ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish prosecutors have charged the highest-ranking serving officer yet, a four-star general, in a widening circle of arrests of officers in a nation that has hitherto regarded its military as virtually untouchable.
The charges against General Saldiray Berk follow the detention of scores of officers last week over an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, which has its roots in political Islam.
Last week’s detentions were related to an alleged plan for a military coup in 2003, but the case against Berk is more recent.
Charges laid late Monday, according to the Anatolia news agency, accused the commander of the 3rd Army of leading “an illegal group which was working to implement the anti-Islamist plan” in the eastern province of Erzincan.
Turkish media reported that the charges brought against Berk and 15 others, including a state prosecutor, involved “Ergenekon,” a suspected ultra-nationalist network said to be plotting to sow chaos in order to justify a military takeover.
More than 200 people, including retired generals, lawyers and journalists, have been charged in connection with Ergenekon. Critics accuse the AK Party government of using the investigation to hound secularist opponents.
The plan in Erzincan is alleged to have involved fomenting nationalist opposition to the government and planting weapons in houses used by followers of influential Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen to create a militant scare.
Gulen has lived in self-exile in the United States since 1999, but critics say his followers have infiltrated the police and courts, and also control newspapers critical of the army.
The government’s face-off with the secularist establishment, whose strongholds are the military and judiciary, raised fears of instability and depressed the lira and stocks and bonds last week, but markets have rallied since.
Those charged in Erzincan included Ilhan Cihaner, a state prosecutor who had investigated Islamist groups.
His detention last month sparked a row between the government and the judiciary, which called it illegal and replaced the four prosecutors who had ordered the move.
The government struck back by threatening a referendum to force through constitutional reforms of the judiciary unless parliament passes them first. Erdogan has said a reform package will be sent before parliament as soon as possible.
A Muslim country with a secular constitution, NATO-member Turkey wants to strengthen its democratic credentials to support its bid to join the European Union.
Erdogan’s AK Party, which has won favor with investors despite its Islamic roots, will seek a third term in power in elections due next year.
But the unprecedented crackdown against the military that began on February 22 has raised risks of dividing a society where respect for the armed forces runs deep despite its history of meddling in politics.
Close to 70 officers were detained last week in connection with the alleged “Sledgehammer” plan for a coup in 2003. Nearly half have been charged, including two retired generals.
Although the military has toppled four governments in the past 50 years, most analysts see little chance of another coup.
Two meetings within four days between Erdogan and General Ilker Basbug, the armed forces chief, have reassured Turks and investors that they were talking, whatever the problems.
“While there is a positive effect from global markets, there is a sigh of relief on the political side, because it looks like tensions between the chief of staff and the government have eased after talks,” said Ahmet Arslan, a forex trader at ING.
Additional reporting by Zerin Elic in Ankara and Thomas Grove and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Sonya Hepinstall