April 15, 2009 / 1:30 PM / 10 years ago

Turkish government says not meddling in coup probe

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s government defended the judiciary on Wednesday against accusations by opposition parties that an investigation into an alleged coup plot was a cover to silence critics.

Police detained 18 people, including a university rector and a top executive of a newspaper group on Monday and searched the offices of NGOs critical of the ruling Islamist-rooted AK Party.

The detentions were part of an almost two-year investigation into a shadowy, ultra-nationalist group called Ergenekon which prosecutors say was planning a campaign of violence to force the army to step in and overthrow the government.

The increasingly politicized case has divided public opinion and rattled markets in the country that hopes one day to join the European Union.

“The judiciary does not carry out coups. On the contrary it tries coup-plotters,” Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin said, responding to accusations by Deniz Baykal, head of the CHP secular opposition, that the case was a “political coup.”

“The judiciary is independent and impartial,” Sahin said.

Nearly 150 people, including retired army generals, lawyers, academics and journalists, are on trial for their links to the alleged organization, which has renewed tensions between the government and the secular establishment, including the army.

Some analysts say the case is really motivated by the struggle between the AK Party and the secularists whose decades-old grip on power it ended by winning elections in 2002.

If the case loses credibility, the government will weaken, hurting its democratic reform drive, they say.

MOUNTING CRITICISM

In their strongest criticism yet, the leaders of Turkey’s two main opposition parties CHP and MHP on Tuesday accused the government of abusing the law for political gains.

Their criticism was sparked by raids against members of an organization providing scholarships for young women and the detentions of current and former university rectors.

Opposition leader Baykal said the probe was no longer focused on investigating Ergenekon but had expanded to include people and groups not linked to it.

“Just as Turkey must ‘come clean’ with any misdeeds to be proven by the Ergenekon investigation, increasingly we are of a mind that the Ergenekon investigation must ‘come clean’ about its mission, its targets and its intentions,” Hurriyet Daily News wrote in an editorial on Wednesday.

“At stake is not only public trust and the credibility of the justice system but also the international credibility of Turkey as a country fully respectful of the rule of law.”

Hurriyet is owned by Dogan Gazetecilik, for whom the detained executive works, which is a unit of Turkey’s largest media group Dogan Yayin.

Zaman newspaper defended the probe, saying government critics should not rush to judgment.

Many had hoped the case would unearth a “deep state” apparatus resistant to democratic reform — meaning hardline nationalists in Turkey’s security forces and state bureaucracy.

But as the case widens, the AK Party faces an increasingly tough task to show it is not a witch hunt against opponents.

The army has unseated four elected governments either in outright coups or by strong political pressure. It has denied links to Ergenekon.

Editing by Paul de Bendern and Richard Meares

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