ANKARA (Reuters) - The first of more than 100 senior Turkish army officers began testifying in court on Monday over their alleged role in ousting Turkey’s first Islamist-led government 16 years ago, a trial that could see them facing life imprisonment.
The investigation into the overthrow of prime minister Necmettin Erbakan in 1997 extends a series of judicial cases targeting the once-supreme Turkish military, whose influence has been tamed sharply over the past decade.
The case also carries personal significance for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who was a member of Erbakan’s Islamist party and who has made curbing the military’s political clout one of his main missions during his 10 years in power.
A total of 103 officers, mostly serving and retired generals including a former chief of staff, have been named in a 1,300-page indictment accusing them of “overthrowing by force, and participating in the overthrow” of a government.
Around one third of the defendants are currently in pre-trial detention.
The indictment calls for life sentences for the accused, which includes General Ismail Hakki Karadayi, chief of general staff between 1994 and 1998, and former land forces commander General Erdal Ceylanoglu, believed to have sent tanks onto the streets near Ankara before the military intervention.
The complex trial is expected to last several years.
The events of 1997 were dubbed the “post-modern coup” as the generals used pressure behind the scenes to force Erbakan from power, in contrast to the direct intervention of three outright military coups in Turkey in 1960, 1971 and 1980.
Erbakan, who died of heart failure aged 85 in 2011, pioneered Islamist politics in Turkey, a largely Muslim country with a secular state order, and paved the way for the subsequent success of Erdogan’s AK Party.
More than 250 retired officers, including another former army chief, as well as journalists, academics and opposition politicians were jailed last month over a coup plot in a separate case that has polarized Turks over the country’s political direction.
This came after more than 300 military officers were sentenced to jail in September 2012 for plotting to overthrow Erdogan in 2003 in yet another coup plot.
The trials have laid bare an underlying tension in society reaching back to the 1920s when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forged a secular republic from the ruins of an Ottoman theocracy, curbing Islam’s role in public life and sowing the seeds for the army to establish itself as guardian of the new order.
Many Turks still revere their military as the founders and defenders of the modern, secular republic.
Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Nick Tattersall/Mark Heinrich