- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 24, 2010

ANKARA, Turkey — A Turkish court formally charged and jailed seven senior Turkish military officers Wednesday for allegedly plotting years ago to overthrow the country’s Islamic-leaning government.

The court in Istanbul sent four admirals, an army general and two staff colonels to jail pending a trial and released six other officers who could be charged later.

Prosecutors were still questioning several other high-ranking officers, including former chiefs of the navy, air force and special forces.

About 50 commanders were detained Monday in Turkey’s highest-profile crackdown ever on the military after discovering alleged military plans drafted in 2003 to overthrow the government and gathering wiretap evidence to back that up. The Turkish military has ousted four governments since 1960.

The crackdown dramatically escalated tensions between Turkey’s military-backed secular establishment and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government has strong electoral backing and the EU’s support.

It also signaled that a major political shift in Turkey, NATO’s sole Muslim member and a U.S. ally. The country’s stability is crucial for Washington and the EU, which want Turkey to develop into a mature democracy.

“Obviously, we’re aware of what has transpired in Turkey, and we want to see this proceed in a transparent process in accordance with Turkish law,” U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington.

The military issued a brief statement, saying top generals and admirals discussed “the serious situation” regarding the investigation.

Opposition parties accused the government of engaging in a “political showdown,” a charge the government rejects.

“Why did you wait for seven years?” Deniz Baykal, head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party asked, noting that many of the commanders were retired.

Mr. Baykal, however, signaled he would support the prosecution of military leaders who actually toppled governments in the past, an apparent reference to Gen. Kenan Evren, the leader of the 1980 coup. The current Constitution, a legacy of the 1980 coup, prevents the prosecution of then-coup leaders and members of the military-appointed government.

Mr. Erdogan said his government was preparing to overhaul the Constitution and the judiciary.

The prime minister denies that the crackdown is being driven by politics. He insists his efforts to improve human rights and bring Turkey into line with European Union standards shows that his government is seeking to enhance democracy by putting the military under civilian rule.

An influential pro-European Union business group, meanwhile, warned that the tensions were undermining Turkey’s prospects for the future.

“We think there is a problem of political discourse, but it is being perceived as a power struggle in international circles, which is creating doubts about Turkey,” Umit Boyner, head of the Turkish Industrialists and Business Association, said after meeting with President Abdullah Gul. “There is need to end this tense atmosphere.”

The alleged secret military plans, dubbed “the sledgehammer,” included the idea of blowing up some mosques during Friday prayers and turning stadiums into open-air prisons capable of holding tens of thousands of people if they challenged the troops.

It is widely believed that Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, then head of the military, did not back his subordinates. He was not implicated in the alleged plot.

This was the latest in a series of alleged coup plots in recent years. More than 400 people, including academics, journalists and politicians in addition to soldiers, already have been charged in a previous case. No one has been convicted.

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