Turkish court charges 7 officers in coup plot

ANKARA: A Turkish court on Wednesday formally charged and ordered jailed seven senior Turkish military officers for allegedly plotting several years ago to overthrow the Islamic-leaning government.

The wiretap evidence and discovery of alleged military plans drafted in 2003 to overthrow the government led to the detention of about 50 commanders Monday in the highest profile crackdown ever on the military which has ousted four governments since 1960.

The court in Istanbul ordered that four admirals, an army general and two staff colonels be jailed. It released six other officers Wednesday but it was not clear whether they were freed pending trial.

Prosecutors were still questioning dozens of other high-ranking officers, including former chiefs of the Navy, Air Force and Special Forces.

The crackdown dramatically escalated tensions in the country between the military-backed secular establishment and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Islamic-leaning government has strong electoral backing and the European Union's support

Top generals and admirals met at the military headquarters on Tuesday and issued a brief statement, saying they discussed "the serious situation" regarding the investigation.

Deniz Baykal, head of the main opposition Republican People's Party, accused the government on Tuesday of engaging in a "political showdown."

"Why you waited for seven years?" Baykal asked. "These are commanders who wear pajamas and slippers now!"

Baykal, however, signaled that he would support the prosecution of military leaders who actually toppled governments in the past in an apparent reference to Gen. Kenan Evren, the leader of the 1980 coup.

Erdogan denies the crackdown is politically driven. He insists his efforts to improve human rights and bring Turkey into line with European Union standards is evidence that his government is seeking to enhance democracy, while putting the military under civilian rule as in the West.

The alleged secret military plans — dubbed "the sledgehammer" — included 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.

Turkey was abuzz Tuesday with speculation over whether recordings of the plotters, posted on leading Web sites, could possibly be genuine.

In one, a top officer accuses the political leadership of trying to "tear down the country and carry it into another (Islamic) regime." He vows: "I will unleash (my forces) over Istanbul. ... It is our duty to act without mercy."

The crackdown has signaled that a major political shift is under way 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.

"What is striking about this struggle is that nobody had ever held the military accountable for what it had done. No one ever said what you are doing is wrong," Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said by telephone from Washington. "A societal change is taking place in Turkey at the moment."

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.

It 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, have already been charged in a previous case. No one has been convicted.