-nationalist Ergenekon network said the charges against
them were "a massacre of justice".
Ergenekon is accused by prosecutors of being behind multiple
conspiracies against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party
government, and several hundred suspects, including retired
senior military officers, academics, lawyers and journalists,
have been detained in cases related to the network.
Investigations into Ergenekon have spiralled since they
first opened in 2007, and critics accuse Erdogan's government of
scaremongering to silence opponents. The government denies any
Basbug, facing charges of "gang leadership" and
seeking to unseat the government by force, told the court after
seven hours of questioning by prosecutors that he rejected the
charges and described them as "tragicomic", broadcaster NTV
"To hear such an allegation hurts my pride as a general who
has done his duty to the country and state with honour. Accusing
a chief of general staff of forming a terrorist group is the
biggest punishment I could be given," he was quoted as saying.
Basbug's lawyer said he would challenge the decision to jail
him pending trial, state-run Anatolian news agency reported.
"The fact that prosecutors are now touching senior generals
is a turning point in the democratisation process of Turkey.
Many were sceptical that prosecutors would go this far," said
military affairs analyst Lale Kemal.
"I would not be surprised if we see some commanders resign
(if Basbug is remanded in custody) but I do not expect this to
bring serious instability to Turkey," she said.
Turkish media reports this week suggested senior commanders
could resign if Basbug was charged in the case. The General
Staff subsequently issued a statement denying those reports but
speculation about possible resignations continued.
"There is every possibility there will be resignations if
cases continue to be brought like this," said security analyst
Gareth Jenkins. "Morale is already at rock bottom. It is already
affecting operational capability," he said.
Last July, Basbug's successor and the heads of the army,
navy and air force resigned in protest at the detention of more
than 200 officers charged in a separate alleged conspiracy
against the government, dubbed "Operation Sledgehammer".
FALL OF THE 'PASHAS'
Nicknamed pashas, a title dating back to Ottoman times,
Turkey's once untouchable generals have seen their influence
decline as Ankara pushes reforms aimed at strengthening civilian
rule and winning Turkey's EU accession.
The current investigation of Basbug centres on allegations
that the military set up websites to spread anti-government
propaganda to destabilise Turkey.
Turkey's military, NATO's second-largest army, has long seen
itself as the guarantor of the country's secular constitution,
and had staged three coups between 1960 and 1980 and pressured
another government from power in 1997.
The Ergenekon case is seen as part of a power struggle
between Erdogan's AK party, which has roots in a banned Islamist
party and swept to power in 2002, and a secularist establishment
including officers, lawyers, journalists and politicians.
Turkey is currently holding nearly 100 members of
the media in jail, one of the highest numbers worldwide, in a
crackdown that critics and rights groups say blights Muslim
Turkey's image as a role model for democracy in the Middle East.
Late on Thursday another court in Istanbul rejected a
request from prominent journalists to be released after nine
months in custody on trial for links to the Ergenekon network.
"I am here because I am a journalist looking for the truth,"
said Ahmet Sik, who has written books about the infiltration of
the police by an Islamist movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a
Muslim theologian based in the United States and considered
close to parts of the ruling AK Party.
The EU and the United States have raised their concerns over
the arrests of journalists in Turkey. But with the economy
growing rapidly and Turks tasting unprecedented prosperity and
political stability, public outcry has so far been muted.
In Washington, the State Department said it was monitoring
the trial and noted that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
had repeatedly urged Turkish authorities to address concerns
about freedom of expression and freedom of the media.
"I don't think the secretary left the Turkish government in
any doubt about where we stand on the press freedom issue,"
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a briefing.
Also on trial is Nedim Sener, an award-winning journalist
who has written about police negligence in failing to prevent
the 2007 murder of prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant
Government officials say the journalists are on trial for
criminal activities, not because of what they wrote.
(Additional reporting by Simon Cameron-Moore; Writing by Daren
Butler and Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Rosalind Russell)